Barbara Lynn

How Barbara Lynn Changed the Blues Forever

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 11.12.14 in Features
‘They knew Barbara Lynn was coming. People were throwing money at me onstage, and guys were trying to grab my leg. I’m not trying to brag, but I really was the talk of that town.’

Barbara Lynn, who topped rhythm and blues charts in 1962 with “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” which also crossed over to the pop Top 10, doesn’t like to think of herself as a pioneer; it makes her feel like she’s boasting gratuitously. But every female who ever picked up an electric guitar — or any other instrument, for that matter — and joined a rock band owes her a tremendous debt, because Lynn broke a gender barrier: She was arguably the first woman to play lead guitar in front of rock and R&B audiences. This was at a time when most women playing guitar favored folk music. Memphis Minnie had previously succeeded among bluesmen, but she was playing to segregated audiences; Lady Bo was second guitarist to her boss Bo Diddley. But Lynn fronted bands, and turned heads doing so — while also writing much of her own material, equally unheard-of at the time for female stars.

But even before she had hit records, Lynn knew she was different. Recalling an early gig in Hot Springs, Arkansas, that paid her $100 per week, she chuckles and exclaims, “They knew Barbara Lynn was coming. People were throwing money at me onstage, and guys were trying to grab my leg. I’m not trying to brag, but I really was the talk of that town.”

Barbara Lynn Ozen (her full name) played piano as a young girl, but switched to guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on TV at the tail end of grade school; she loved him so much she styled her hairdo after his. A southpaw, she taught herself by playing along to songs on the radio at her grandmother’s house in Beaumont, Texas, 88 miles east of Houston. “There wasn’t anything on the radio then except blues,” she recalls, and her favorites were Guitar Slim and Jimmy Reed.

She was in bands all through school, but in high school in the late ’50s, she snuck off to play clubs. She started hanging with other regional guitarists, who were plentiful in Beaumont-Port Arthur. Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow (who became a mentor) ruled the roost locally with his rocking blues, but guys like Guitar Junior (today known as Lonnie Brooks) added a swampy, more deliberately Gulf Coast flavor. Lynn played with a pick on her thumb, with which she turned out terse, spiky leads while strumming rhythm with her other four fingers; it sounds awkward, but she developed into a gently propulsive rhythm player whose leads crackled. Specializing in bluesy slow-drags, she sang in a voice that blended smoke and sherbet. She’d been writing little poems and putting them to music since grade school, so she had already accrued a wealth of original material. There’d never been anyone quite like her; it wasn’t so much that she was going against the grain musically, it was that blues fans were stunned, and then delighted, to see a woman doing this; once they got used to her, they embraced her.

‘One of the musicians asked me if I smoked marijuana, but my mother was right there, and she said, ‘My daughter is here to work, and nothing else.’

After graduating from high school, Lynn began touring in the South. Back home, swamp-pop star Joe Barry caught her act at the Palomino Lounge, about 30 miles across the state line in Louisiana, and alerted his manager and producer Huey P. Meaux. Meaux checked her out and was floored by what he saw: a good-looking, left-handed, Creole female who could hold her own singing and playing against anyone. So he went to her parents and asked permission to take her to Cosimo Matassa’s legendary New Orleans studio to record. Her parents were reluctant, because they wanted their good Christian daughter to go to college and pursue a more legitimate career; her father made her promise she would do that if the first or second record didn’t hit.

But not only did “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” hit, it hit big. Lynn had written the song when she’d learned that her boyfriend — known as Stank — was cheating on her. The song had a swaying, swampy feel and Lynn’s vocals were positively smoldering, as she laid down the law: “This is my last time, not asking anymore/ If you don’t do right, I’m gonna march outta that door.” Released first on one of Meaux’s labels, the single was picked up nationally by Philadelphia-based Jamie Records, and soon bumped Ray Charles‘s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” out of the No. 1 slot on the R&B charts while peaking at No. 8 in pop. The next thing she knew, 20-year-old Barbara Lynn (accompanied by her mother) was an opening act with Little Eva, Stevie Wonder and others on the touring Jackie Wilson Show.

“Everybody was trying to outdo the other on that tour,” she laughs. “Everyone was always arguing about who did the better show. Joe Tex wanted to be the star of the show.” She only got to do three songs, but says, “I think they treated me well. I was always a pretty nice person, and carried myself well. One of the musicians asked me if I smoked marijuana, but my mother was right there, and she was strict. She said, ‘My daughter is here to work, and nothing else. She doesn’t drink, and she doesn’t smoke.” Lynn has still never done either.

‘The other guitarists had their doubts, but soon enough they were saying, ‘That girl has created her own style.’ They wanted to know how I did it, and I started showing them. I got a lot of respect after that.’

The tour’s promoter got more than he’d bargained for. He thought he was hiring a singer, only to discover on the road that Lynn also played lead guitar. “The other guitarists had their doubts,” she admits, “but soon enough they were saying, ‘That girl has created her own style.’ They wanted to know how I did it, and I started showing them. I got a lot of respect after that.” In the studio, Lynn didn’t play guitar because she wanted to focus on her singing. But live, she’s always been her only guitarist.

She had a good run at Jamie before leaving near the end of 1965. Writing always for horns as well as the rhythm section, she came up with other gems in the “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” groove such as “You’re Gonna Need Me.” Her 1964 “Oh! Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’),” which had more thump than usual, was covered a year later by the Rolling Stones. Her chart history was incongruous: Some singles charted R&B-only, others pop-only. After Jamie, she released a few singles on Meaux labels, then went to Atlantic from 1967-72, Playing down her swamp roots and moving into straight-up soul, she had just two hits in that genre, the 1968 “This Is the Thanks I Get,” and the lovely, 1971 “(Until Then) I’ll Suffer.” She missed the pop charts entirely. She’d married and started a family by then, so she didn’t tour during those years, which couldn’t have helped. The music itself sure wasn’t the problem, as the recently-released Barbara Lynn: the Complete Atlantic Recordings, confirms.

In 1975, she moved to California, where she dropped out of the music biz, raised two girls and a boy, divorced and remarried. Soon after her second husband died in the late ’80s, with the kids fully grown, she returned to Beaumont and resumed her career on a smaller scale while taking care of her mother. The two women live in the house that Lynn bought back in 1962 with her first royalty check; four years ago, the City of Beaumont renamed the street after her. She plays in the region and in L.A. semi-regularly, tours overseas occasionally and is a regular at the Ponderosa Stomp. On the albums she began making in the late ’90s for blues and soul specialty labels, she even played her own leads. Her modern music incorporates elements of funk and hip-hop, and she’s also added a resonating twang to some of her licks; she often stretches out more on guitar, and when she does, people shut up and listen. A growing number of them even know who she is, and what she represents.

“Some people call me a legend, and sometimes I feel like I did pave the way for the women playing now,” she allows, before quickly adding, “I’m not a bragger. These young women today, they are fantastic. It’s a new generation and I love it. I just thank and praise God for the talent he gave them.”