A ukulele wasn’t what the young Barbara Lynn expected.
It was an innocent mistake on the part of Lynn’s mother, who was trying to buy her young grade-school daughter a guitar. So the girl in Beaumont, Texas dutifully tried to learn how to play the instrument that made Tiny Tim famous, before switching to piano. The piano didn’t feel right, either. At church on Sundays, women always played the piano, and Lynn wanted to try something different. Her siren call was her transistor radio; in the mid-50s, the airwaves brought her the explosive voice of sultry Chicago soul and blues belter Etta James, the slurred, intoxicating guitar playing of Jimmy Reed and the plaintive, single-note phrasing of B.B. King. Those were the sounds that Barbara Lynn wanted to make, and eventually her parents relented and bought her a guitar.
Lynn’s mother and father were from Arnaudville, and every summer the young Lynn would leave Beaumont and spend her summers in Lafayette and Acadiana. “My cousin from Arnaudville, he’d teach me the guitar licks,” says Lynn in a telephone interview from her Beaumont home. “I stopped being interested in the piano and he already knew how to play the blues, and I’d always ask him to show me things on the guitar. I knew that I wanted to play this instrument. It was an odd instrument for a girl to play, but I wanted to try it. And it paid off.”
It’s still paying off. Lynn, who plays Lafayette’s Grant Street Dancehall this Friday with blues guitarist Sue Foley, dobro player Cindy Cashdollar, bassist Sarah Brown and drummer Lisa Pankratz for the season finale of Louisiana Crossroad’s eighth season, is a trailblazer who broke through in the male-dominated formative years of rock ’n’ roll. As a young African-American woman playing guitar left-handed, she conjured up images of a female Jimi Hendrix. Yet in her songs, craftsmanship and personality, Lynn has always defied labels and stereotypes in her music and the music business. She’s never smoked, drank, or done drugs. After she got married, she vanished from the music scene in the 1970s for more than a decade to raise her three children. Now at the age of 66, she’s a doting grandmother — and prepping to go into the studio next month to record a brand-new album for famed blues label Antone’s from Austin, Texas.
Lynn is also one of the most inspiring examples of the rich musical exchange between Louisiana and Texas. I-10 helped shaped the sound and careers of Clifton Chenier, Doug Kershaw, Marcia Ball, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Delbert McClinton and more, and Lynn knows that territory as well as anyone. She was a Creole girl raised in Beaumont, discovered by a renowned Cajun swamp singer and Cajun record producer, and recorded her breakthrough single in the famed New Orleans studio where Fats Domino created his biggest hits. For that and more, Lynn earned the nickname “The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul.” And she did it by rocking the world at the tender age of 20.
Girl groups such as The Crystals and The Chantelles started to become the rage in the late 1950s, with songs like The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” hitting the top of the charts. Lynn formed a girl-group of her own — Bobbie Lynn and her Idols — in grade school. She was different from her counterparts at the time in one major way. Most girl groups played cover versions of other popular songs, or in the case of groups like the Shirelles, they performed songs that producers or record executives encouraged them to sing. Lynn, however, was singing her own songs.
“Even when I was in school, I was putting words together,” she remembers. “I’d always write down words and try and make them rhyme with the next sentence. That’s when I decided to write my own songs and started to make melodies out of the writing. That’s when I knew I could maybe become a songwriter.” Lynn also wasn’t just singing sugary odes to teenage boyfriends. The one song that grabbed hold of her as a teenager, more than anything else, was Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do.” The New Orleans blues legend’s biting, anguished 1953 anthem about regret, lost love and an unfaithful lover was worlds away from standard girl-group fare like the Paris Sisters’ 1961 hit “I Love How You Love Me.” Wise beyond her years, she was playing nightclubs while her classmates were going to drive-ins.
“I had to be careful,” she told the Austin Chronicle in 2000. “If my principal at that time would have known that I was in the clubs, they probably would have thrown me out of school. It just so happens a lot of them never did find out.” Lynn was overwhelmed by the response at the band’s first paying gig in Little Rock, Ark. “People were throwing money on stage left and right,” she says. “Oh Lord, I was still in high school and couldn’t believe it.”
That’s the backdrop for a later Lynn gig at notorious Dallas, Texas, roadhouse Lou Ann’s. Cut Off native and swamp popper Joe Barry, who’d just hit No. 24 on the pop charts in 1961, was in the audience that night. “I’d already heard ‘I’m a Fool to Care’ and I was back stage at this club after the show,” Lynn remembers. “[Joe] came back and talked to me and said, ‘That was really good, have you ever thought about recording? My managers’s name is Huey Meaux.”
