Jimi, Elton, Dusty … the overlooked musical magic of Barbara Moore

In 1968, when Barbara Moore picked up the conductor’s baton in the immense EMI Studio 1, the assembled musicians were incredulous. Moore was better known to them as a backing singer, a regular in the all-female singing group the Ladybirds. Although she had already released her own piano album, A Little Moore Barbara, few realised her potential as a composer and arranger. “My name was at the bottom of a list at EMI,” she said in 2012 to one interviewer, Lorraine Bowen. However, a flu pandemic had left everyone else out of action, so Moore received an unexpected call from the producer Tony Palmer. “He said: ‘I understand you’re an arranger … I need an album doing in six days – could you do it?’”

As Moore – who died last month at 89 – addressed the EMI orchestra, she was shaking so much that the baton slipped out of her hand. But any disrespect in the room evaporated when the players ploughed through her first arrangement: a rocky, orchestral version of Scarborough Fair for the up-and-coming folk singer Deena Webster. “I’d worked day and night at the piano, singing the lead line, thinking: that’s got to be brass, that’s strings,” she said in 2012. “You didn’t know really what it was going to sound like. It sounded lovely.” Moore recalled the hugs and applause that followed the final bars of her arrangement. “I tell you – it was the most beautiful few minutes of 80 years.”

Moore’s transition from backing singer to arranger was a moment she recounted with filmic perfection, right down to the details of her pink crepe minidress and Courrèges leather boots. I often wondered if Moore’s frequent retelling of her times in the studio, vivid in period detail, was a defence against the peculiarities of her career, a way to assert her place in the musical timeline. Because Moore was everywhere and nowhere in the 60s and early 70s – the indispensable musician many studios would call on, whose name would rarely appear on the record sleeve.

You can hear Moore’s voice in the opening bars of the 60s TV thriller The Saint, soaring to top C, distant and drenched in reverb, foregrounded by a lone jazz trumpet. Moore is one – possibly both – of the hypnotic female vocalists singing in counterpoint to Peter Cook’s eerie, deadpan pop performer in the title track of the film Bedazzled. By the time they were recording this number, composer and co-star Dudley Moore (no relation) and Barbara had already cemented a lifelong friendship.

As a Ladybird, Moore sang backing vocals for Dusty Springfield’s TV show and backed Sandie Shaw’s hit Puppet on a String. Her own outfit, the Barbara Moore Singers, were regulars on BBC’s Top of the Pops, singing with Jimi Hendrix when he performed Hey Joe live in Lime Grove Studios. An important detail for Moore was the shepherd’s pie she bought Hendrix when she found him alone, looking emaciated, near the BBC canteen.

She spent many years hopping from session to session, sight-reading half a dozen album tracks in three hours, with just a short break to puff on one of her favourite cigarettes. “An elite group of these girls can earn £100 a week and have a secure place in the precarious world of pop music,” said Mary Kaye in the Liverpool Echo in 1969. “They can walk down a street unrecognised, yet few top singers could hope for a hit without them.”

Moore’s success in EMI Studio 1 kickstarted a career as a composer and arranger that continued alongside her vocal work. It also ended her sessions with the Ladybirds – Moore claimed they considered her “too ambitious”. Undaunted, she took up invitations to compose a theme tune for Terry Wogan and to update At the Sign of the Swingin’ Cymbal – the frenetic dance piece that underscored Alan Freeman’s chart countdown on BBC radio. She added heavily accented syncopations and bombastic brass, giving Brian Fahey’s original an extra kick.

By 1970, Moore was also working as a session singer for De Wolfe, the library music catalogue. One of her standout vocal sessions can be heard on the Roger Webb Sound’s Moon Bird (reissued on Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs’ compilation English Weather). Moore’s pure vocal line floats over electric guitar, flute and mournful trumpet. “That open voice, with minimal vibrato – there’s a fragility to it,” says Mike Roberts, the arranger, frontman of Mike Flowers Pops and a fan of Moore’s vocals from that time. “It’s a mixture of the jazz and British folk tradition.”

