Musician/singer is featured in Museum of the Gulf Coast. The National Endowment for the arts recognized her as a 2018 National Heritage Fellow, the United States’ highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. Southeast Texas Arts Council featured her story in “Off Ramp” magazine, reprinted here with SETAC permission. We hope it inspires you to sing along all the way to the Museum to see her exhibit:
Photo and story by Blake Bertrand
BARBARA LYNN: The year is 1962. The young woman catches her erstwhile boyfriend chatting up another girl. He claimed she was “his best friend’s sister,” or some nonsense. The young woman would have liked to have believed him, but he was a repeat offender. She went home and wrote a song about the situation. She called it, “If You Lose Me, You’ll Lose A Good Thing.”
History tells us that the flighty young man indeed lost a Good Thing, and Barbara Lynn, our heartbroken songwriter, gained a chart-smashing boost to her musical career.
She began playing the piano as a child, as most children do. Piano builds a reasonably solid musical foundation, but Barbara found it to be a little too mundane, as most children do. She picked up the guitar instead and with it, an integral piece of her legend because she played the dang thing upside down. Her style was basically a big neon sign that read, “This girl’s got something different goin’ on!”
Novel as she was – a young black girl in the late 1950s, early 1960s playing upside down guitar, and with a stunning voice – any musician can tell you novelty and persistence often isn’t enough. You need a bit of luck. Thankfully (at least according to one semi-apocryphal story of her discovery – she has more than one, fittingly), Barbara had a bit of luck, such as it was. Somehow an aspiring young musician who called himself T Baby Green obtained a recording of Barbara, probably singing with her girl-group Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols, and recorded his own demo over it. That’s not the lucky part. The lucky part is that when he submitted his demo tape to local music talent legend Huey P. Meaux, he left bits of the original recording between his songs. To Meaux’s talent-seeking ear, Barbara’s voice was a sure hit. He offered to record her immediately. One of the resulting singles, “If You Lose Me, You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” knocked Ray Charles out of the number one spot on the billboard charts and laid the foundation for Barbara Lynn as a music legend.
Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and having Meaux for a producer surely counts as cloudy. Quite aside from his disastrous personal life, many artists considered Meaux a professional cheat and blamed him for a failure to find stardom. Certainly no one would begrudge Barbara Lynn the same complaints, given she never quite became a household name outside of south Texas and Louisiana, yet she won’t even countenance the idea. She just says she got to living her life and that life didn’t always include touring, songwriting, album-cutting and the rest. No, Barbara Lynn always considered stardom hers to grasp, and she decided to let it go. Nevertheless, the relatively small body of work she created made a big impression on a lot of people. Now that those people are in charge of such things as awards and recognition, they’re making sure Barbara Lynn gets her due.
Lynn has received the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s 1999 Pioneer Award, was one of the first recipients of the Star of Texas Folklife Award in 2010, received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts this past year, and had a street named after her in 2010 in the city of Beaumont. Those are the “official” achievements. They’re not the ones Barbara tends to talk about. The achievements she remembers fondly didn’t come with titles or trophies; they were the opportunities that opened for her throughout her career. She names her greatest accomplishment as appearing twice on American Bandstand, the three-and-a-half decade long music and dance television program hosted by Dick Clark. She has toured with many American musical legends, such as Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Ike and Tina Turner, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Gladys Knight. Her songs have been covered by artists running the musical gamut from the Rolling Stones to Lil’ Wayne, proving the exceptionally broad appeal of her songwriting. These are the things she remembers most fondly.
As the Southeast Texas Arts Council considered the awardees for the 2018 Hearts for the Arts Awards Banquet, the name Barbara Lynn was again on the nominations. She has been there many times over the years, and we’re quite distressed it has taken us so long to make it happen. Therefore it is with great pleasure that we announce Barbara Lynn as the recipient of our Rex and Ruth Goode Award: Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. While we can’t offer anything so grand as an additional appearance on American Bandstand or a tour with Smokey Robinson, we can at least make clear our profound admiration for this legendary singer, songwriter, and musician.
As noted before, Barbara Lynn has been creating music professionally for the better part of six decades and has dreamed of it all her life. Her frank, relatable lyrics endeared her instantly to women of all ages and experience, articulating feelings they universally shared. As talented on the guitar as with a pen, Lynn could back up the feeling of her words with the plaintive cry of bending strings and mournful minor scales. Finally, she has that gutsy, blues-woman voice that ties the whole package together in a way that makes you either seize up or dance when you hear it. She’s truly somethin’ else. Or, if I may, she’s truly A Good Thing.