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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - £70,000 OTE

£35000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager (Vice President...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Marketing Executive i...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable