THE PRETTY KITTY FROM THE GRITTY CITY”
Born Eliza Thomson in Gallowgate, Glasgow, to Arthur, a baker, and his wife Jenny. She was always known as ‘Lizzie’.
As a little girl she was always singing – “but in Glasgow, everybody always sings.”
However, she had an exceptional talent and got her first paid gig aged just 14, with Iain Campbell’s Midnighters.
After she left Whitehill Secondary School in Dennistoun, she went to work as a secretary in the accounts department at a firm called Rowats Pickles.
But in the evenings and at weekends Lizzie was singing in pubs and clubs, with local band the Bobby Patrick Big Six.
At 17 she gave up her job which she was bored with, and decided to move to London, with the band – to chance her hand at becoming a professional singer.
They played seedy clubs and American airbases, living a hand-to-mouth existence.
They did not get immediate success but heard the ‘hip’ scene was in Hamburg – so off she went.
There she performed at the Star Club, performing as singer with the Big Six. She hated Hamburg – “Glasgow was tough, but Hamburg was a different fear.”
Soon she was back in London, changing her stage name to Barry St John. Barry was after the dancer Barrie Chase, St John after her favourite footballer, Ian St John of Liverpool and Scotland. She initially performed with The Playboys.
She got a record contract with Decca and released a few singles. The first was ‘A Little Bit of Soap’ and then her cover of the Newbeats’ ‘Bread and Butter’ was, slightly ironically, a hit in Germany.
She was backed by an unknown session musician called Jimmy Page.
Then she moved to Columbia Records, working with Mickey Most. She had her only hit in Britain with ‘Come Away Melinda’ but her favourite single was ‘Everything I Touch Turns to Tears’. Her one album, released in 1968, was ‘According to St John’.
By now she was dating Howie Casey, saxophonist with ‘The Krew’. She became part-time lead singer. They married in 1969 and had a daughter, before their divorce.
She made the big mistake of moving to the new Major Minor label, run by Mike Pasternak, who was better known to the British public as DJ Emperor Rosko. He insisted on portraying her as “The Pretty Kitty from the Gritty City”.
But her producers clashed with her over her choice of songs. She felt they were giving her material which didn’t suit her. Pasternak wanted her to sing psychedelic music, she wanted soul.
She was made to do a jazzed-up version of her favourite song, Jimmy Webb’s ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’. She hated it – it was the last straw.
She decided to abandon her solo career and become a session musician / singer. She sang for two years as the lead female voice with the Les Humphries Singers.
By now she was also a single mother, with a daughter, Gaynor – so she needed regular work and a regular income.
She had a powerful, soulful voice and was much in demand in the studio. She performed on albums by Elton John, Steve Harley, Bryan Ferry, Nazareth, Mott the Hoople, Pink Floyd, John Lennon and Kevin Ayers – amongst others.
She sang on German TV, off screen, whilst Lynsey De Paul mimed to Hoople’s ‘Roll Away the Stone’.
She can be heard on Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and Bryan Ferry’s ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’.
She is most famous for her iconic vocals on Pink Floyd’s LP ‘Dark Side of the Moon’. But she didn’t enjoy this job. “They never smiled and were so stand offish.”
She can be heard on the original soundtrack of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’.
She never had an agent – “Most of the time people just rang you up.”
In the mid-70s, she worked regularly with Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry.
In 1978, she went on tour with French singer Johnny Hallyday. There, she met saxophonist Greg (Peter) MacGregor. They became partners, eventually getting married in 1989. She clearly had a thing for saxophonists.
Her later sessions included the Tom Robinson Band, Whitesnake and Squeeze.
She took up piano, having lessons, but abandoned music as a career after her marriage, becoming an assistant in law firms in South London.
But she was thrilled to find out that in the 1990s her 60s work was rediscovered by Northern Soul enthusiasts, and she quickly became a cult hero.
She fell ill in 2007, having a small stroke. She retired from work but then had kidney problems. One of her kidneys was removed in an operation.
Her records have become quite valuable collectors’ items.
Her husband Greg, survives her.
RIP – Really Inspiring Performer