What Do You Know About…?
Barry de Souza
He was ubiquitous in British studios during the ’70s, a favorite of producers and artists for his elegance and efficiency—and occasionally for his ability to navigate some weird and wonderfully ambitious art-rock tracks. Will Romano investigates the life and work of a quiet giant of classic rock.
by Will Romano
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, humility isn’t thinking less of yourself and your character, it’s thinking of yourself less.
Sacrificing a bit of ego to help bolster various aspects of the music isn’t bad career advice, and, ironically, some drummers have made a name for themselves by consciously playing supporting roles. Few drummers, however, have embodied Lewis’s statement—and its musical corollary, “serving the song”—more than Barry de Souza, an introverted man who let his performances speak for themselves.
Producers, artists, and session “fixers” alike swore by de Souza’s musical sensitivity, effortless grooves, and personal generosity, humility, and wit. A first-call session musician living in and around London, de Souza, who died in 2009, recorded and performed with Jeff Beck, Shawn Phillips, Rick Wakeman, Lou Reed, Kate Bush, and David Essex, among many others. Valued for his sharp musical instincts and up-for-anything nature, he could be found in unlikely places like Jeff Wayne’s concept-album extravaganza The War of the Worlds, or backing Phil Collins for a television appearance in support of Collins’ 1982 single “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Whatever the setting, de Souza could be relied on to bring the music to life in any number of ways.
“Some criticize session drummers for not having any feel,” says conductor/arranger Martyn Ford, a friend of de Souza’s who coordinated various sessions around London. “But once the ’70s arrived, you had drummers like Barry, Bill Bruford, Stewart Copeland, Mike Giles, and Simon Phillips in the U.K. These guys were brilliant and quick.”
“Barry kept time and grooved,” renowned session guitarist and leader Ray Russell adds. “He made everyone feel very relaxed. He was selfless in that respect.”
De Souza was a reliable and steady-handed player who in 1983, at the top of his game, won the drum chair for the West End production of Cats, a position he held until the show went dark in 2002. “My mom described Dad’s style as ‘economical but sophisticated,’” de Souza’s daughter, Danielle McDowell, says. “You could hear in his playing that he was listening,” adds percussionist Nigel Shipway, a friend who worked with de Souza on Cats for nearly twenty years. “He was a drummer who was completely unafraid to accompany a singer or soloist. If it needed it, he would adjust the time to make the singer more comfortable with what was going on.”
Notable restraint and an instinctual knack for weaving around a vocal line were encapsulated in what could be de Souza’s most famous recorded performance, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Nobody Does It Better,” sung by Carly Simon for the 1977 James Bond thriller, The Spy Who Loved Me.
“Some people say that Barry’s time wasn’t solid,” Shipway says. “But he was listening and letting the singer stretch out. Elkie Brooks, Elaine Paige, Barbara Dickson—that generation of English singers adored Barry, because he gave them elbow room.”
Pop star and matinee idol David Essex detected these characteristics early on. Scantly framed by little more than a kick drum, spare hi-hat patterns, and triplets on the toms, Essex’s 1973 smash hit, “Rock On,” is a wonderfully quirky homage to ’50s American popular music, featuring multitracked vocals and Herbie Flowers’ bubbling bass line. “Barry’s drumming style was an important part of the early Essex sound,” the singer tells us via email. “Barry was a determined professional who became more outgoing and confident as we worked together.”
De Souza may have been best known for his efficiency, but he wasn’t averse to flashing his chops on occasion. Opening a virtual can of whup-ass, courtesy of roaring single-stroke rolls, intermittent tom strikes, and punctuating accents, he builds tension throughout the mercurial “Catherine Howard,” from keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman’s 1973 album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.
By the same token, de Souza seemingly had no qualms pushing the pedal to the metal for Shawn Phillips’ 1974 symphonic folk-/jazz-rock release, Furthermore…. On tracks such as the funky and boisterous “January First,” the political “Ninety Two Years,” and the instrumental “Planscape,” de Souza locks in with John Gustafson’s driving bass notes and lets his hi-hat-centric grooves alternately simmer under and propel Phillips’ cross-genre ideas and four-octave voice. “Barry knew about deep pockets before most of us got around to buying the pants,” Shipway says.
While much of de Souza’s work has been well documented, some of it remains unrecognized or even in dispute. For example, there’s some debate over whether the drummer performed on two iconic cuts from Lou Reed’s 1972 album Transformer.
(De Souza, John Halsey, and Ritchie Dharma are credited with drumming in the album’s liner notes, but who played on which cuts is not specified.) “There are a few things on the album that he said to me he had played on,” daughter Danielle recalls. “He always said it was he on tracks like ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ and ‘Perfect Day.’ I mean, we haven’t got the proof, but with me he was pretty adamant.”
Along the same lines, some of de Souza’s work remains obscure. The post–Jesus Christ Superstar concept album The Bible: A Rock Testament, recorded by the controversial Family of Love (aka the Family International) and coproduced by Martyn Ford and Paul Buckmaster, was released through Polydor and distributed by Polygram, but it generated barely a blip on radars in the U.S. and the U.K. Sharing drum duties with boy wonder Simon Phillips, de Souza stresses economy of beats. “Dad was a very composed drummer who could make these enormous sounds just by moving his wrists,” Danielle says.
A man of few words whose drumming was often minimalistic, de Souza simply got on with the job at hand and didn’t open up about himself very often. It comes as no surprise that details of his life are sparse and not widely known. Only upon further investigation does a skeletal biographical structure emerge.
