BARBARA LYNN: MUSIC ON MY MIND
carolyn pennypacker riggs
Barbara Lynn came out of Beaumont, Texas, with her left-handed guitar and a song about an ex called “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” that pushed Ray Charles out of the #1 spot on the R&B chart. She’s a soul legend for about six reasons at once and she’ll be performing with Wild’s Gizzelle and more this Friday and Sunday. Clifton Weaver (of Funky Sole and Aquarium Drunkard’s awesome Clifton’s Corner) interviewed her with some help from Nick Waterhouse.
At what moment did you know that you wanted to make music? I’ve read that John Lennon knew when he saw Elvis that he wanted to play music for a living.
When I was a young girl, I started writing poems and putting them to music. Then I wanted to play the keyboard but after my mother done bought me a piano, I realized—after I took lessons—that I didn’t wanna play that piano. I wanted to play the guitar! Cuz after I’d seen Elvis Presley, I knew I did! That really motivated me more. And B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Gatemouth Brown, Dusty Springfield, Connie Frances—songs like that. There were just so many young girls I liked and a lot of country and western singers too. I just really had music on my mind.
Do you remember the first record that you bought?
I’ve got to say Jimmy Reed. I was really into his style. In fact on one of my albums—I’m doing ‘You Don’t Have To Go.’
My dad’s a huge Jimmy Reed fan. I grew up on his music. What’s your all time favorite album?
I’d have to say Johnny Taylor—I liked his style of singing. Anything by Johnny. I had a tight band called Heavy Traffic back in the ‘80s. Every song Johnny Taylor would did I was trying to jump right on it. But he’s dead now—he died. Did you hear that Donna Summers died?
I heard that this morning—I didn’t even know she was sick. So many people have passed recently. Donald Dunn died—
We all gotta travel that route—we just don’t know when.
Were your parents supportive when you started out?
Yes—that’s why my mother went out and bought me an Arthur Godfrey ukulele. I think it was 7 dollars and 95 cents. I started teaching myself more and more by hearing music on the radio. Then I tried to teaching myself to play. If I can hear something long enough, I can play it, and that’s how I did it. They had a radio station called the Hall of Manuel and I would listen to that every evening. They played a lot of blues.
And in high school you had an all-female band?
Bobbie Lynn and her Idols—we started that at a school called Blanchard Elementary School.
Was that unusual? An all-female rock n roll band playing rhythm and blues?
In and around here it certainly was! We would play a lot of talent shows and record hops and we would win them all! Then I was playing the solid-body guitar—something like Elvis was playing. And boy, I’d have all the kids coming around me during lunch time and I was just singin’ for ‘em—until the teachers would tell us it was time to go back in. At that time, they didn’t have a young black girl playing a left-handed guitar. I was one of the first young black girls around here to sing and play left hand guitar. It really got over good.
Was it unusual for a young girl to like Elvis then too?
Yes, indeed—in fact I was in a way sorta wearing my hair like Elvis. But I wouldn’t do that again now, Lord! But at the time I was trying to shape my hair like Elvis Presley. Of course—when I got older I was still into the music. I finished high school and that’s when my father said I was going to college, but I really wasn’t into it then. I wanted to do some songs. Write music! That manager Huey Meaux came to me—
Oh, I wanted to ask—what was your first impression of Huey Meaux?
He heard of me—this black girl playing left-handed guitar and how she can sing! I was working across the state line from here in the state of Louisiana which wasn’t far from here. The club was called the Palomino Lounge and I would play there and them white people enjoyed me so much they had to rebook me back. That’s when Joe Barry, a country-and-western singer, saw me and he went back and told Huey Meaux, ‘Man, I just seen a young black girl playing left-handed guitar and she can sing!’ So Huey said, ‘Well, OK—let’s get over there! If she lives in Beaumont, we might could cut her a record deal.’ Which is what happened. But my father wanted me to go to college. He said, ‘If you don’t make a hit record on the first one, you’re going to college.’ I said, ‘OK—that’s a deal.’ But my first song was ‘If You Lose Me, You’ll Lose A Good Thing.’ A hit record!
That was about your ex-boyfriend Stank—who exactly was Stank?
