An Interview with Barbara Ruskin
'60s British Songstress
Female singer-songwriters were thin on the ground in the world of British pop in the 1960s. In the USA, Carole King and Jackie DeShannon could hold their own against any men in the music business. One young lady with her heart set on becoming the British answer to talented stars such as those was London-born BARBARA RUSKIN. Teenaged Barbara signed with publishers Pan-Musik in 1964 and released her first 45 for Piccadilly Records early the following year. In 1967 she began a 2-year stint at Parlophone, before switching to the President label, eventually retiring in 1972 to raise her family. Almost all of Barbara's releases were self-composed and an impressive list of other performers cut her songs. Now resident in Kent, Barbara invited me to her home to peruse her large collection of memorabilia. While there I took the opportunity of asking her to tell me her story . . .
What I really wanted to be was a songwriter. I had no intention of ever becoming a singer. I was born in East Ham. My mum had a musical background. She had worked for the famous music publisher Lawrence Wright in Denmark Street. This was in the days before demo discs. The writers would come into the office with their sheet music and it was my mum's job to play the songs for the publisher to hear. She gave it up to have babies, including me. So it was kind of in the family.
We moved to Stoke Newington when I was 10 or 11 and my mum bought me a guitar from a pawnshop. I fell in love with it. I loved the sound it created. I'd had piano lessons a few years earlier but only progressed a couple of grades. I taught myself to play the guitar and started to write my own songs. When I was 13 or 14 I saw an ad in the window of a music shop. A group was looking for a guitarist. I rang them up and it was the Demensions. Later on they became Jimmy Powell and the Dimensions. They thought it would be quite a gimmick to have a girl guitarist, so they took me on. That was my first taste of working on stage. We played youth clubs and weddings mostly.
Tin Pan Alley
After that I started making demo tapes of my songs and sending them off to all the publishing houses, including Lawrence Wright. They'd always come back with a letter saying that they were not suitable for their catalogues. I was getting despondent, but then I realized that they weren't even listening to the tapes. A friend persuaded me to go up to Tin Pan Alley and knock on all the publishers' doors to see if they would listen to my songs. So I put my great big 12-string guitar in its case and went to Denmark Street, but no one was really interested.
We went and sat in this little café. I remember Ken Dodd was there and he cracked some joke about me having a machine gun in my guitar case. I told him that I wrote songs. He happened to be sitting alongside Gerald Benson of Pan-Musik. He asked me to come across to his office and play some songs for him. He thought they weren't bad and taped some of them so he could think about it. I thought nothing would happen, but a week later he 'phoned me and told me he had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that he had taken the tape along to Pye Records' John Schroeder, who liked my voice and was quite interested in giving me a recording test as a singer. The bad news was that he wasn't so keen on my songs. I didn't think I could sing and didn't really want to do it, but Gerald persuaded me to go along for the test. What did I have to lose? Maybe they'd let me record one of my songs as a B-side.
Halfway To Paradise
So I went along and did the test. I did "I Can't Believe In Miracles." I still have a copy of the original test recording. John Schroeder said that he'd like me to make a record and my song could be on the B-side. He signed me, Status Quo and A Band Of Angels all at the same time. So I was in good company. He wanted me to do "Halfway To Paradise," but differently to the Billy Fury version- more uptempo. Ivor Raymonde was the arranger, which was nice. That made me feel a bit nearer to my idol Dusty Springfield, because he did all her stuff. This was just before Christmas. The record came out in February 1965.
Ready, Steady, Go!
I managed to get on some TV shows, including Ready, Steady, Go! The Walker Brothers and a whole load of Motown acts - Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Supremes - were all on the show. I did "Halfway To Paradise" and the other side. I remember Cathy McGowan announcing, "Although Barbara can't believe in miracles, here they are." I've never seen the show since. I'd love to. That was quite a moment.