Eric James

Composer to Charlie Chaplin


Eric James Barker (Eric James), pianist, composer and arranger: born London 11 August 1913; twice married; died Whitby, Ontario 28 March 2006.

Eric James was a pianist, composer and arranger who achieved national fame on radio before coming to be known for his work on film scores with Charlie Chaplin.

In 1956 James received an invitation to Shepperton Studios, outside London, where Chaplin was filming A King in New York. Chaplin needed someone to play one of his compositions, "A Thousand Windows Smile at Me", to match the movements of an actor playing a night-club pianist. James performed the tune at what he thought was a rehearsal, only to discover that he had been recorded. On the strength of this perfect take, he was asked if he would be willing to work on a project in Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin had made his home.

Weary of the jokey musical tracks frequently added by other hands to his early comedies, Chaplin had decided to reissue three under his ownership, with new scores to be composed by himself and arranged by James.

Chaplin could not write musical notation and had devised various unorthodox means of recalling melodies that had come into his mind. James noted down what Chaplin could sing or pick out on the piano, writing on alternate staves so that he could fill out the composition as necessary. While the melodies were Chaplin's own, James was able to interpolate his own ideas by convincing Chaplin he had originated them.

The result of their collaboration, The Chaplin Revue, was released in 1959. Chaplin, delighted, generously invited James to write his own screen credit. James's initial suggestion, "Music written and composed by Eric James in spite of Charlie Chaplin", made way instead for the unusual billing of "music associate".

Their relationship grew to the point where James was accepted virtually as a Chaplin family member. In addition to the score for Chaplin's final film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) - which produced the hit "This is My Song" - James continued to work with Chaplin on music for all the silent films in the comedian's ownership until the task was completed in 1976, a year before Chaplin's death. But for Chaplin's declining health, he and James would have written an opera based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in response to an invitation from La Scala, Milan.

Born Eric James Barker in Chiswick, west London, in 1913, he received his first piano lessons at primary school, then studied every Saturday at the Sheen School of Music. Leaving school at 15, he played for dance lessons at the Hammersmith Ice Rink, then was engaged as silent-film accompanist at the Savoy cinema in Uxbridge.

It was there that he learned how to anticipate the moods of individual scenes, including those in films by Charlie Chaplin. Aged 18, Barker was made redundant by talking pictures and began playing in theatres and hotels. In 1937 he took a job as a song plugger for Sun music publishers. When Larry Adler called in to ask if anyone could play Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Barker obliged and thus spent three weeks at the Palladium as Adler's accompanist.

Barker moved to be a manager at Southern Music and as "Jack Howard" also composed a number of popular songs, among them "Blue Eyes". He left Southern in 1939 to tour as accompanist to the popular singer Elsie Carlisle, then convalescing from a lengthy illness. He married her nurse, Leila O'Dwyer, in 1945.

He was working with Carlisle for the BBC in Bristol when he was called up in 1941, and arrived at RAF Cardington six months late, because three previous sets of papers, addressed to "Eric James Barker", had been sent erroneously to the comedian Eric Barker (already serving in the Royal Navy). His RAF career, spent organising shows, was curtailed by a bout of diphtheria.

On release, he joined Charles Shadwell's Orchestra (at this point dropping the name "Barker" professionally), broadcasting for the BBC on shows such as ITMA, and also hosting his own show, Piano Playtime. In 1947 he accompanied Ann Blyth at the engagement party for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten. He later toured in a show called Music for You, alongside his second wife, the vocalist Phyllis O'Reilly.

In 1987 they settled in Canada, but visited England in 2000 to launch James's autobiography, Making Music with Charlie Chaplin.

Glenn Mitchell

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