else's voice sounded like my voice at the time," muses Barbara Lewis
today when asked what set her brand of pop-soul apart from anyone
else's in the 1960s. "My voice wasn't better,
it was just different." It was certainly good, though, especially
combined with some of the most melodic and romantic tunes of the
period, whether written by herself or top Brill Building
songwriters. Her self-penned 1963 #3 hit "Hello Stranger" remains
her signature piece, but while "Baby I'm Yours" and "Make Me Your Baby"
(which both just missed the Top Ten in 1965) are also oldies radio
staples, she recorded many fine tracks for Atlantic Records over the
course of the 1960s. This two-CD compilation is the first to assemble
both sides of all seventeen of her singles for the label between 1962
Though she'd been
writing songs since the age of nine, Lewis began her recording career
almost as an accident. "I was not even going into music," she reflects.
"I was going to be a nurse." But then her father found out that Ann
Arbor radio DJ Ollie McLaughlin was looking for songs for a new star
McLaughlin was managing, Del Shannon. So "mom says, 'you know what
might be fun, why don't we put some on tape and take it out to Mr.
McLaughlin and see if he'd be interested in any of them for Del?' We
didn't even have a tape recorder. I borrowed my cousin's old
reel-to-reel. Ollie McLaughlin liked them and said, 'You got any more?'
I did a few more, and then he said, 'I'm thinking about recording
you.'" Though her debut single first came out on McLaughlin's Karen
label (named after his daughter), it was picked up by Atlantic, which
would issue her recordings for the next six years.
In spite – or, to some degree, because – of Ann Arbor's proximity to Detroit's burgeoning soul scene, most of Lewis's early sessions were produced by McLaughlin in Chicago. "If I'd gone to Detroit, perhaps I would have gotten somehow involved with Berry Gordy and his [Motown] label there," Barbara speculates. McLaughlin, her manager as well as producer, "probably just wanted to start his own business branch. He had a dream of becoming another Berry Gordy." He made a pretty fair go of it, also producing hits by the Capitols and Deon Jackson.
With her own compositions supplying the material on her first releases, it took a while for Lewis and McLaughlin to hit their stride. The early 45s "My Heart Went Do Da Da" (written while Lewis was babysitting) and "My Mama Told Me" had similarities to efforts by early-'60s girl groups like the Shirelles and Marvelettes; for "My Mama Told Me," in fact, "I was thinking of one of the Shirelles songs, and that idea came to me. I can't remember which one." But her third single, "Hello Stranger," sounded like nothing else on the market in 1963. Putting her sensuous vocals to backup harmonies by the Dells, as well as a bossa nova-flavored beat and vibrant organ, it became one of the biggest hits of the year.
"I got the title 'Hello Stranger' because my dad would be on the tractor, talking to the neighbor: 'Hey stranger, how you doin'?'" Lewis explains. "That's where the whole story of 'Hello Stranger' came from. Of course, people think it was a love song, so that's fine." The Dells, that effervescent organ, and a Latin-spiced groove would also be featured on some of her best early B-sides, like "Think a Little Sugar" and "Spend a Little Time." But of the singles to follow in 1963 and 1964, only "Puppy Love" managed to dent the Top Forty. When "Someday We're Gonna Love Again" made the Top Forty (and #11 in the UK), it was via a cover by Merseybeat stars the Searchers; it and "Hello Stranger"'s follow-up, "Straighten Up Your Heart," were written by Sharon McMahan, whom Barbara remembers as a teenage friend of a friend of her and McLaughlin's.
Although Lewis's own songs were often featured on her early releases, in the mid-1960s there was a shift to outside material by top Brill Building songwriters, starting with "Pushin' a Good Thing Too Far" (co-written by Four Seasons producer Bob Crewe) in late 1964. Starting with 1965's "Baby, I'm Yours," her sessions often took place in New York, "probably because I was on Atlantic, and that's where Atlantic was. So Ollie probably wanted to use the Atlantic studios." With lush orchestration, arrangement input from legendary Big Apple producer-songwriter Bert Berns, and backup vocals by the Sweet Inspirations (among them Cissy Houston, mother of Whitney), Van McCoy's "Baby I'm Yours" soared to #11 in 1965, though Barbara was initially resistant to even recording it.
"That's probably the first time I spoke up and told my manager I did not like the song," she reveals. "And [Ollie] said, ,'But it's a great song. Atlantic likes it, we gotta do it.' I said to myself, 'If I don't do the best I can on this song, they won't release it, and I can be through with it.' So I didn't really put 100% into my vocal performance. The band track was excellent. Ollie told me, 'Barbara, we're gonna have to go back to Detroit and dub you in. We gotta do your vocals over. You're just not giving like you should on the song.' We did several takes, and he was wondering, 'How am I going to get this girl to give? She's so hard-headed.' He said, 'You know, Barbara, Karen can sing that song better than you'. That was his little daughter. And it pissed me off. I did one more take, and that was the take that they selected. Maybe I had to be in a specific mindset in order to get whatever he was looking for."
Laughs Lewis, "When it became a hit, you couldn't tell me that wasn't a good song. Of course it was!" Incidentally, McCoy (the same Van McCoy who became a disco star with "The Hustle" in the 1970s) also wrote material (including the 1964 hit "Giving Up") for a pre-Motown Gladys Knight, hailed by Barbara as "always my favorite singer."
Bert Berns was also involved with her next two singles, both favorites of Barbara's. "Make Me Your Baby," like "Baby I'm Yours," peaked at #11, and is likewise one of the finest orchestrated slices of New York pop-soul. Gerry Goffin and Carole King's "Don't Forget About Me," however, barely made the Top Hundred, and though Berns was still aboard for "Make Me Belong to You," that missed the charts altogether. The latter song was co-written by Chip Taylor (most famous for "Wild Thing" and "Angel of the Morning") with a young Billy Vera, then twenty years away from his #1 hit "At This Moment" (and part of an interracial recording duo with Judy Clay). "That boy could sing his little hips off," Lewis remembers fondly. "It was new back then – 'what's this white boy doing sounding like that?'"
Top New York names like Berns, Arif Mardin, and Artie Butler continued to work on the production side of subsequent Atlantic singles. She continued to memorably interpret the work of top songwriters like Howard Greenfield (frequent collaborator with Neil Sedaka), who co-wrote "I'll Make Him Love Me" with Helen Miller (who'd co-penned "Make Me Your Baby"); Rose Marie McCoy (co-author of "I Remember the Feeling," and co-composer of Ike & Tina Turner's "It's Gonna Work Out Fine"); Rudy Clark (responsible for "Fool, Fool, Fool," though most famous for Betty Everett's "The Shoop Shoop Song (It's in His Kiss)"); and "Only All the Time" co-writer J.J. Jackson (who had a big soul hit of his own in 1966 with "But It's Alright").
But though her musical assets remained intact, Lewis would only reach the lower part of the charts a couple of more times before her final Atlantic 45 in 1968, though her last single for the label, "You're a Dream Maker," was one of her best (and rarest). A short stint on Stax Records' Enterprise subsidiary followed, and she still performs and writes today, making her home near Orlando, Florida. But the bulk of her recordings bore the Atlantic label, no matter who the songwriters or producers were.
Barbara was able to place one of her own compositions on her next-to-last Atlantic 45, "Thankful for What I Got," which she likes because "that is me. Because I'm thankful for what I got. I look at what I have, which isn't any more than anyone else. And I'm so thankful for what I got. You gotta remember, I hadn't planned on going into music to begin with. I've had a chance to do some great songs. I'm so blessed I came out in the era when I was able to sing, be appreciated." – Richie Unterberger
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