Oh yes—we played in the same band together here and that’s how it got started. I heard he was going with this other girl and he lied and said that was his friend’s sister. ‘Oh, yeah, OK, right.’ And then I saw ‘em again and he said the same thing: ‘No, Barbara, no, that’s nothing.’ One time I just started crying cuz I kinda felt hurt. I came back home and then I told him, ‘You know what, Stank?’ His real name is Sylvester. ‘You know what? Stank, if you lose me, you’re gonna lose a good thing. I’m telling me.’ That title stuck in my head, and the next day I picked up my guitar and I thought … you know what? I like this title and I went on and I got some lyrics: ‘You know I love you, do anything for you …’ And it ended up being a hit record! So that was a very true song. I wanted to write my songs with feelings—like everyday life of what people were going through.
What was it like to be that young and have your first record be such a hit?
That felt so good—Lord have mercy, let me tell you.
You were on American Bandstand!
Twice—yes! When Dick was in Philadelphia.
That sounds like an amazing memory to have a hit like that. A little later you had ‘Oh Baby, We’ve Got A Good Thing Going,’ which was covered by the Rolling Stones and then later ‘I Don’t Want A Playboy,’ which was big in the Northern Soul scene. Were you aware of the popularity of your music overseas?
Huey—my manager at that time—was checking in over there. He would fly there and come back with good news—you know how ‘You’ll Lose A Good Thing’ was doing good there and how it sort of crossed over into the pop market—oh yeah! It was really amazing. When I really heard my song the first time ever on the radio here in my home, I musta run up and down the hallway I was so excited—to hear my song playing on the radio! And to hear that it had really crossed over and was steady going on in the U.K.! That’s when I was booked into Europe and Japan, and I made a big hit there too. I went to Amsterdam and I even went to New Zealand. They called me the ‘Lady B.B. King’ there because I was singing the blues and picking the blues! Especially to play in Japan—these people don’t speak English that much but they knew every word to my songs! When I was singing those songs, them people were following me. They knew the lyrics. They took me out and bought me gifts! They bought me a brand-new guitar case. They bought me a London Fog coat. They were follow-us-back-to-the-airport fans! I mean—ohhhh boy! They really enjoyed me. Then I started getting fan mail and letters from everywhere. That song took me all over the United States with people like Stevie Wonder, Pattie LaBelle, Smokey, Gladys Knight … God, the Supremes, Chuck Jackson, the Marvellettes … A lot of people.
Right now there’s a lot of newer younger artists working in that style of late 50s early 60s R&B and soul style—artists like Sharon Jones on labels like Dap Tone—
I’m tryin to get on that label now—I’m just waiting til they call me back!
What do you think of young people being into this music?
It’s very good. Some of my shows right now, I’ll do a pop song cuz I’m into so much and I love pop music as well as R&B and blues. I do a Babyface song a lotta times—one of the big songs that Babyface made. I love people like Rihanna, J Lo—all of them. All sorts of music. Country and western, too.
Duke Ellington said there’s only two types of music—good and bad. What are you currently listening to?
I’m still listening to R&B and pop music, but now we’re trying to put an album together now. My son has a recording studio in his home and he wants to record me. He has three children and already has some recordings of them, too. My son’s a rapper but his children sing. I was on Antone’s Records for years—I just did SXSW. I’m getting ready to open up for Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. That’s in about two more months.
I’ve seen the footage of you on Hoss Allen’s show The!!! Beat. That’s some of my favorite footage. It was reissued on DVD and I’ve watched that footage a million times. And Gatemouth Brown was the bandleader. I know you said you really liked him—what was it like to play with your heroes?
That was fantastic! And having that hit song … I was really … ooheeeeeeee! I enjoyed that. And you know, they advertise on Time Life Oldies like Stevie Wonder and all of them from the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, and they show me singing my song too!
WILD RECORDS PRESENTS BARBARA LYNN WITH GIZZELLE, THE HURRICANES AND THE NEUMANS PLUS DJs REB, BIG CHUY AND JASON RINGOLD ON FRI., MAY 25, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $13-$16 / 18+. ATTHEECHO.COM. AND WITH GIZZELLE, DON JUAN Y LOS BLANCOS AND THE NEUMANS ON SUN., MAY 27, AT THE OBSERVATORY, 3503 S. HARBOR BLVD., SANTA ANA. 6 PM / $15 / ALL AGES. OBSERVATORYOC.COM.