Still a Good Thing
Beaumont's Barbara Lynn Fires Up Her Blues Engines on 'Hot Night Tonight'
Barbara Lynn Ozen hasn't lost her good thing. She lives in it, saying the first thing she did with the check from "You'll Lose a Good Thing," her No. 1 R&B hit (and Top 10 pop hit) of December 1962, was pay for this pleasant, custom-built abode in the same South Beaumont neighborhood where she grew up three or four streets over. She wanted a sunken living room and a circular driveway, and that's what she got. The full-size mirror in the living room makes it look twice as big.
But more than building her a home a few blocks from the high school now named after her uncle Clifton (its longtime coach), "Good Thing" bought her a permanent passport to life as a musician, winning her fans as far away as New Zealand. She's been there, to Europe, and to Japan, shared shows with certified blues, R&B, and soul legends ("B.B., Gladys Knight, Stevie, Smokey, Patti LaBelle ..." is how she puts it), and been on American Bandstand twice. She has crossed paths with some of the most influential figures in all postwar popular music, starting with Cajun wildman Joe Barry, who saw her play in a Louisiana club and ran to tell his barber buddy Huey P. Meaux. Raising three kids occupied much of her time until the mid-Eighties, but she's come back strong since then. Her new album, Hot Night Tonight, came out last month on longtime friend Clifford Antone's eponymous label.
Something else bears mentioning: The biting, plangent guitar work that layers "Good Thing" came not from one of Meaux's studio buddies but from the song's author, Barbara Lynn herself. She can chop up the 12 bars as good as any man and does on all 12 of Hot Night Tonight's selections. As one of the first solo female instrumentalists of any kind to hit the charts, her place in the rock & roll history books is sewn up like a velvet slipper. But that was then. Like Francine Reed, Irma Thomas, or Lavelle White, she's a woman of a certain number of years with twice the chops of girls half her age. It took her all of two weeks to record Hot Night, for which she wrote seven cuts, and right now she's resting up for a lengthy patch of touring to support it.
Barbara Lynn knew her future was decided for her when her family took her to the doctor (upon advice from her school), who promptly told them "this child wants an instrument." Her kinfolk were more than happy to oblige, though the result wasn't exactly what young Barbara bargained for.
"That's when I told my mother I wanted a guitar, and my mother went out and bought me an Arthur Godfrey ukulele," she laughs.
Before Elvis would change her mind, she first wanted to play the piano, or at least that's what her family reckoned when she would pound away at the windowsill. When her hands got tired, she told anyone within earshot she wanted to be 'popular.' ("That's what my mom and them says.") Around sixth grade, she went about realizing this ambition by putting together Bobbie Lynn & Her Idols. The girl group, forged out of her budding musicality and admiration for singers who could work it with their voice like Brenda Lee and Connie Francis, was an instant success.
"We were about the baddest thing at my school when we were in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade," she says. "We were a hot group there. We were winning all the talent shows."
Talent shows led to 'record hops,' teen dances that were basically the Eisenhower-generation equivalent to raves. Although she and the Idols parted ways as she entered Hebert High School, she kept up her musical studies, like learning Guitar Slim's "Things That I Used to Do" (also a Doug Sahm favorite) from her cousin. She kept one ear cocked towards the radio, where she soaked in "Guitar Slim, Bobby 'Blue' Bland, Little Willie John, Big Mama Thornton, Howlin Wolf, Jimmy Reed," taking a special liking to Reed's one-man-show pairing of hypnotic guitar lines and gruff, emphatic vocal style.
"Then I started listening to people like Elvis Presley, too," she mentions. "Now that -- he's another one that really got me going."
The King got Barbara to box up her piano ambitions for good in favor of the guitar. Her left-handedness, something she inherited from her mom, was a slight inconvenience overcome when a couple of her musician friends came over and restrung her instrument -- upside down. When she began playing Golden Triangle-area clubs, including legendary roadhouses like the Big Oaks, Lou Ann's, and the Palomino just over the state line, heads began to turn. In the early Sixties, black underage southpaw guitar-picking female blues singers were something of a rarity. Ozen still counts herself lucky none of her teachers were addicted to the nightlife.
"I had to be careful," she says. "If my principal at that time would have known that I was in clubs, they probably would have threw me out of school. It just so happens a lot of them never did find out."
One night, Barry, who recorded the bayou gem "I'm a Fool to Care," saw her at Lou Ann's and immediately ran to his manager Huey P. Meaux, the now-infamous producer/publisher/ hypeman known as "The Crazy Cajun," who was then cutting hair in the coastal-plain hamlet of Winnie. Barry's opinion, as Barbara Lynn remembers, was, "She can really sing! She can really play that guitar!" Meaux drove to Beaumont and talked her parents into letting their daughter record some demos, but not without some very tangible strings attached.
