Barbara Lynn: Electrifying R&B Pioneer

Barbara Lynn: Electrifying R&B Pioneer

Written by Anne E. Johnson

There was never anything ordinary about Barbara Lynn. A Black woman playing electric guitar professionally in 1960s Texas was extraordinary enough. And her technique was surprising: she plucked the melody with her thumb while strumming with her index finger, all with her left hand because she was a southpaw. Oh, and she wrote and performed her own songs, which women rarely got a chance to do back then. Barbara Lynn, now 80, was a maverick and a pioneer in many ways, and it’s important to acknowledge her.

She was born Barbara Lynn Ozen to Creole parents in Beaumont, TX in 1942. Music filled her life from childhood, whether singing in church or playing piano and guitar at home. She loved the old blues of Guitar Slim and the new rock and roll of a young guy named Elvis Presley. While a teenager, she started her own all-female band, Bobby Lynn and Her Idols, which played around the area and won some talent contests.

It didn’t take long for her to attract the keen ear of record producer Huey P. Meaux, known as the “Crazy Cajun.” He produced her first and only big hit, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” Lynn had written it at age 19, after breaking up with her boyfriend. For her, songwriting came as naturally as thinking about her own life. That single pushed Ray Charles out of the No. 1 spot in the R&B charts, an incredible accomplishment in 1962.

It then charted at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, which is arguably even more amazing. Of the other 99 songs on that list, only one other was written by a woman without a male songwriting partner: “I Know (You Don’t Love Me Anymore)” by another Black R&B singer, Barbara George.

The success of “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” spawned an album of the same name on Jamie Records, produced by Meaux. The only two tracks she didn’t write were by Meaux and bluesman Jimmy Reed, respectively. One of her originals is “You Don’t Sleep at Night,” which nicely demonstrates her gritty, heartfelt vocal style and interesting use of rhythm in her lyrics. Although the in-house horns are not exactly Muscle Shoals quality, their syncopated chords do add a layer of excitement.

Her next release on Jamie Records was Sister of Soul, which fans of the Rolling Stones should be grateful for as the source for the song “Oh Baby (We’ve Got a Good Thing Goin’)” on their 1965 album The Rolling Stones, Now! Aretha Franklin recorded it, too.

Sister of Soul seems to be gone without a trace in its original form. I even tried the New York Public Library’s massive research archives of recorded sound. Happily, though, the award-winning CD Barbara Lynn – The Jamie Singles includes everything that was on it, plus the first album and other tracks that were only singles. Among those is “Dedicate the Blues to Me.” The sound quality is unfortunate, but the songs are great.

In 1967, Lynn’s career took a promising step forward when she signed with Atlantic Records. Her relationship with Atlantic started on a positive note with the 1968 release of Here Is Barbara Lynn.

Although Meaux came along to produce, there were striking differences between her new studio situation and the one at Jamie. For one thing, only half of this album is written by her, with the rest of the songs provided by a successful R&B writing team who also worked for Sun Records and elsewhere: Bob McRee and the brothers Cliff and Ed Thomas, whose sister Barbara Thomas often joined them, although not on this album.

McRee and the Thomas brothers also acted as arrangers. The increased studio budget is obvious on the slick production of the song “Multiplying Pain.”

Unfortunately, the label was not committed to promoting Lynn, so her first Atlantic record was also her last. Frustrated, and having recently married, she decided to focus instead on raising a family. Except for occasional live appearances, she was out of the music scene for nearly 20 years. But she wasn’t finished. After her husband passed away, she started recording again.

In 1988 Ichiban Records released You Don’t Have to Go. The track list consists mainly of old songs by Meaux and Jimmy Reed. Three of the songs are by Lynn, including “Sugar Coated Love,” in an unabashedly retro blues arrangement. The skilled harmonica player is uncredited, sadly.

Another of the small labels she worked with in this period was Bullseye Blues Records, which put out So Good in 1993. This one is fully orchestrated, with Keg Johnson, Jr. conducting an impressive lineup of Memphis-based session musicians.

Lynn is in fine voice and feisty attitude for “You’re the Man.” Its funky treatment is helped along by Ron Levy on organ.

Don Smith of Antone’s Records ended up producing Lynn’s 2000 album, Hot Night Tonight. He loved her guitar playing. In an interview following its release, Lynn gave Blues Access a candid glimpse into just how DIY her music career has been: “Don had me play on every song, and when I couldn’t figure out the chords because I don’t read music, one of the musicians would show me where to put my fingers.” There’s a reason she made up a unique way of plucking the guitar with her thumb: she never had any lessons. But the techniques she figured out on her own certainly worked for her.

Smith respected that. “Don let me be me in the studio,” she said in that same interview. You can hear her comfort level – and the resulting musical freedom – on her mostly instrumental composition, “Lynn’s Blues”:

Lynn hasn’t made a new album since 2004, when she released Movin’ on a Groove – Blues and Soul Situation on Dialtone Records. Most of the tracks are re-recordings of her old songs, with new arrangements. The co-producers are Dennis Wall, best known for his work in the jazz realm, and blues historian and Dialtone founder Eddie Stout.

Five of the songs on the album are new Lynn pieces, among them “I’m Not Doing Nothing Wrong.” While Lynn’s voice is breathier than in her younger years, she still has a powerful, soulful delivery. Venerable session saxophone player Kaz Kazanoff deserves a nod for his contribution.

While she doesn’t record or perform much anymore, Lynn has been honored with several lifetime achievement awards in the past decade for her inspirational pioneering spirit in music. Her most noteworthy accolade is the National Heritage Fellowship, which she received in 2018 from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is, indeed, a national treasure.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Masahiro Sumori.

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