A multiple-platinum-selling singer and award-winning actress, Barbara Dickson is Scotland’s biggest-selling female singer of all time, yet she has never lost touch with her Scottish folk roots and, as recent albums and live performances have assuredly demonstrated, she continues to sing and promote traditional music.
She may have some 30 albums to her credit to date, 17 of them chalking up platinum or gold status, but has described live performance as “utterly hard-wired into me”, telling an interviewer some years ago: “It’s an unbroken line that goes back to me aged 17, singing in Dunfermline or doing the floor spot in Kirkcaldy or in the folk club in St Andrews.”
And it was in these folk clubs that Dunfermline-born Barbara first honed her singing talent. Learning piano from the age of five, she took up guitar when she was 12 and was playing floor spots at her local folk club when still a teenager, encouraged by, among others, the late John Watt, a seminal figure on the Fife folk scene and who, in his Great Fife Road Show, gave her what she credits as her first acting part, dressing as a bus conductress and yelling “Come oan, get aff”, during The Kelty Clippie.
She continued to pay her dues on the folk circuit while working in the Civil Service in Edinburgh, then went full-time after what she calls “a watershed moment” in 1968, when, after being refused leave to fulfil an overseas engagement, she threw over the day job. The Sixties and early Seventies saw her performing with the likes of Archie Fisher (with whom she made two albums), Gerry Rafferty and Rab Noakes. Her first solo album was Do Right Woman, on Decca, in 1970.
During the mid-Sixties she sang in partnership with fellow Fifer Jack Beck, who would later remark, in an interview: “I never had any doubt whatsoever that she would succeed – she stood out from all the others on the folk circuit in her musicianship and the natural quality of her voice … Of course there were other fine singers around, but Barbara’s complete musicianship was, I think, the key to her entry to the wider musical world.”
Another contemporary from those early folk revival years, Billy Connolly, has said: “From the very first time I heard her, her voice just nailed me to the wall.”
That wider world beckoned unexpectedly when her friend, the musician and playwright Willy Russell, offered her the part of musician-singer in his 1974 Beatles musical John, Paul, George, Ringo … and Bert at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, alongside such star names as Antony Sher and Bernard Hill. She was on stage, singing and playing her distinctive take on the Beatles songs, for the duration of the show, which sold out then transferred to London’s West End.
Impressed by her performance, impresario Robert Stigwood signed Barbara to his RSO label, on which she had her first hit single, Answer Me, in 1976, followed by Another Suitcase in Another Hall after she was invited to sing on the original cast recording of the Rice-Lloyd Webber musical Evita. In the meantime her residency on BBC TV’s Two Ronnies show brought her prime-time fame, although a suggestion by her then manager that she re-locate to Los Angeles in pursuit of certain fame and fortune was politely declined – “I didn’t want to lose my soul.”
Further hit singles followed, while 1980’s Barbara Dickson Album earned her first gold disc, and 1982’s All for a Song album went platinum and stayed in the charts for a year.
A return to the theatre in another Willy Russell musical, Blood Brothers, saw Barbara make her debut as a stage actress and earn a “Best Actress in a Musical” award from the Society of West End Theatres. She would go on to win Olivier awards in 1983 and 2000.
Other singles, notably I Know Him So Well, from the musical Chess, sung with Elaine Paige, continued bring international chart success, but she was starting to ease herself back towards her roots, in 1992 releasing a collection of Bob Dylan covers, Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right, followed by Parcel of Rogues and Dark End of the Street, the latter combining traditional songs with numbers by her favourite contemporary songwriters.
At the same time she was diversifying further into acting, with TV roles including Taggart, Band of Gold and The Missing Postman, as well as her stage role as pools winner Viv Nicholson in the musical Spend, Spend, Spend. In 2002 she was awarded an OBE for Services to Music and Drama.
In 2004, her first studio album for nine years, Full Circle, initiated an ongoing collaboration with producer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley, while 2006 saw her return to the Beatles songbook with Nothing’s Going to Change My World. Several other folk-based albums with Donockley have followed, most recently Words Unspoken and her Winter collection of seasonal songs, as well as her 2009 autobiography A Shirt Box Full of Songs. She has presented programmes exploring roots music for BBC Radio Scotland and both performed at and co-presented the Radio 2 Folk Awards, while live appearances have included this year’s Celtic Connections, which saw her revisiting her own roots on the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall stage with a fine performance of I Once Loved a Lad, during the opening night concert marking 50 years of the Traditional Music Association of Scotland, of which she is a patron.
She has toured and recorded with another former Fife contemporary, Rab Noakes, while among her most recent recordings has been To Each and Everyone, on Greentrax, an album of finely poised and affectionate covers of songs by her old friend, the late Gerry Rafferty (to whose hit albums City to City and Night Owl she contributed backing vocals). Rafferty regarded Barbara’s version of The Right Moment as his favourite cover of any song he’d written. As Barbara says herself, she chooses songs “like jewellery”.
Barbara is now based back in Edinburgh, after living down south for many years, and continues to tour the UK, Ireland and the United States. Further honours have included honorary doctorates and the Scottish Variety Awards 2016 Scottish Achievement Award.
Of her art, she simply says: “Singing is not about technique but what is in your heart. That is the secret.
“It’s my vocation to do this,” she told The Scotsman a few years ago. “I don’t do it for attention and I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I want to.”