"My father wanted me to go to college, but 'if this is what she wants to do,' he said, 'for now it's OK, but, if she fails in recording her first album, she's gonna have to stop that and go on to college.'"
She wet her whistle recording songs like "Dina and Patrina," which she wrote about a couple of twins from the neighborhood, and "Won't Somebody Please Give Me a Break." Then she hit a gusher. A sassy, self-confident slice of soul Destiny's Child and Mary J. Blige would do well to match even in the year 2000, "You'll Lose a Good Thing" hit young America's jukeboxes and AM radios like a Gulf-spawned hurricane. The first time she heard it on the radio, Barbara Lynn nearly tripped over herself in excitement.
"I was in the kitchen, about three or four streets down from here," she says. "All of a sudden, somebody in my house said, 'Barbara, I think I hear your song.' I ran from wherever I was, and we turned that radio up loud and there it was. I said, 'I can't believe this is really me, my music on the radio!'"
Her music was on a lot of radios, and she was swept along in the attendant tide of showbiz. She hit the road with a list of tourmates that reads like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's original inductees, and even got herself noticed by a group of London ruffians called the Rolling Stones, who cut her "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')" on 1964's The Rolling Stones Now! After the money started coming in, her father stopped bugging her about going to college. Today, she thinks he was right.
"I really wish that I would have gone to college," she vows. "Even my son, who's into rap himself, I tell him and tell his children go to college, get that education, it is so important. Don't do like I did. I had all this singing on my mind, and I just didn't have time for it. I wish today that I would have. I tell anybody, education's so much more important. And you need that education for the type of business that I'm in anyway."
Here she has the air of one who's seen some suspect music-biz shenanigans close-up. She has less than flattering things to say about the business end of the music business, not naming any names but verbally chastising past managers and promoters for dropping the ball on her account.
"I used to say maybe because I'm from down South I got left out," she reckons, "But after getting older and older into the business, I started wising up and seeing when you've got poor management, poor producers maybe, the company just wasn't pushing you, so I figured they just weren't pushing me enough to keep me out there."
Not long after "Good Thing," she married her first husband and soon had her first daughter. Another girl and a boy followed, and then one day they started having kids. Now she's got five grandchildren "with another one on the way any day." One daughter's HEB co-workers in nearby Port Arthur refused to believe the same Barbara Lynn featured in Texas Monthly's recent music issue was her mom until a supervisor confirmed it; her other daughter's colleagues at an Atlanta bank "didn't believe it was me either." Her son, the rapper Bachelor Wise, adds a nice Shakurian/ Dirty South feel to Hot Night's "You're the Man."
Unafraid of flirting with hip-hop, Barbara Lynn sounds like nobody's grandma on Hot Night Tonight. Her new album finds her both sensuous (Lee Errol Anthony's "I Love to Make Love") and sentient (Charles Scott Boyer Jr.'s "Don't Hit Me No More"). There's also a breezy take on Eddie Floyd and Booker T's "Never Found a Man," an elegant reading of Sam & Dave's timeless tearjerker "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," and several originals, including the sultry title track, jazzy "It's Been So Long," and crawling-kingsnake "Lynn's Blues." "Bow down to a queen when you see her," advises her son.
"I noticed today I like to hear a lot of pop music," she comments. "I feel it, I really feel it, you know? I wish now that I could have been maybe strictly a pop singer, but that's for the young people today anyway. I've gotta stick to my roots, and my roots are blues."
Hot Night is only her seventh album; her last one, Until Then I'll Suffer, came out in 1996. Ichiban released You Don't Have to Go in the late Eighties, and a 1998 Edsel reissue brought back some of her early songs. If she slowed down a bit after such immediate success, music never left her, and one early song in particular continues to win admirers in some pretty high places.
"This year the W in SXSW did stand for [Tom] Waits, but Lynn proved at least one of those S's always stands for soul," wrote Rolling Stone's David Fricke in 1999, after witnessing her perform "You'll Lose a Good Thing" at Antone's.
"I feel no regrets," she affirms. "I even worked with Michael [Jackson] when he was only nine years old! Would you believe I was the star of the show and Michael was under me?"
Barbara Lynn does wish the Dallas Cowboys would win more often. But when she talks about her life, the smiles far outnumber the sighs. There are probably a thousand more stories hanging there in the air above her kitchen table, but that's where they'll have to remain. For now, at least, until the next newspaper guy comes along. It's getting close to 4:30, and her grandchildren are coming over from the mall.