Image of the gates of the Liverpool Cathedral

Barbara Dickson OBE

Oration

Presented by: Professor Frank Sanderson

"Boy, can this lady sing!  She can glide with glacial beauty, bright and pure through the high notes, slip down to husky warmth and burn with straight-ahead soul power." So said The New Musical Express recently.

Barbara Dickson, a singer of extraordinary talent, has had a long series of hit singles and albums, won glittering accolades for her performances in musicals and has become a popular screen actress during her illustrious career.

And Liverpool has a special affection for Barbara. The Daily Post's Lew Baxter wrote last year that "such is the close to delirious affection that Liverpool folk hold for Barbara Dickson that some would no doubt stand out barefoot in a snow storm to hear her glorious soaring voice swooping through well-loved refrains". And Barbara reciprocates the affection…  

During WW2 her father Alastair became a policeman in Liverpool. Whilst on secondment on fire-fighting duties in the city, Alastair met and married Ruth Malley, a strong-willed Liverpudlian, who was also working for the Fire Service. Invalided out of the police service in 1945, Alastair went home with Ruth to Dunfermline where Barbara was born.

There was no musical tradition in the family, but Ruth soon discovered that Barbara could sing before she was able to speak. With encouragement from her mother, Barbara first took piano lessons and by the age of twelve was playing the guitar. She joined the civil service when she was seventeen, first working for the Admiralty and then moving to Edinburgh, combining a job in the Registrar General's Office with evening spots as a folk singer in local pubs and clubs.  

After a spell on the Scottish folk club circuit, working with the likes of Archie Fisher and Rab Noakes, Barbara looked for work south of the border in the booming folk scene of the North of England. 

In 1972 at a show in Wolverhampton, Bernard Theobald offered to become her manager - he thought she should be singing at the Royal Albert Hall rather than in pubs and clubs - and so began a successful business partnership which has lasted more than 3 decades.

In the early 70s, Barbara sang at a Liverpool folk club run by student-teacher Willy Russell who showed her the first draft of what was to become the award-winning musical, John, Paul, George, Ringo ….and Bert.  

In 1974, it was put on at Liverpool's Everyman Theatre with Barbara on stage for the entire show, singing Beatles' songs at the piano. The show was an instant success and after an extended run in Liverpool, it transferred to London's West End for a highly successful year.

There the show was seen by music impresario Robert Stigwood, who signed Barbara to his record label, and in 1976 she enjoyed her first UK hit with the single Answer Me. Thereafter, she became a familiar face on British television.

Then Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice invited her to sing on the studio recording of their new musical Evita, and the subsequent single, Another Suitcase In Another Hall, released in 1977, became a huge hit.

Barbara signed to CBS Records in 1978, and more hit records followed, including the LPs The Barbara Dickson Album and the chart-topping All For A Song which consolidated her status as a major recording artist.

In 1983 Barbara took on her first major acting role and won rave reviews in the Willy Russell musical, Blood Brothers, which again opened in Liverpool. The show earned her a West End transfer and the first of many Best Actress awards.

After recording folk hits in the early 1990s, including  Don't Think Twice It's All Right in 1992, Barbara focused increasingly on acting, with parts on radio and television, including a guest role in the crime series, Taggart. In 1995 she won universal acclaim for the role of Anita Braithwaite in the TV drama series Band Of Gold, so popular that it ran for three seasons.

Then it was back to the theatre in her own award-winning one-woman show The Seven Ages Of Woman. 

In 1999 she enjoyed yet another triumph on the London stage with the lead role of Viv Nicholson in the musical Spend, Spend, Spend. 

More recently, Barbara has had further success with The Platinum Collection CD for Sony, following this with a sell-out return season in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers at the Liverpool Empire.

She has received many plaudits over the years, including:

  • 6 platinum, 11 gold and 7 silver albums
  • The Society Of West End Theatres Award for Best Actress In A Musical for her role as Mrs. Johnstone in Blood Brothers 
  • 2 Olivier Best Actress Awards for her roles in Blood Brothers and Spend, Spend, Spend
  • Best Actress In Theatre at the Liverpool Echo Arts & Entertainment Awards for the production of The Seven Ages of Woman in 1997
  • Best Actress in a Musical at the Critics' Circle Awards in 1999
  • Variety Club of Great Britain Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role in Spend, Spend, Spend 
  • And in the 2002 New Year's Honours List, she was awarded an OBE by the Queen for her services to music and drama

Despite receiving accolades across such a broad range of activity, Barbara's first love remains folk singing, with the acknowledged primary influences on her professional life being the American folk-singer James Taylor with his 'boundless creativity', and the Scottish folk-singer Archie Fisher.  

Archie Fisher well remembers those days in the late 60s. He recalls how at student parties, with music in every room, Barbara would always head for the superior acoustics afforded by the bathroom, thereby guaranteeing that she and guitarist Jack Beck would become the hub of the party.

He also remembers an occasion from a few years later:

We were all relatively poor, struggling singers, struggling mainly to find the price of a pint in the renowned Edinburgh musician's bar Sandy Bell's, when a guitar-carrying Barbara crashed in through the two swing doors announcing that she had a gig in Linlithgow but didn't have the train fare to get there ... Amid promises of prompt repayment we had a whip round at the bar and sent her on her way ... but before the doors swung closed on her exit we heard her call out "Taxi" ... The communally exchanged look from her contributors said "She's bound for glory" ...    They were right.

Now a devoted mother of three, Barbara spends as much time as possible at home in Lincolnshire with her three boys: Colm, Gabriel, and Archie, and her husband Oliver Cookson. 

She resolutely avoids the celebrity life, preferring the solitude offered by rural Northumberland or the Lake District in the winter months. She is so un-Diva-like as to describe herself as 'a folk-singer who just got lucky'.  

Barbara Dickson is one of the most talented and versatile performers in the UK today, and undoubtedly has many career highlights yet to come. She attracts universal admiration but the people of Liverpool have a special claim on her, a claim which Barbara is more than happy to acknowledge. 

Liverpool is in her blood.

Thus I have pleasure in presenting Barbara Dickson, OBE, outstanding singer, actress, songwriter, presenter, and adopted daughter of our City, for admission to our highest honour of Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University.