Sue Barker ‘Sue Barker: Expanded’ (Playback) 4/5

This Sue Barker refers to an Australian vocalist that recorded only one album in 1976, comprising of ten covers of soul, jazz and blues vocal classics. This re-release on Playback Records via Sydney’s DJ Kinetic includes a further three additional pieces recorded at different sessions to the original ’76 issue. The album has become very in demand over recent years and as the original master tapes are said to have been destroyed by mould some years ago, this repress will be welcomed by many collectors.
Sue wasn’t a trained jazz singer as such, but fell into the soul/jazz worlds with the increased popularity of black music in 1970s Australia, with Sue being a common fixture around Adelaide and Sydney for a decade before recording the album. Sue was further exposed to US soul and jazz via The Onions, her backing band for this album, who were a loose outfit of Australian musicians that were regular performers on the scene, including session and live work with touring US soul acts. And it was after a performance in Adelaide that Sue was approached by Crest International records with the idea of recording a full album of soul, jazz and blues covers.
The Onions in this instance consisted of Geoff Kluke on electric bass, Dean Birbeck on drums, piano and organ parts by Phil Cunneen, Sax by Bob Jeffries and Sylvan Elhay, trumpet by Fred Payne and guitar and arrangements by Grahame Conlon, with the musicians all being very competent with US and UK players being obvious influences, but it’s a shame there wasn’t any electric piano/Fender Rhodes touches to support the piano and Hammond elements.

On the jazz side of things, ‘You Stepped Out Of A Dream’, a common Nat King Cole piece, bustles along nicely with its rhythmic swing momentum, ‘Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me’, a song co-written by Duke Ellington and performed by Billy, Ella and Nina, is a standard that here has a big band quality, which is no mean feat considering the group only has three horn players. And ‘Lover Man’, another standard previously recorded by Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday, has perhaps the purest jazz vocal performance on the album.

But it’s the rare groove of ‘Love To The People’, a remake of one of Curtis Mayfield’s lesser known gems that has attracted the most attention from vinyl collectors. Taken from his ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’ (1975) album, it would have been labeled 2-step if you found it at a record fair in the 1990s. If you know ‘Madelaine’s 1978 cover version of ‘Who Is She And What Is She To You?’ – then this has the same temperament. Other notable tracks include Marvin’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, with its horn heavy arrangement and ‘What’s Going On?’ which is quite a funky version with fluid sax workouts by Bob Jeffrey and Sylvan Elhay.

Vocally, Sue Barker fits somewhere between the pop/folk of Judy Collins and jazziness of Judy Roberts; not as jazzy as Judy R and not as folky or pop as Judy C, but very capable, with ‘Lover Man’ being the best vehicle to showcase Sue’s rich vocal ability. But bad luck was to impose itself upon Sue. At the time of the album’s release, Crest International was just about to fold and so with no funding available for the project, the album was rehearsed, recorded, mixed and mastered in only 3 days. This was the final release for the label, which was not an outright jazz based label, which also had classical and comedy releases. Sue was also at loggerheads with Crest with regards the musical direction of the album and was also pregnant when the album was due to be promoted. Disillusioned, Sue left the music industry in the 1980s.

But you can’t keep a good record down. And with eBay and Discogs being vibrant spaces for the discovery and trading of exotic and esoteric records, this rare slice of Australian soul/jazz is worthy of a reissue. And how many artists with only one release can say that their record fetches between £200-£400? So hopefully, this release will help remedy the obscurity of the record with many record collectors looking outside of the US and UK for their musical fixes. The demand for the record is obviously due to its release in a country not known for its jazz heritage, but it does slide nicely into the 1970s framework provided by female vocalists of the time, also having cultural significance with respect to Antipodean soul and jazz music, of which there aren’t many. Additionally, check the work of Australian singers Kerrie Biddell, who died in 2014 and Renée Geyer, especially Renée’s storming ‘Be There in The Morning’.

Damian Wilkes