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In January 1901, a gusher at Spindletop Hill in Beaumont, Texas exploded to life, shooting greenish black crude more than 150 feet into the air. With this, the modern oil industry was born and the Gulf Coast port cities of Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange came to be known as "The Golden Triangle." A petrochemical, oil refining and shipbuilding complex, "The Golden Triangle" attracted successive migrations of Cajuns, Creoles and blacks from Louisiana throughout the 20th century. They came looking for work and brought their culture with them, contributing to the rich traditions of Texas music. By mid-century, cajun, creole and zydeco were mixing with the regional blues, gospel, country and rock to invent new musical forms, including "Swamp Pop" and "Swamp Blues." Janis Joplin, Johnny Winter, Gatemouth Brown, and Barbara Lynn are a few of the legendary performers raised in southeast Texas amid this creative ferment.
Barbara Lynn, the "Empress of Gulf Coast Soul," was born Barbara Linda Ozen in Beaumont in 1942 to a Creole family that had arrived from Louisiana in the late 1920s.
Growing up, she sang at church and in her school choir, but her only formal music training was a year of piano lessons. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great gospel performer who played electric guitar, Texas bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and the flamboyant Guitar Slim were some of her early inspirations. When she heard and then saw Elvis on television, however, she abandoned the piano and picked up a $10.99 ukelele. Barbara taught herself by playing along with the music as she listened to the radio. This was particularly impressive since, as a left-handed player, she had to transpose the fingering on a right-handed instrument. When Barbara's parents saw her determination and heard that she could actually make music, they bought her a Gibson guitar and an amplifier.
While still in grade school, she formed an all girl band, Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols, earning the nickname of "Lady Elvis." She sang, she played and she wrote her own songs. By high school, a little rascal named Sylvester broke Barbara's heart, igniting her musical response, "You'll Lose a Good Thing. "The singer Joe Barry brought the "Crazy Cajun" promoter, Huey Meaux, around to hear her play at a Beaumont club and Meaux convinced her parents that she should go to Louisiana to record her songs, instead of heading straight to college. A few years later, in 1962, "You'll Lose a Good Thing" reached the Top Ten in pop and climbed to #1 on the Rhythm & Blues charts. Her debut album, "You'll Lose a Good Thing," (1962 Jamie) included mostly original material.
Her mother Mildred, concerned about her young daughter, quit her job at the box factory to accompany Barbara on tours throughout the United States and Europe with such stars as Jackie Wilson, Gladys Knight, James Brown, Patti Labelle, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Mary Wells, Ike and Tina Turner, and many others. Barbara appeared twice on Dick Clark's American bandstand and wowed the famously demanding crowds at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.
In 1966, Barbara Lynn was featured on Nashville television show "THE!!!!BEAT" hosted by Bill "Hoss" Allen with a band led by the great Texas guitar and fiddle player "Gatemouth" Brown. On the tapes we can see the young Barbara's singular personal style — slender, no make-up, dressed in silver brocade pants and black shirt, or in simple black cocktail dresses — she was and is an elegant and sensuous presence. Her cool demeanor and confident, soulful voice contrast with the raw energy of her guitar work. Covered by such musicians as Aretha Franklin, Freddy Fender and the Rolling Stones "Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin')," Barbara Lynn is an American original.
Later, when Barbara became a mother, there were long periods when she stayed close to home, but kept writing and playing. After the death of her second husband, Barbara and her three children moved back to Beaumont. It was there that promoter Ira Padnos tracked her down and begged her to come play in New Orleans, where he promised her a new era for her career. Tours of Japan and Korea in the mid 1980s where she made a live album, "We Got a Good Thing Goin'" (1984, Ball/Vivid) and a studio recording, "You Don't Have To Go" (1986 Ichiban), proved she had a huge following in some unexpected places. In 1999, Barbara Lynn was awarded the prestigious Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
A grandmother now, Barbara Lynn, has never stopped writing, singing and playing. She is once again touring, and you can catch her in Houston and Beaumont clubs, and regularly at Antone's Nightclub in Austin where the late Clifford Antone was one of her biggest fans. She is a featured artist at the annual "Ponderosa Stomp" in New Orleans, produced by Padnos. Texas Folklife is proud to present Miss Barbara Lynn to Washington, DC audiences at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center. If we lose the music of Barbara Lynn, we'll lose a good thing.
Texas Folklife is a non-profit arts organization based in Austin, Texas and dedicated to the presentation and preservation of the diverse living heritage of the Lone Star State.
Producer: Sarah Rucker
Engel, John, "Barbara Lynn," UNCOMMON SOUND: Left handed Guitar Players That Changed Music (2006, Left Field Ventures, sprl; Brussels, Belgium) Volume One: Rock, Pop, Reggae, Punk, Metal, pp.292-295.
Govenar, Alan, Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound (2008,Texas A & M University Press).
Rucker, Sarah, 2009,Texas Folklife, unpublished, transcribed interview recorded on September 21, 2009, follow-up phone interview by Nancy Bless, October 23, 2009.
Wood, Roger, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues (2003, University of Texas Press; Photographs, 2003, James Fraher).
Willoughby, Larry, "Rhythm and Blues," Texas Rhythm: Texas Rhyme (1984,Texas Monthly Press), pp. 71-81.
The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.
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