De Souza was born in central London on March 29, 1946, was brought up in Camden, and eventually moved to Haringey, North London. The drummer’s father, Yorke de Souza, a jazz pianist who arrived in the U.K. from Jamaica between World Wars, performed, most notably, with Fats Waller and Ken “Snakehips” Johnson. Barry played with his father on occasion and was even a member of a house band in a London casino before, the story goes, he broke into session work with the help of Martyn Ford and Rick Wakeman, the latter his bandmate in a group called the Spinning Wheel in the late ’60s.
“Yorke was one of the Caribbean musicians who came over to England, I think, in the 1930s,” Danielle says. “The jazz element of Dad’s playing came from Yorke.”
The mid and late ’70s were de Souza’s heyday as a session musician. He was receiving steady work, performing on film soundtracks and with artists ranging from David Essex to Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, Kate Bush, and Kevin Ayers.
De Souza was inspired by many players, from Ed Thigpen to Steve Gadd and, later in the ’80s and ’90s, Dave Weckl. Nigel Shipway compares de Souza to late Sinatra drummer Irv Cottler, who, he says, “made a very good living leaving out the stuff that everybody else played. When we did jingles, Barry would take a snare drum and a cymbal. Every other drummer in the world would have taken the entire drumset. Barry had this unique way of seeing what was needed, and it sounded absolutely right.”
“Apart from having every single style under his fingertips, Barry could read,” Martyn Ford adds.
Over time de Souza gained a reputation for both his rhythmic versatility and his personality. “Barry had a very expressive face,” Shipway says. “He could say a million words with just lifting his left eyebrow. If something didn’t sound quite right, he would give you the look. The next thing you knew, you were rolling around with laughter, because you knew exactly what he was thinking.”
“He really did have a wry, dry sense of humor,” Paul Buckmaster says.
It seems de Souza was also a bit of a prankster. In one memorable incident at a label event, he stealthily perpetrated a hilarious practical joke. “It was a record-release reception for the band Sailor,” Ray Russell recalls. “They were running short of knives and forks, and we couldn’t work out why. We realized that Barry was going around putting them in people’s pockets. Everyone was walking around with these utensils on them.”
In 1983, after more than a decade of consistent studio calls, sometimes involving multiple sessions per day, de Souza won the drum chair for the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s exceedingly popular musical Cats, a seat previously held by Jon Hiseman Colosseum) and Graham Ward (Paul McCartney, Tom Jones). For years de Souza divided his time between the T.S. Eliot–inspired musical, session work, and performing in his home studio in Enfield, playing host to musicians such as Ray Russell and Danielle’s godfather, the late percussionist Morris Pert (Brand X, Mike Oldfield, Peter Gabriel).
“There are a lot of tapes around with Morris’s name on them,” Danielle says, “but they are in such bad condition that I couldn’t rescue them. Lots of people went through that studio.”
As time passed, advancements in recording technology and massive shifts in popular tastes changed the London professional recording landscape forever, drying up de Souza’s prospects for session work. Trouble brewed at home as well, as the drummer and his wife, painter/composer/recording artist Zoë Kronberger, divorced in the early ’90s. Kronberger started a new life in France, and de Souza moved to the outskirts of London, where he raised Danielle.
“It’s difficult for me to gauge exactly how [the split] impacted Dad, because I was so young,” Danielle explains. “He never remarried, and there was never really anyone serious after my mom. He had a regular job [with Cats] at the time, so I think that helped to keep his mind off of it.”
The spring of 2002 was a turning point: Cats closed, having been seen by more than 8 million people in the West End alone, according to Billboard magazine, leaving de Souza to reevaluate his life. “After Cats, I think he felt as if the parade had passed him by,” Shipway says. “Barry was never one to push himself to the front of the queue, which, to be honest with you, he should have done.”
“A part of him really missed [session work],” Danielle says. “But I think he was quite happy to have it slow down.”
De Souza had fairly quiet final years, spending them with his loved ones. “He got to meet his grandson—they had six months together,” Danielle says. “I know that made him really happy. Dad even let my son have a go on his drumset.”
On March 11, 2009, less than three weeks shy of his sixty-third birthday, de Souza succumbed to cancer. Years on, shockwaves emanating from his passing are still being felt. When MD spoke with Martyn Ford, he was so upset that he needed to pause during the interview to collect himself. In addition, Shipway keeps in his pocket Shakespeare’s
Sonnet 30, which was reprinted in London’s Daily Telegraph just after de Souza’s passing. The sonnet, Shipway says, which focuses on friendship, silent thoughts, and the time when “all losses are restor’d and sorrows end,” speaks volumes.
“The last two lines summed up everything I felt about Barry,” Shipway, who shares a birthday with de Souza, says. “When you think of him you think of laughter and the raised eyebrows and never saying anything. Barry’s communication was beyond words, and it was true musically and verbally.”
Danielle asked close friends Martyn Ford and Ray Russell to speak at her dad’s funeral, but both felt they were too devastated to deliver a coherent eulogy. As it so happens, Herbie Flowers recounted anecdotes involving the drummer’s life, Ford performed a pastoral piece on the French horn, and “Nobody Does It Better” was handpicked by Danielle to be played at the ceremony.
“The place was packed,” Danielle remembers. “I knew Dad was successful and well regarded, but I almost didn’t expect this. Dad was modest. To see all these things happening because of the work he did really opened my eyes.”