Manager/producer Meaux was riding a hot streak of his own. Besides Barry’s “I’m a Fool to Care,” he’d produced hits like Rod Bernard’s “This Should Go On Forever.” Lynn told her parents about the conversation with Barry, which led to Meaux traveling to Beaumont to meet Lynn’s skeptical father. Meaux asked if he could bring Lynn to New Orleans to record an album, and her dad agreed under one condition: if her first record wasn’t a hit, she had to give up her music career and go to college instead.
That’s how Lynn wound up in the Crescent City at Cosimo Matassa’s famed studio, the recording spot that birthed countless Fats Domino hits — and Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used to Do.” Lynn brought a notebook’s worth of her own songs with her, and arrived to find Joe Barry’s backing band and a young Mac Rebennack — who would later go on to fame as Dr. John — ready to help bring her songs to life. Lynn’s debut album was recorded in “just a couple of days,” Lynn says, and she headed back to Beaumont.
One of the songs Lynn recorded was “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” a sassy and defiant slow blues with a lyric that challenged a lover to straighten up or Lynn would leave him. “If you don’t believe me, just try, daddy, and you’ll lose a good thing,” Lynn sang in the chorus. It was chosen as the album’s first single.
“The very first time I heard it on the radio, I ran through the house all excited,” she remembers. “Then my phone started ringing. Things sure did change fast after that.”
Lynn read Billboard magazine every week and watched as “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” started steadily climbing up the charts. Its ascent went all the way to the No. 1 R&B slot, knocking Ray Charles’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” out of the top position. “Phone calls started coming in for bookings and I was getting in magazines and newspapers,” says Lynn. “Then Huey called and told me, ‘We’re going to American Bandstand.’”
Appearing on Dick Clark’s legendary television show was just the beginning. With “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” staying at No. 1 for nearly a month, Lynn’s touring schedule filled up quickly, and she was paired with the biggest soul and blues singers of the era, including Jackie Wilson, James Brown, B.B. King, Chuck Jackson, Al Green, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
“My mother went with me on all of those road trips,” remembers Lynn. “She’d tell all those guys, ‘My daughter doesn’t smoke or drink,’ and they all called her ‘Mother dear,’ because they heard me calling her Mother dear.” Her talent and singular focus made an impression on her older male peers.
“B.B. wrote me such a beautiful letter, saying how great I was,” says Lynn. “I’ll never forget that.”
She also showed she wasn’t a one-hit wonder, hitting the charts with subsequent R&B hits like “You’re Gonna Need Me” and “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’).” The latter song led to one of the most unexpected phone calls of her career. “Huey called me one day from his office and said that Mick Jagger was there and he wanted to talk to me. I could have fell through the floor. Mick got on and said, ‘Barbara Lynn, this is Mick Jagger, and we’re thinking about covering one of your songs. I told him, ‘You have my full permission.’”
With the royalties from the Rolling Stones’ cover of “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’),” Lynn was able to buy the house in Beaumont where she still lives. “I still get royalties from that song,” she says.
All of Lynn’s initial hits were recorded for the smaller regional Jamie label, and she appeared poised for greater success in 1967 when Meaux struck a deal for Lynn to record for powerhouse Atlantic Records — home to Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke. “All I know is I had to go in and record the album for them,” says Lynn. “I didn’t ask too many questions. Huey brought me a check, and being young and eager, it seemed like a great deal of money, and I took it.”
Hits for Atlantic proved elusive and Lynn never matched the chart-topping feat of “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” By the time she recorded one last charting song in 1972 for Atlantic, she was recently married and had young children. Feeling that she wasn’t getting the promotion and support from Atlantic that she deserved, Lynn and her husband moved to California and she stepped away from the music business.
“I was married and knew I had to slow down,” says Lynn. “I had my kids close together. I was still writing and trying to work and didn’t want to stop recording, but I had to raise my family.”
Lynn stayed out of the spotlight for more than a decade, quietly re-emerging with a tour of Japan and the release of a live album. She is revered by overseas audiences, especially European fans, who shower her with gifts like custom-made guitar cases. “When I played in New Zealand years ago, I did a two-week trip there, and it was the first time I left my children,” remembers Lynn. “I missed them terribly, but I did B.B. King’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ for that crowd, and boy, I blew ‘em out. The next day there was a front-page story and headline calling me ‘The lady B.B. King.’”
