Texan Barbara Lynn first came to New Orleans in 1962, when producer Huey P. Meaux brought her to Cosimo Matassa’s studio to cut the R&B smash “You’ll Lose A Good Thing.” Her soulful vocals and bluesy guitar licks had a swampy feel that was all her own, but her songwriting ability and intimately emotional approach was something else altogether. Perfectly walking the line between teenage innocence and worldly, older-than-her-years adult hurt, Lynn’s songs—like those of Irma Thomas and Patsy Cline—characterize a woman who is wounded and perhaps the wiser for it. But, it’s a determination to persevere and rise above all adversities that puts her in a class with the greatest soul singers of all time.
On September 6, Lynn headlines the “Bayou Soul Bowl” at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl with fellow regional pioneers Li’l Bob, Li’l Buck Sinegal, Rockie Charles and Ernie Vincent. The gathering will spotlight the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast soul scene, an area that—unlike the cities of Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Detroit—didn’t have the cornerstone of a Stax, Fame or Motown to propel its artists into the mainstream, but nevertheless, produced a wealth of unforgettable music. It’s a rare chance to see Lynn, a consummate entertainer who’s still at the top of her game.
“I’m A Good Woman” is one of those dramatic, minor-keyed soul songs that hits hard right from the opening line: “You leave your home for days and days…” sings Barbara Lynn in a voice that simultaneously embodies a precocious mark of youth and the weariness of hard-won experience, “…and I know, I said I know you got another woman somewhere around…” The band halts its buildup on a dime. After a perfectly-timed pause the singer demands her man’s attention in no uncertain terms. “Hey!” she shouts, winding herself up to deliver the goods and laying them down with full-throttled truth: “I’m a good woman, I’m a good woman, such a good woman…Don’t treat me like dirt.”
Few songs of any genre or era possess the kind of directness that Lynn so easily threw off the cuff just about every time she picked up her guitar. But it’s just this kind of disarming honesty that has given her a universal appeal which, over the years, has led to her songs being covered by the Rolling Stones, sampled by Moby and the Beastie Boys and used on the soundtrack of John Waters’ film Hairspray.
The title of her “(Don’t Pretend) Just Lay It On The Line” seems to unwittingly speak of her entire aesthetic. “With Barbara, what you see is what you got,” says swamp pop singer Joe Barry, who she credits with discovering her. “She didn’t lie, she didn’t put on no acts, she wasn’t phony…she was just real.”
Growing up in Beaumont, Texas, Lynn formed her first band, a five piece all-girl group called Bobbie Lynn and the Idols, when she was still in middle school. Sharing stages with Guitar Slim and Johnny Copeland, and soaking up the output of blues men like “Gatemouth” Brown and Jimmy Reed gave her a stellar Gulf Coast pedigree, but the teenage music of the day also held her in sway.
“Brenda Lee was my idol,” she says. “I used to love her songs, like ‘Sweet Nothings.’ I was into her and Elvis as well as so many more at that time.” Then there was her unique left-handed guitar playing. “I grew up with my own style. Even the way I play my instrument is totally different than most guitarists. I strum the rhythm part with my first finger but when I pick (leads) I’m using a pick.”
“She had a good little band,” says Barry of the night that he and guitarist Joey Long first caught her act in Vinton, Louisiana. “But she could outplay ’em all. Then I found out that her set was all original material!”
“Joe walked up to me and complimented my guitar playing and singing,” remembers Lynn, “and he got to talking to me about a guy named Huey Meaux.” Meaux, a former barber and disc jockey from Winnie, Texas who called himself “The Crazy Cajun,” had just started to make some serious waves in the music business. “Joe went back and told Huey ‘They got this young black girl playing a left-hand guitar’ and Huey called my parents. Not only called them, he drove here to talk to them in person about recording me. But at that time too, I already had enough songs for an album.” One of them was even called “Give Me A Break.” “I was pleadin’ then,” she laughs, “‘Won’t somebody please give me a break!’ I was really ready to become a singer because this is what I’d always dreamed of from a young girl. So I knew what I wanted to be; every day I’d just stay on my instrument more and more and try to pursue it, write my songs.”