Moore’s voice could deliver the lead line of any jazz standard, yet wouldn’t feel out of place singing choral music by Thomas Tallis – a connection that isn’t surprising, given Moore’s musical background. Born in 1932, she was the daughter of Arthur Birkby – an arranger who worked for the dance bandleaders Joe Loss and Jack Payne – and Clare, a singer with another bandleader, Geraldo. Arthur’s career was lucrative enough to send Moore to St Paul’s, the private school for girls in London where she was taught piano and music theory by Nora Day, a copyist for the composer Gustav Holst.

By 1972, Moore was composing her own tracks for De Wolfe and working within their tight creative strictures. Each short track had to evoke an obvious mood and theme, with no significant key or tempo changes. Her response, Vocal Shades and Tones, managed to stay between the lines while cohering as an artistic gem – a favourite among vinyl crate-diggers to this day. There is a plushness and electricity in the tight vocal harmonies that spring out of Fly Paradise, for example, sung with the precision of cathedral choristers decades before Auto-Tune. “I watched her singing along to it and could tell she was really enjoying those big vocal leaps,” says Roberts. “She knew they were really audacious for library music.”

I have always wondered how Moore’s music would have developed if she had been let loose from the strictures of commercial sessions and library tracks. We get a taste of that in her joyous soundtrack to Serendipity (1972), an experimental paean to concrete and brutalism created by the film-maker Anthony Stern. As Stern floods the screen with cut-ups of London buildings, we hear Moore at the piano, surrounded by associates from the jazz scene – Chris Spedding, Ray Warleigh and John Marshall among them – extemporising freely on a few of her latest themes.

Session and library music would have offered Moore the security she needed. Outside the studio, she was dealing with the aftermath of a short and unhappy marriage to the arranger Pete Moore (the composer of Asteroids, the Pearl & Dean theme) and bringing up her daughter, Lindsey, alone. Her session bookings may also have offered a financial lifeline to her second husband, Chris Pyne, a talented trombonist who was otherwise seeking out a tenuous living on the London jazz scene.

By the 70s, Moore was also bringing in extra cash with work on the Hot Hits compilation series, featuring budget cover versions of chart records. The film-maker Marek Pytel remembers visiting Lindsey at their home in Twyford Avenue, Ealing, to find Moore with a portable cassette machine on her lap, listening to T Rex and jotting down lead lines and chords. “Even then, this was seen as deeply unhip,” Pytel recalls. “So Barbara went incognito.”

He adds: “I treated Twyford Avenue as a sort of second home with Barbara, always hosting a rapidly changing milieu of music people around her kitchen table. Barbara was an incredible influence on me at an early stage in my life. She treated all us very young men – boys, really – with great respect, and any with sense reciprocated.”

Moore’s life in and out of the studio seems to be characterised by a striking generosity. The composer Chris Gunning remembers meeting her at the recording of the score to Dudley Moore’s film 30 Is a Dangerous Age, Cynthia. “When I played a few bars on the piano during a break, Barbara sidled over and said: ‘Nice chords.’” Trusting his musical instincts, she handed Gunning lucrative leads when she abandoned the UK for a few years to live in France. It was while she was working at Olympic Studios that she offered a young Reg Dwight a stand-by session, as her usual singer was on sick leave. This was a favour he returned, as Elton John, when he booked her to arrange and conduct the choir in his early gospel-inspired track, Border Song.

In the last 10 years of her life, Moore enjoyed renewed interest in her back catalogue among listeners who had a curiosity about the sounds of the 70s – a renaissance that was kickstarted when Bowen found her in the phone directory, interviewed her and began to unravel the details of her life.

Moore died peacefully at home in Bognor on 26 August. I was fortunate enough to meet her a few times and will treasure the time I spent sitting at the piano with her, listening to her recollections about 60s music studios as she fished the next perfect chord from the piano.

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