On these pages, Hitsville celebrates the music of Ms Barbara Lewis. Barbara's career is indellibly linked to her relationship with Ollie McLaughlin and his recording entourage. Although Barbara was a more than accomplished songwriter in her own right, the production skills of Ollie McLaughlin moulded Barbara's early style. Added to Ollie's name are Riley Hampton, Deon Jackson, Van McCoy, Rose Marie McCoy, and Sharon McMahan, who pepper the credits on Barbara's records, and as you'd expect also contributed to the styles and tempos of her work. In usual Hitsville style we explore Barbara's career whilst celebrating the fantastic musical output of her records so don't forget to click on any graphics you see, you never know what may happen.
Barbara Lewis is probably best remembered for a number of successful "pop soul" entries into the National US Charts including her biggest hit "Hello Stranger" which was also written by her and went on to be recorded by many other vocalists. This was not the beginning of Barbara's career though and her first foray into the studio was not in her native Detroit but in the Chess Studios of Chicago in 1963. The initial studio sessions led to a couple of releases, the first being "My Heart Went Do Dat Da" - Karen (313) (later picked up as part of the deal Ollie negotiated with Atlantic Records and released on Atlantic (2141) and "My Momma Told Me" - Atlantic. "My Heart ..." is a great example of Barbara's early writing style and is also notable for the lavish string arrangement created by Riley Hampton. Produced by Ollie McLaughlin, it is a typical girl group sound that was so popular at the time. The record achieved some reasonable commercial success and led to Ollie believing that Barbara's talents were worth investing in.
Her next released recording was the timeless "Hello Stranger". Backed by that well loved Chicago group The Dells, and released on Atlantic 2184 the song is a mid-tempo lament about the lack of time since she and her "baby" enjoyed each other's company. There are a number of great versions of the song and Barbara's original version reached #1 RnB and #3 Pop charts and is still regarded as a fine Detroit sound outing, despite it's Chicago origin the song (a testament to the song itself). The song has been recorded by a number of other soul artists over the years, including a great instrumental by Riley Hampton on Carla and a fantastic vocal version by The Capitols on Karen. From the opening organ and the signature "Shoo Bop De Bop My Baby" from the Might Dells, Barbara's almost breathy vocal simply glides over the track with ease. A truly great song that was to set the standards for Barbara's future work.
The team of Ollie McLaughlin and Riley Hampton appear again on Barbara's next 45. This time they are joined by another of Ollie's artists Sharron McMahan who wrote the A side while the flip involved that legendary Motowner the late Mike Valvano in the writing credits.
"Straighten Up Your Heart" b/w If You Love Her - Atlantic 45-200 is in a similar vein as the successful "Hello Stranger" with Barbara's vocal laid over a clean, mid-tempo track full of Ollie's signature simplicity. Even the opening organ chords are there. (If it ain't broke - Don't fix it!).
The "story" of this side is simply Barbara laying down the law to her cheating lover. He either "Straighten's up" or he's history. The flip side "If You Love Her" is a fantastic showcase of Barbara and Ollie's combined talents. Again a mid-tempo number, it encompasses all the things that make her earlier recordings so appealing. The "clean/simple sounding" production, the unobtrusive organ, the subdued beat, just float alongside Barbara's immaculate vocal.
Next up is the Northern Soul classic "Someday We're Gonna Love Again" b/w Spend a little time" - Atlantic (2227). A real change of tempo and style for the A side as Barbara furnishes Sharron McMahan's upbeat dancer with the perfect vocal foil. Lots of horns, keyboards, handclaps, "Doo Dup Doo Doo Dup's" in the background, a real classic that continues to fill dancefloors years later. The B Side "Spend a little time" returns Barbara to what is now becoming the signature sound of the three of them (Ollie McLaughlin, Riley Hampton and Barbara herself). A real sultry performance from the lady who almost sounds like a lounge/cabaret performer at times but without losing the "soulful" quality that embodies this period of her work.
In most soul artists careers the legendary writers/producers and arrangers are usually to be found nestling amongst the credit catalogues and Barbara Lewis' work is no exception. Along with Riley Hampton, Ollie McLaughlin, Mike Terry etc, it was only a matter of time before we came across the involvement production wise one of the icons of 60's and 70's soul - Van McCoy. The trip to New York's Atlantic Studios where Barbara was now living, resulted in a change in style with this recording that is subtle but nevertheless sweeping.