Lynn returned in earnest in the early ’90s, recording a pair of albums for respected independent label Bullseye Blues before signing with storied Austin blues label Antone’s for the 2000 album Hot Night Tonight. With its steamy title track and backing from young guns like keyboardist Ivan Neville, Hot Night Tonight showed Lynn hadn’t lost her knack for memorable songs and serious blues guitar work. The album also featured a guest appearance from one of her sons, Bachelor Wise, who’s followed in his mother’s footsteps and is pursing a rap career.
“I listen to all kinds of music,” says Lynn. “I love pop music, blues, R&B, gospel, everything. I mix a little of that in my albums now. I have seven grandchildren, and I listen to the rap on the radio that they listen to. I really find myself liking it, as long as it’s not that rambunctious type rap with profanity.” She’s especially fond of ex-Fugees singer Lauryn Hill. “I’m telling you, she should come back with another album,” says Lynn. “She’s due for another one.”
Lynn’s infectious enthusiasm for her music — and all kinds of music — is evident when she talks. She often prefaces stories with “Ooh, Lord” or “Let me tell you,” followed by a laugh. The combination of her warm personality and ongoing commitment to her craft continues to make her a favorite of concert promoters. In recent years, she’s made multiple appearances at The Ponderosa Stomp, the New Orleans music festival that honors and showcases the unsung pioneers of rock ’n’ roll, blues, rockabilly, soul and R&B.
“The man [from Ponderosa Stomp] was trying to find me for years,” she says. “I answered the phone one day and he asked me, ‘Is this Barbara Lynn?’ I told him yes, and he said, ‘I’d like for you to come to New Orleans to play, and if you do, I promise you that you’ll get steady work in New Orleans.’ And he did not lie — I keep going to New Orleans.”
At the Ponderosa Stomp, Lynn’s been able to reconnect with some of her peers. “It was so great to see Clarence Carter again, and Percy Sledge, and Archie Bell and the Drells,” says Lynn. And for her Ponderosa Stomp appearances, she’s usually backed by a band that includes Lafayette blues guitar icon Lil’ Buck Sinegal.
“I have to have Lil’ Buck with me,” she says. “He knows all Barbara Lynn’s old songs. All he needs to know is what key it’s in. And he’s such a friendly guy. Lil’ Buck saw me growing up all around Lafayette, and he knows my style. As a matter of fact, he’s backing me up in Chicago for a show I have coming up at the Chicago Blues Festival.”
At her live shows, longtime Lynn fans ask her to sign copies of her original albums and 45 rpm singles; they know that she’s female royalty and part of the living history of one of rock ’n’ roll’s golden eras. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul and Irma Thomas is the Soul Queen of New Orleans, and Barbara Lynn earned her nickname as the Empress of Gulf Coast Soul.
And she’s still being discovered by younger generations — electronic music superstar Moby recently sampled Lynn’s song “I’m a Good Woman.” “Yes, indeed, was I excited about that,” exclaims Lynn. “I got a call from a man one day who asked me, ‘Have you ever heard of a guy named Moby?’ I said no, and he said, ‘Well, he’s really big and he just sampled your song, so you’re going to be making some money.’”
Lynn’s currently prepping material for when she heads back into the studio next month to record her new album for Antone’s. And more than half a century after her first gigs, she still gets excited about playing live — just ask her about her Louisiana Crossroads gig in Lafayette this Friday.
“Sue Foley, that girl can play,” says Lynn. “Sarah Brown, she’s so smooth on that bass, she can stand up there and just wail on it. I’m going to try to do my level best to play what the audience expects out of me and talk about myself. I hope they’ll enjoy me, because I always enjoy playing for my audiences.”
Louisiana Crossroads Season 8 Finale: Barbara Lynn, Sue Foley, Cindy Cashdollar, Sarah Brown and Lisa Pankratz
Wednesday, March 12, Central School Theater,
Lake Charles, 7 p.m.
Thursday, March 13, 2008, Manship Theatre, Baton Rouge, 7 p.m.
Friday, March 14, 2008 Grant Street Dancehall, Lafayette, 8 p.m.
For more info or to purchase tickets, visit LouisianaCrossroads.org or call (337) 233-7060.
Ponderosa Stomp, April 29-30, New Orleans (for more info, visit www.ponderosastomp.com)