Meaux brought Lynn to Cosimo’s where he paired her with Barry’s band the Vikings. Augmented by Joey Long and the ever-present Mac Rebennack, the Vikings, who hailed from the Bayou Lafourche area, lent the resultant recordings an attractively rural flavor. Lynn confirms that Meaux’s blending of Gulf Coast musical nuances was no accident. “That’s the kind of sound he really wanted,” she says. It was a formula that he’d been using almost exclusively with artists like Jimmy Donley and Mickey Gilley, but he hadn’t managed to wreak havoc with it on the national charts just yet. That was all about to change.
“We did it all in maybe two sessions,” Lynn recalls of the songs that would end up on her first album. One of them was the remarkably beautiful ballad “You’ll Lose A Good Thing,” which Rene Netto had underscored with a moodily laid-back saxophone line. Lynn had just had her tonsils taken out when the song barreled to Number One on the R&B charts. “It took awhile,” she remembers. “The doctor had told me to eat a lot of ice and not talk too much, keep quiet for a few days. The record was out there doing its thing but not too much, then finally it did. Huey came to my grandmother’s house where they’d brought me to slowly recover. He leaned over and kissed me and said ‘Barbara, I think we got a hit record; we’re going to American Bandstand!’ I was so excited that I forgot I couldn’t talk! After that I was sore but I just couldn’t wait to get well and go see Dick Clark!”
Philadelphia’s Jamie Records, who’d picked up the song, quickly assembled the remainder of Lynn’s New Orleans sessions into an album. Meaux’s liner notes were surprisingly accurate given the fact that he prided himself on the art of the hustle and was never short on the bullshit. (This was, after all, a man who just a few short years later was so distraught over the British Invasion’s domination of the American charts that he reportedly locked himself in a cheap motel room with a case of Thunderbird wine and a stack of Beatles records, vowing not to come out until he’d figured out their “secret” and developed a battle plan. That plan was the origin of the Sir Douglas Quintet). After giving special thanks to Cosimo Matassa, whose studio he credited with “That most successful ‘New Orleans Sound,’” Meaux zeroed in on the album’s raison d’etre, waxing poetic about how “You’ll Lose A Good Thing” had arisen from actual experience. He stopped just short of naming the song’s subject.
“That was a true story,” laughs Lynn of Meaux’s liner notes. “His name was Sylvester but his nickname was Stink. I just talked to him about a year ago, he lives in Houston now. He was the saxophone player in my band, so that’s how we got started.” Did he know the song was about him? “So many people told him,” she says, “that I didn’t have to tell him! A lot of my songs I just write from hearing other people talk about situations; I put those into poems and set them to music. With some of my songs I wasn’t yet going through all that (when I wrote them) but with ‘Lose A Good Thing’ I was.”
The balance of the album (naturally entitled You’ll Lose A Good Thing), blended mature titles like “Second Fiddle Girl,” “Lonely Heartaches,” and “Heartbreaking Years” with youthful introspection such as “Teenage Blues” and “Letter To Mommy And Daddy.” Simply put, it was a stone classic. But Lynn was no one-hit wonder. A 1964 follow-up single, “Oh Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin’),” didn’t repeat the number one chart action, but it impressed the Rolling Stones enough to cover it.
“That was a great feeling,” Lynn remembers of her brush with the British rockers. “Huey called me and said ‘Hey doll’—Huey would call me ‘Doll’ all the time—‘I’ve got somebody I’d like you to talk to on something.’ He put me on with Mick Jagger. I said ‘Mick Jagger!’ He said ‘Yes, Miss Lynn, we’ve been talking to Huey Meaux here and we’ll probably be doing one of your songs.’ I tell you I could’ve fell through the floor. So when Huey got back on the phone I said, ‘Huey, for real, are the Rolling Stones really gonna cover that song?’ He said, ‘Yes indeed, yes indeed, we’re talkin’ about it right now.’ I got a huge BMI check.”
Lynn continued to work with Meaux well into the ’70s, cutting the original version of the Otis Redding classic “You Left The Water Running” and scoring another hit with “Until Then I’ll Suffer.” As had always been the case in her career, the non-hits were often as good—if not better—than the songs that scaled the charts, whether they were original numbers like “Let Her Knock Herself Out” or regional standards like Elton Anderson’s “Shed So Many Tears.” Lynn’s relationship with Meaux was always a good one, she stresses, which is more than many of his artists have intimated over the years. “He was fair with me, I think because my father kept him in line. I was a young girl and my father wasn’t gonna let nobody play Barbara! Him and Huey got along real good.”