Barbe studied at the Berlin School of Church Music (Berliner Kirchenmusikschule) where he was taught by Gottfried Grote and Ernst Pepping. Between 1952 and 1975 he was the Cantor at the church St. Nikolai in Berlin's Spandau quarter. After this he took a post as a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts in what was at that time East Berlin.
In 1956 Barbe premiered his musical "Hallelujah Billy" at the German Evangelical Church Assembly in Frankfurt am Main. This led commentators to identify him as a pioneer of contemporary worship music, in German Neues Geistliches Lied (NGL, literally: new spiritual song).
- Prof. Ernst Lange. "Halleluja, Billy Ein christliches Musical in 5 Akten von Ernst Lange, mit Songs von Helmut Barbe. Textliche Bearbeitung: Klaus Stolzmann" (PDF). Theater am Lindenhofe e.V., Hannover. Retrieved 3 June 2015.[permanent dead link]
- René Frank (2003). Adaption von Gospelgesängen. Das neue geistliche Lied: neue Impulse für die Kirchenmusik. Tectum Verlag, Marburg. p. 54. ISBN 978-3-8288-8573-8.