The Black Sheep of the Family
Compiled by Chris Park
Fred Barnes (1885-1938) was an English music hall singer. Although popular on stage, Barnes became infamous for his erratic private life and was often named in frequent controversies reported by the press. (1)
A "wavy-haired, blue-eyed Adonis", fond of pink-and-white makeup and his pet marmoset, he had been inspired to take the stage by Vesta Tilley (see Male Impersonators - In the Music Halls and Beyond!) and the original Burlington Bertie. But by 1907, he was bored. Inspired by his father, a Birmingham butcher who despaired of his theatrical son, Barnes wrote a new song, The Black Sheep of the Family, about the "queer, queer world we live in". The song had its first outing on a Monday night at the Empire; the crowd of 1,500 loved it, and Barnes - who later joked that he had written the song in a fit of pique at being repeatedly given a tricky "first turn" billing - was soon promoted to the star slot. (2)
Music Hall historian W Macqueen-Pope says that Barnes “had a good voice, good looks, an easy manner and was always well dressed.” (3) Theodore Felstead describes him as “[a] man with first-class melodies and the voice to sing them.” (4) Among his better songs were There’s A Friend In Every Milestone, The Same Old Park, On Mother Kelly’s Doorstep and, of course, The Black Sheep Of The Family.
In an intolerant time, Barnes was unabashedly open about preferring the company of other men. His openness led to him being shunned, even by his friends in the music hall business.
His fondness for alcohol caused him trouble, at least once leading to a charge of drink driving (for which he was imprisoned for a month and fined) and rendered him unfit to perform on several occasions and by the mid 1930s he had all but dropped out of sight.
Eventually, suffering from tuberculosis, he went to live with John Senior, friend and manager, in a small flat at Southend-on-Sea where on 23 October 1938 he was found dead from the effects of gas poisoning. (5)
3. W MacQueen-Pope, The Melodies Linger On: The Story of Music Hall (London: WH Allen, 1950), p. 393.
4. S. Theodore Felstead, Stars Who Made the Halls: A Hundred Years of English Humour, Harmony and Hilarity (London: T Werner Laurie, 1946), p. 177.
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