He experienced extremes of success and failure, and as a young gay man escaped to London from his father and his father's lifestyle.
Barnes was born in a bedroom above his father's butcher's shop at number 219 Great Lister Street, Saltley, Birmingham, England.
Aged ten, after seeing Vesta Tilley, first visiting her sister who lived close to the shop, and later playing the lead in Dick Whittington at the Prince of Wales Theatre, Fred became interested in the stage. In 1906, while playing the Duke of Solihull in Cinderella at the Alexandra Theatre, he acquired his first agent and attracted the attention of another Birmingham-born music hall artist, George Lashwood, who, in Fred's own words, "took me in hand... [placed] at my disposal, free and unasked, the lessons of his long and brilliant career". Following Cinderella's fourteen week run Fred first performed in London, with fellow cast members "The Eight Lancashire Lads", but found himself playing the hated first slot on the bills. However, this was to change when he tried out a new song, "The Black Sheep of the Family", at the Hackney Empire in 1907. It was a huge success and was to remain Fred's most popular song. As Fred says in his account of his life (How success ruined me), his name was "made in a single night". By 1911 he was top of the bill on all of the major circuits and principal boy in a number of pantomimes.
In 1913 his father committed suicide. Two weeks later, Barnes performed at the Birmingham Hippodrome, "a place full of memories of my father. To this day I don't know how I got through that week".
Following his father's death Fred's career continued to improve. In an Era interview in 1914 he stated that he had no vacant dates for the next three years and held contacts for the next ten. It was then that his personal problems, namely spending and drinking too much, began. He attributed these to dealing with both the death of his father and his new found success and popularity. The large sums of money he was earning and which he inherited led him to begin spending extravagantly - a habit he found hard to break when he was no longer earning any money. But it was drinking which was to ruin Fred's career. He missed performances, went on stage incapable of singing or dancing and generally put less and less care into his performances. This led to his being moved down the bills until he was finally back at first turn. Managers grew wary of him and soon his outstanding contracts were paid off and he was without work altogether.
During the 1920s Fred was arrested (and sentenced to one month in jail) for driving while drunk, in a dangerous manner and without a licence. Following the arrest, Fred, deemed a "menace to His Majesty's fighting forces" (almost certainly because of the topless sailor who had been travelling with him at the time of the accident), was banned from attending the Royal Tournament, an annual military tattoo; he returned each year and each year successfully evaded discovery.
He was also open about his sexuality, and was one of the well-known "twanks" of his period, unsurprisingly since he was known to pick up sailors and guardsmen in his Rolls-Royce.
It is for these reasons rather than his musical achievements (he only made ten recordings during his career), that only two biographies exist.
By the mid 1930s Fred was suffering from tuberculosis. His failing health led him and his lover and manager John Senior to move to Southend-on-Sea. By this time any work consisted of playing the piano in pubs while John collected tips. Luckily for Fred and John a past manager, Charles Ashmead Watson, paid their rent, lighting and clothing costs, as well as giving them a weekly allowance of 30 shillings. Fred had made a number of attempts to return to the stage, most of which were unsuccessful; a final job in the summer of 1938, playing his songs in the lounge of a local hotel, restored some of his confidence in his own ability. But by that winter he could no longer live with the pain he constantly suffered; Two and a half years after he was told he had only three months to live, Fred Barnes committed suicide.
When the jury at the inquest into Fred's death commented that Watson had been 'wonderful' to Fred, he replied 'He was a great man'. He was not the only person who thought so. Naomi Jacob said 'he had one of the kindest hearts in the world. Moreover he was a fine artist and no mean dancer'. An Era interviewer in 1911 commented on his 'singularly pleasing popularity'. Fred's funeral on the second of July 1938, was attended by hundreds; The St Saviour's Churchyard and nearby streets crowded with mourners.
He was free with facts in interviews and in his own account of his life; his numerous publicity stunts which included announcements of his 'near-death' in a fire and a fake marriage. His appearance, he was known to walk around London at the height of his success with a marmoset perched on his shoulder (later, playing the pubs in Southend-on-Sea, he made do with a chicken).
Paul Bailey Three Queer Lives, Penguin, 2002.
Anthony Barker Music Hall magazine, issue MH30.
http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/76281 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography] (includes photo)