Friday, September 16, 2011

Locomoted & Mashed Up

Ren Grevatt was ranting, in April '61, about the girl singers who so much as dared to put their names on the Hot 100 list while even enjoying, »interestingly enough«, their first hits (see previous post).  He singled out some of those phenomena and mentioned Carla Thomas and Mary Wells, among others. Now, he couldn't have in- cluded Barbara Lewis in his list, because her first-hit chart entry was still two years away (famously enough, it was »Hello Stranger« in spring 1963).
And Barbara Lewis certainly was a phenomenon! Her hobbies were drawing, painting, writing and singing folk songs (!), according to Billboard's »Artists' Biographies« (May 18, 1963, page 12), and she composed numerous songs and played several instru- ments, guitar and piano among them. (Billboard got that much right but gave a wrong birth date, the correct one being Feb. 9, 1943 ...). However, in her versatility and in being an instrumentalist and composer besides being a singer Barbara Lewis reminds me much of another »chick artist« who made herself a name at around the same time: Barbara Lynn. (Ask the higher powers whether the similarities of their respective names are pure coincidence!). Although Lynn, Texas-born, was the grittier singer, both her and Lewis started their promising careers on one huge hit and were never again able to repeat that initial success. And Lewis was taken over by Atlantic from a local Detroit label right at the beginning, while the New York label invested in Lynn only from 1967 onwards. However, similarities aplenty!

Lynn first climbed the charts in June '62 with her classic »You'll Lose A Good Thing« shortly after Lewis had her first single out on Atlantic (# 2141: »My Heart Went Do Dat Da« / »The Longest Night Of The Year«); Atlantic had bought the master from Karen (owned by Lewis's manager Ollie McLaughlin) when the original 45rpm (Karen # 313) sold strongly in Detroit. In July '62, Barbara Lewis recorded another single in Chicago, »Gonna Love You Till The End Of Time« w/ »My Mamma Told Me« (Atlantic # 2159). Her second single didn't chart either, but the next one would: »Hello Stranger«, Lewis's signature tune and arguably one of the best-known songs of the '60s. The exceptional success of this song (r&b # 1, pop # 3) then prompted Atlantic to release Lewis's first album in July '63. It was the classic trick of putting an album out in the wake of one big hit, and the cover does advertise this fact in desirable clarity.

Yet this LP is not the typical »first album« and it does not offer one hit plus eleven fillers. For once, all twelve songs on the album are self-penned (»This album could easily be called Barbara Lewis sings Barbara Lewis, but we are calling it Hello Stranger since this was the smash hit which so recently made the name of Barbara Lewis known from coast to coast« wrote Ollie McLaughlin on the back cover. And, he goes on to say, »All of the songs in this album were written by Barbara Lewis, which is unusual for someone at the age of nineteen ... Barbara was inspired at a very early age and began writing songs at the age of nine. She now has more than thirty to her credit«). Moreover, the LP does include her former singles released in '62.

Side 1 contains, therefore, her second Atlantic single, »Gonna Love You Till The End Of Time« w/ »My Mamma Told Me«. When it was first released, Billboard (Sept. 8, '62) awarded it only a 3-star review and saw but »moderate sales potential« in these tunes. When the LP was out, however, »My Mama (!) Told Me« was listed among the »top tracks«. »The album is filled with much ... soft, lyric quality with a dash of beat here and there as well« (Billboard, Aug. 3, '63).

Well, there is more than just a »dash of beat« in »Gonna Love You Till The End Of Time« and »My Mamma Told Me«. They are no great songs, admittedly, but they are not near as »poppy« as many others of Barbara's tunes; Atlantic would soon push her towards pop-soul but it's not yet evident in these songs. Instead, they sound conspic- ously like several other dance tunes of the epoch. Little Eva's »Loco-motion«, Dee Dee Sharp's »Mashed Potato Time« (and follow-up songs like »Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)« or the Marvelettes' »Too Strong To Be Strung« and »I'm Hooked« come to mind, all from 1962. »The Loco-motion« and »Mashed Potato Time« were big hits in early summer '62, and Lewis's own songs were recorded in July '62 in Chicago ... But I don't want to insinuate plagiarism here, far from it. It was this music that was in the air. And that's exactly what I like so much about Barbara's songs: if ever you were looking for signature tunes for the summer months of '62 you can't go wrong with these two:

Barbara Lewis: »My Mamma Told Me« / »Gonna Love You Till The End Of Time« from the Atlantic LP # 8086
(1963, mono, songs orig. released in 1962):

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