Thanks for the Memory No 2:
WILLIE BARR, the Flying Scot
by Chris Helme
Willie Barr will be remembered by many older readers as one of
the finest and most frequently heard cornet soloists on the radio
during the 1950’s and 60’s. My own recollection of this
brass band legend from north of the border was when I first heard
one of his solo performances of Gregor J. Grant’s composition
‘ The Flying Scot’ on a 1967 Scottish CWS recording
– cornet playing of the very highest standard.
Willie Barr in 1950 - one of the finest cornet
players of his generation
Willie was the eldest son of William (who was also known to his
friends as Willie, snr) and Meg Barr. Their two younger sons James
and Lex and their daughter Bunty did not follow what had become
the family tradition of learning to play a brass instrument. Nor
did Willie’s own son William Hugh either as a hobby he went
on to make a name for himself as a Champion Racing Cyclist.
It was to be Willie who as he got older would follow in the footsteps
of not only his father but five uncles as well - Jim; Louis; Alex;
Charlie and George who were all instrumentalists in their own right.
However, the family’s brass band connections go back even
further - to the days when his grandfather John Barr was a founding
member and conductor of the Creetown Silver Band near Galloway during
At Creetown it was John Barr and Rob Elliot who raised the princely
sum of £20 to purchase twenty brass instruments, an amount
that was certainly a sizable sum 120 years ago. To help the band
through those early days each member of the band paid a weekly four
pence subscription. There were twenty bandsmen who to begin with
knew nothing about brass band music and it took about two years
of regular practice and dedication before the band stepped out and
made its first public performance under the baton of John Barr.
Times were hard in this part of the world as the old century was
coming to a close – so much so that in 1887 some members of
the community left the area including a few who emigrated to America.
However, by the turn of the century John Barr had retired as the
bandmaster which then saw the appointment of Felix Slevin (who I
understand went on to be a Director of Feldman’s Music Publishers
between the wars) as the new bandmaster and by 1901 having succeeded
at a couple of local contests they were awarded the Championship
It would seem that this was a purple patch for the Creetown Silver
Band with Willie Barr (snr) winning best solo cornet prizes quite
regularly. Due to the band’s continuing success in 1905 the
word ‘Prize’ was incorporated into its name. Even with
this success Felix Slevin moved on to conduct the Darvel Burgh Band
which resulted in the appointment of Robert Hughes as the new Creetown
Silver Prize Band conductor. Willie (snr) carried on as though there
had been no change – continuing to notch up a fairly regular
crop of best Solo Cornet prizes.
During the First World War the bands activities like many others
were suspended and did not re-start until 1919. Following the resignation
of a Mr Harvey the then bandmaster of the band Louis Barr took over
the baton in 1922. This was short lived as the former bandmaster
Robert Hughes came back from America having emigrated there a few
years earlier and was invited to take back the reins in 1923.
Willie (jnr) was born in 1926 in Glasgow and began playing at the
age of 11 with his early tuition being given by his father William,
who was a cornet player with the Scottish CWS Band at the time.
His introduction to playing with a band was when he joined the
local Boys Brigade but not long after was asked to join the Glasgow
Gas Department Band under their conductor Herbert Bennett.
It was Herbert Bennett who had earlier conducted the Darvel Burgh
Band to a creditable 5th place behind the legendary St Hilda Colliery
Band at the 1924 National Championships at the Crystal Palace before
moving on to become a nationally respected contest adjudicator –
a name I am sure many older readers will recall.
During the summer concert season of 1940 young Willie featured
regularly as a boy soloist with the Glasgow Corporation Gas Department
Band. He had now moved on from receiving tuition from his father
to having more advanced lessons from Ben Thornton the then Principal
Cornet at Scottish CWS who went on to join Munn and Felton’s
Band, a band many readers will know that in later years was to become
the famous G.U.S Band under the baton of Stanley Boddington.
In 1941 Willie then aged 14 years finally achieved his boyhood
ambition by following in his father’s footsteps and becoming
a member of the Scottish CWS Band. As a boy he was most enthusiastic
and much of his leisure time was spent in home practicing and listening
to records of the many fine players of that era.
