As a multi-million selling recording artist with an equally impressive Olivier Award winning acting career, Barbara Dickson OBE has firmly established herself as one of the most enduring and popular artistes in Britain today.
Born in Dunfermline, Scotland, Barbara’s love of music was evident from an early age – she began studying piano at the age of five and by twelve had also taken up the guitar. She developed an interest in folk music whilst at school which led to floor spots singing at her local folk club. After relocating to Edinburgh, she went on to combine a day job in the Civil Service whilst steadily pursuing her first love, music, in local pubs and clubs.
The watershed moment came in 1968 when, after being refused leave from her job for an overseas singing engagement, Barbara resigned, determined to pursue a career for herself in the burgeoning folk scene of the late ‘60’s.
The next few years saw her gradually ‘paying her dues’ on the Scottish and English folk circuit, steadily building a reputation and working with the likes of Billy Connolly, Gerry Rafferty, Rab Noakes and Archie Fisher. Early folk albums, which she recorded for Trailer and Decca Records, were well received.
Barbara readily admits that she would have been happy to continue her life as a travelling folk musician, but a meeting with an old friend, musician and playwright Willy Russell, in Liverpool in the early 70s was to change the course of her career completely.
Willy offered Barbara the role of the musician/ singer in his 1974 Beatles’ musical ‘John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Bert’, staged at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre. She was on stage throughout the entire performance singing the songs of The Beatles alongside a cast which included Antony Sher, Bernard Hill and Trevor Eve.
The show was a huge success and after a sell-out Liverpool season it transferred to London’s West End After seeing Barbara’s performance in the show, impresario Robert Stigwood, the head of RSO Records, signed her to his label.
Her first hit single, ‘Answer Me’, was released early in 1976 and a guest residency on the BBC’s hugely successful ‘The Two Ronnies’ show later that year brought Barbara into the homes of more than 15 million viewers on Saturday evenings.
A move to the CBS record label brought further hit singles including ‘Caravans’ and ‘January, February’ and ‘The Barbara Dickson Album’ in 1980 provided her with her first gold album.
By 1982, regular TV appearances and sold-out tours had cemented her status as one of the UK’s most popular female vocalists. Her ‘All for a Song’ album that year was certified platinum and went on to spend almost a year on the album chart.
A return to the theatre in Willy Russell’s new musical, ‘Blood Brothers,’ in 1983 was to mark Barbara’s debut as a stage actress. As with ‘John Paul George Ringo… and Bert’ nine years previously, the show transferred from Liverpool to London and in the process earned her the ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ award from the Society of West End Theatres.
In 1985 Barbara’s single ‘I Know Him So Well,’ recorded with Elaine Paige and taken from the musical ‘Chess’, was released. It reached Number One in the UK and went on to become a Top Ten hit around the world, eventually selling over 900,000 copies.
Further hits followed, but in the early 1990’s Barbara began to move away from pop and back towards her roots in folk and acoustic music.
Her 1992 collection of Bob Dylan songs, ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,’ was followed by the albums ‘Parcel of Rogues’ and ‘Dark End of the Street’, which combined traditional music with tracks by some of Barbara’s favourite songwriters, including Randy Newman, Sandy Denny and Jackson Browne.
The ‘90’s also saw Barbara beginning to diversify more into acting, with major roles on TV including ‘Taggart’, Kay Mellor’s ‘Band of Gold’ and ‘The Missing Postman’. On stage, ‘The Seven Ages of Woman’ won Barbara the 1997 Liverpool Echo ‘Best Actress in Theatre’ Award and in 2000 she won her second Olivier award for her role as the infamous 1960’s pools winner, Viv Nicholson, in the musical ‘Spend Spend Spend’.
She was awarded an OBE from Her Majesty the Queen in 2002 for Services to Music and Drama.
In 2004 Barbara released her first studio album for nine years, ‘Full Circle’, produced and arranged by Troy Donockley. It was widely acclaimed as a long-awaited return to her musical roots, with the Daily Telegraph noting: “it is no exaggeration to describe Barbara as a great singer. She stood out a mile among the Scottish folk singers of her generation, and she has consistently shown her class when performing for a wider public. This is Dickson at her most engaging.”
Having established a successful working partnership with Troy Donockley, Barbara has gone on to record several albums with him in recent years, further exploring the music of the British Isles which she loves as well as songs from her ‘shirt box’ that she has always wanted to record.
Their tribute to Gerry Rafferty, ‘To Each & Everyone,’ saw a return to the album charts with ‘Folk Words’ echoing the views of many in its review: “if you ever mourned this lady departing the folk world for wider musical shores then this is what you’ve been waiting for all these years… glorious.”
Barbara was bestowed with a lifetime achievement ‘Tartan Clef’ award by Nordoff-Robbins Scotland in 2012 and in 2016 was honoured to receive the Variety Club of Scotland Outstanding Scottish Achievement award.
Her autobiography, ‘A Shirt Box Full of Songs,’ was published in paperback in 2017. She has presented several radio series for BBC Radio Scotland in recent years exploring folk and roots music, and has performed at and co-presented the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.
She continues to tour the UK with her full band as well as playing more intimate acoustic shows and festivals alongside her long-time keyboard player, Nick Holland with whom she has also undertaken several tours of Ireland in recent years.
An appearance at the Big Stone Celtic festival in Virginia in 2014 led to an invitation to return to play again for American audiences two year later.
In 2017, Barbara narrated the acclaimed ‘Ballads of Child Migration’, the success of which led to a major UK tour the following year, closely followed by a tour of ‘Far, Far From Ypres’, the award-winning story of the Scottish war effort during the First World War.
Recent collaborations include an array of leading figures from the music scene, including Sam Lee, Rab Noakes and Emily Smith.
2020 saw the release of Barbara's revised and updated autobiography as well as a new studio album, 'Time Is Going Faster,' the 25th of her career. The album featured brand new songs written by Barbara especially for the project, together with tracks by Gerry Rafferty, Willy Russell and traditional material reworked for the album. Several of the tracks were included in her first online concert, 'Ballads and Blether,' which streamed live in March 2021, which was followed by a CD and DVD release of the show.
Following her move back to Scotland, Barbara now lives in Edinburgh with her husband, Oliver, and a floating population of three sons, Colm, Gabriel and Archie. She is an Ambassador for Alzheimer's awareness at Nordoff-Robbins Scotland and Patron of both Fife Headway and the Fife Society for the Blind.
Whilst Barbara remains modest about her many achievements, with seventeen Platinum and Gold albums to her name she remains Scotland’s biggest-selling female singer of all time.
Billy Connolly says of Barbara, “from the very first time I heard her, her voice just nailed me to the wall. She’s just a one-off.” The accolades she has received over the years undoubtedly recognise that Barbara has been touched with a gift that is of great importance to her and, more importantly, to her audience.
“Singing is not,” she says, “about technique but what is in your heart. That is the secret”.