For "Baby I'm Yours" b/w "I Say Love" - Atlantic (228) gone is the organ laden, "bop-a-long" melody and slightly sugary lyrics. Instead we find an opening string arrangement preceding a seductive sounding Barbara pledging her love in amongst Van McCoy's lush orchestration. The signature vocal style is still there but this time, there is a sense that Barbara's previous innocence has been replaced by a more mature sound. Maybe it's the lyrics that lead to this, but it certainly worked for the song and it became a standard that achieved both commercial and critical success.
Her following outing "Make Me Your Baby" b/w Love To Be Loved - Atlantic (2300) is regarded by many fans as Barbara's finest outing of the era and
The use of strings to set the style of the record is typical of the way the soul sound of the sixties was developing and Barbara has totally shed the 'innocent sound' she nurtured in her earlier recordings and is now a fully fledged "vocal sultress". The clarity of her voice is outstanding, she wraps her voice around each individual word in a way that most soul singers of the era tried, but many of them lost their clarity and substituted a rawer sound instead.Barbara doesn't need to do this and if I was to pick one word that sums her performances up it would be "effortless". She has the impassioned strain in her voice but without losing the control that is really her signature. A great performance on this particular track that also went on to become a standard on radio airwaves nationwide.
The songwriting duo of Goffin - King penned her next song which was also recorded by a number of other artists including the UK's Dusty Springfield. The 45 was culled from Barbara's album - "It's Magic" - Atlantic (8118). The album seems a strange mix of 'Broadway-type' tunes mixed with a few contemporary songs and, to be honest, doesn't showcase the soulful side of her voice at all in my opinion. This 45 is probably the only one I could recommend. The album liner notes record that Ollie McLoughlin was the producer but I I have to admit that with the introduction Art Butler and Bert Berns to the production team, I believe Ollie's input on this particular album to be minimal. I have no evidence for this assumption, but I'm sure if you listen close enough you'll agree.
It's at this stage of Barbara's career that there seems to have been a musical watershed. Her voice is just as captivating, and she has lost none of her strength or clarity, but the music has definitely matured as you would expect over time. For many soul fans the next few records are amongst the 'creme de la creme' of Detroit based mid sixties femme soul.
The first of which "I Remember The Feeling" b/w "Baby What Do You Want Me To Do" - Atlantic (2361) Written by one of the great unsung heroines of Northern Soul Rose Marie McCoy, the A Side is a slice of Detroit dance music that never fails to make me smile everytime I hear it. It's just sheer quality. If you haven't heard this record in a while (or even if you have), click on the 45 and sit back for 2:07 minutes of absolute class. Dancebeat, Strings, Wood Block Vibes! Horns, Tambourine, all lay the foundation for Barbara to "do her thing" And do it she does!! Fantastic stuff.
A point of note is that the B Side of this 45 was written by Grant Higgins, another of Ollie's artists who recorded a couple of outings on the Karen Label.
"Fool Fool Fool" b/w "Only all the time" - Atlantic (2413) is a strange sort of record. The A side is peppered with short almost staccatto strings, with a heavier baseline than usual though Barbara's vocal is just as powerful as she admits her folly at loving a guy who constantly makes a fool of her. The flip side is a version of the Patti Austin classic on Coral. I'm not sure which was recorded first but for the Northern fans who haven't heard Barbara's version, it's a strange almost "show tune" arrangement that let's it down compared to Patti's version.
This next 45 is a completely different kettle of fish altogether and is one of my favorite records from Ms Lewis. "I'll Make Him Love Me" b/w "Love Makes The World Go Round" - Atlantic (240) was co-written by Helen Miller who also had a hand in "Make Me Your Baby". It's a real up-tempo mid-sixties 'dancer' that if given some decent turntable exposure on the 'Northern Soul' circuit could well become a dancefloor favorite as it has all the required attributes, strong beat, great arrangement, and of course Barbara's sulty vocals. The flip side to this record is Barbara's take on the Deon Jackson classic from the Carla label. The styles of both Barbara and Deon are very similar and she does a good job of interpreting the song without becoming just a female clone of Deon.