Ian Wheeler: Musician who played clarinet, saxophone and harmonica with Chris Barber

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The Independent Online

Chris Barber's Jazz And Blues Band has seen many changes in personnel over its 57 years of existence, and Ian Wheeler gave more years of service than most.

He played clarinet, alto and soprano saxophone and harmonica and he was with the band from 1961-68 and from 1979-98. He spoke of his invitation to join in December 1960 as "the best Christmas present ever".

Ian Wheeler was born in Greenwich in 1931 but the family moved to Blackheath when he was four. He was good at art and woodwork and his main interest was in model aeroplanes. Because he liked George Formby, he took up the ukulele when he was 14 then moved to the guitar. At 17 Wheeler joined the RAF as a trainee pilot but was discharged on medical grounds. He went into the merchant navy in 1949 and travelled around the world.

In hospital, he heard recordings by the blues singer Josh White and tried to play like him, but the other patients told him not to sing. Once discharged, he played guitar for Charlie Galbraith and Mike Jefferson and their bands. He was then in Charlie Connor's band and was attracted to his clarinet. He bought one for 25 shillings but it had no reed and for a time he wondered why he could get no sound from it.

He and some musicians would practise in the woods and he formed the River City Jazz Band in 1952, with himself on clarinet. He moved to a more prestigious band led by Mike Daniels, who told him, "You're not much good yet, but you've got promise and I'll take a chance." When he left for another spell in hospital he was replaced, but rejoined on soprano sax.

He left again following a car crash but was invited to replace Acker Bilk in Ken Colyer's Jazzmen. He played with them from 1954-60. He formed the Sims-Wheeler Vintage Band with Acker Bilk's trumpeter, Ken Sims. At Christmas in 1960 he got the call to replace clarinettist Monty Sunshine in the Chris Barber Band, and stayed until 1968. It was a hard task to replace the popular Sunshine, but he developed a warm sound and he also added saxophone to the line-up.

He was strongly featured on Best Yet (1962), playing alto on "Basin Street Blues" and soprano on "Yvette". In 1961, the EP Introducing Ian featured four of his solos. When the band toured with Sonny Boy Williamson in 1964, Wheeler was impressed with his harmonica playing and within a month, he was playing it on stage. Wheeler, and John Slaughter on electric guitar, developed a Chicago blues sound, and "Down Home Rag", "Saratoga Swing" and "Harlem Bound" became part of the repertoire. Wheeler left during the making of Battersea Rain Dance.

Wheeler had his own band from 1970-73 and was then in a band with Rod Mason. He was with Keith Smith's Hefty Jazz, rejoining Barber in 1979; by then they were the eight-piece Chris Barber Jazz & Blues Band. They made the double album Barbican Blues (1982) and many others. In his later years, Wheeler worked occasionally in scratch bands. He released Ian Wheeler At Farnhams Maltings in 1993.

Ian Gordon Wheeler, musician: born Greenwich 13 January 1931; died June 2011.

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