He tells us that he was very fortunate in having had that opportunity
and suggests this practice to all of today’s aspiring young
From the age of 14 until he was called to the army at 18 he was
content to remain in the back row cornet section and in retrospect
he says this was a wise policy as many promising young players often
fail through being promoted before having had a chance to develop
During the latter part of the war he saw active service and was
wounded whilst serving with The Black Watch and did no playing for
over 2½ years. Fortunately he was transferred to the Royal
Norfolk Regiment soon after the war and spent the remaining year
of his army service on tour in Germany as the Solo Cornet of the
On his demobilisation in the autumn of 1947 he went into the first
cornet section of the Scottish CWS who were in the process of re-organising
after the war years. In early 1949 Alex Mortimer was appointed the
Musical Director who then appointed Willie Barr as the band’s
With the Scottish CWS Band he was a familiar face at the Nationals
in London – their highest placing came in 1958 when under
the baton of William Crozier playing Edmund Rubbra’s test
piece ‘Variations on the Shining River’ off number 16
they were awarded second place behind Foden’s.
Now firmly established as a player of distinction and quickly making
a name in solo competitions he was attracting the attention of the
foremost English bands of the time.
He was the record winner of the Glasgow and West of Scotland Solo
Championship until he stopped entering the event while still in
his early 30’s.
He won the Scottish Solo Championships in 1948/1949 and was usually
top cornet in the initial entry of qualifiers.
Twice during the 1950’s he was invited to take the ‘end
chair’ at Black Dyke Mills but because of the more attractive
location (Oxford) he chose instead to accept an invitation from
Harry Mortimer to join his Morris Motors Band as leader in 1950.
He led them to success in several contests and very many broadcasts
for over a year before being tempted to return to Scottish CWS with
the additional appointment of secretary.
Scottish CWS c.1950
During his spell with Morris he stepped in to deputise for Teddy
Gray at Foden’s in London concerts when Teddy went off on
He also featured on the ‘Dear Sir’ radio programme
when his playing was mistaken by Harry’s Foden bandsmen for
Harry himself. Harry Mortimer announced this to Willie and the Morris
players at the next rehearsal expressing the hope that Willie didn’t
mind the error. Willie in covering his embarrassment muttered -
that it was hardly an insult.
Long after his name had disappeared from the Radio Times and the
brass band journals Teddy Gray (former principal cornet at Foden’s
and the All Star Concert Band introduced Willie to the solo cornet
player of his then band ‘The Royal Doulton Band’ as
Willie Barr of Morris Motors and Scottish CWS – “a better
player than me”. Willie protested in his embarrassment that
he couldn’t agree although he had perhaps broadcast more solos
over the years.
I am sure brass band enthusiasts in Scotland will remember many
of the former players who shared the stage with Willie over the
years and they are not forgotten either. Just as a reminder they
included: Gilbert Watt; Jackie Elliott; Walter Nesbitt; James Megahy;
Willie Haddow; James McKie; Bram & Charlie Thompson; Roddy Campbell;
Willie McPherson; Peter Wilson; Peter Moore; Robert Nairn; James
McMillan; Paul Beck; Robert Arnott; Bert Masters; Bert Masson; Willie
Robb but to name a few.
Willie was secretary at Scottish CWS for 16 years until he relinquished
the position in 1966/67 to take up a position as teacher of brass
instruments with the Edinburgh Education Authority.
On reaching the age of fifty in 1976 Willie found the constant
travelling to Glasgow and back several times a week rather tiresome
on top of his daily teaching commitments in Edinburgh and retired
from Scottish CWS after being with them for 23 years except between
1950 and 1951 for his spell as principal cornet with Morris Motors
Band spending the next ten years assisting the Royal Scots TA Band
which took him all over the country including Kneller Hall inspections.
He is the record holder of the ‘Terris’ award (an award
believed to have been originally given by a Scottish brass band
benefactor called Charles Terris – no further information
is known about this award), which was given each year for the best
performer on a cornet at the Scottish Championships.
One of his most popular solos from his long repertoire heard on
his many radio broadcasts and concert solo performances was “The
Flying Scot” which was dedicated to him by the composer Gregor
J. Grant in appreciation of his playing.
It was frequently suggested he could have been a professional trumpeter
but he maintained that he would not be happy away from bands and
has confined his activities in that area to only occasional engagements
with the Scottish National and smaller orchestras.
On one occasion when the London Symphony Orchestra appeared at
the Edinburgh Festival Willie Lang then a member introduced Willie
to the brass section as ‘Willie Barr the famous cornet player’
Willie countered this by protesting that in his experience HE (Bill
Lang) was the famous and inspirational cornetist of his younger
Over the years Willie played under many conductors Sargent, Boult,
Rankl and Bliss amongst the orchestral greats and too many to recall
in the brass band world (Scottish CWS was dubbed the graveyard of
conductors) Fred, Harry and Alex Mortimer were all inspirational
figures to play for while George Hawkins, J. A. Greenwood and many
others demanded a high standard of excellence.
Willie was a member of the first cornet section in Harry Mortimer’s
1950’s ‘All Star Concert Band’ of Great Britain
and the Principal Cornet of its Scottish counterpart under Drake
Enoch Jackson (principal trumpet Scottish National Orchestra) and
Professor of Trumpet at the Scottish Academy of Music always advised
his students to listen to Willie Barr on record for a perfect example
of triple tonguing techniques.
Willie was himself Professor of Cornet at the Dreghorn Military
School in Edinburgh for young bandsmen during the 1970’s.
He continued to teach in Lothian Region schools until his retirement
in 1991 and now lives in retirement with his - as he says - long
suffering wife Judy, at their home in Edinburgh.
Looking back over all the years of pleasurable but hard work he
memorised well over 20 of the standard solo repertoire – a
characteristic drummed into him by Bandmaster
Daniel Harvey from his old army days. Looking back over his long
and distinguished career Willie says that far and above contest
successes and solo achievements he treasures most were the warm
memories of the good natured way he was always received by his peers.
Meeting with star players like Willie Lang, Derek Garside, Teddy
Gray, Bobby Oughton and many more only took place two or three times
a year at contests and with the “All Stars” but they
were always very friendly and they genuinely wished each other ‘all
the best’ before going to ‘the scaffold‘. These
sentiments were also shown by conductors such as the Mortimer’s
and many others in Willie’s circle of friends.
Whilst the name of Willie Barr may be new to many of the younger
players of today his name is still remembered throughout the brass
band movement by those older players who started their own ‘banding’
careers during the early post war years.
At his peak Willie Barr was one of the finest cornet players of
his generation and the few recordings of his playing that do survive
are testament to some truly first class playing.
Perhaps you have a memory of Willie either playing on the same
stage or simply admiring his artistry from the auditorium.
I am very pleased to have been invited to contribute to 4barsrest
by the editor with what some might call old fashioned nostalgia
- I would welcome your comments and some of your brass band memories
from your past.
I am a retired police officer and I have played in brass bands
for 43 years in the lower sections and still play with the West
Yorkshire Police Band as a retired officer. I have written a local
newspaper nostalgia column in Brighouse for 17 years, two local
history books, produced a 90 minute nostalgia cassette tape with
another in the pipeline. In 1999 I wrote a small booklet about the
life of the legendary cornet player James Shepherd. Several years
ago I was asked to contribute to a brass band publication –
this was to be similar to my newspaper column – nostalgia
and looking back and publish a bi-annual West and North Yorkshire
Speaker Directory and a new South Yorkshire version this next year.
I am currently presenting over 80 slide presentations and speaking
engagements annually the length and breadth of Yorkshire and teach
adult education classes during the winter.
Over the years I have written a small number of articles for county
and national publications on a nostalgia theme. In each of the publications
I have written for I have always encouraged the readers to become
involved and be interactive so I can include some of their memories
and photographs into the stories where ever and when ever possible.
I can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
and I look forward to hearing from you.
© Chris Helme