1963 was a vintage year for chart topping R&B singles.
Motown’s imperious domination of the chart was evidenced by Mary Wells’ lovely, ‘Two Lovers’ written by the great Smokey Robinson who hit the summit himself accompanied by The Miracles with the hypnotic, ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’ which the admiring Beatles covered on their second album.
An absurdly precocious and energetic, ‘Little Stevie Wonder’ electrified everyone who heard him with, ‘Fingertips (Part 2) while Martha & The Vandellas filled dance floors all over the globe and sent thermometers soaring with the epochal, ‘Heatwave’.
The singular genius of Curtis Mayfield was represented by The Impressions prayerful, ‘It’s Alright’ and the nonpareil vocals of Sam Cooke took the witty, ‘Another Saturday Night’ to the chart summit.
Ruby & The Romantics and The Chiffons kept the Girl Group flag flying with the unforgettable, ‘Our Day Will Come’ and, ‘He’s So Fine’. Jackie Wilson worked us all up into a glorious sweat with, ‘Baby Work Out’ as Garnett Mimms with The Enchanters left us all elated and exhausted with the classic deep soul anguish of, ‘Cry Baby’.
I could (and probably will) write about all the wonderful songs above. But, the R&B chart topper from 1963 that won and retains first place in my heart is, ‘Hello Stranger’ – a sultry, slinky, uptown soul masterpiece written and performed with subtle flair by Barbara Lewis, a teenager from Salem, Michigan.
Now, don’t you feel blessed and enchanted!
Barbara recorded, ‘Hello Stranger’ at the famed Chess Studio in Chicago in January 1963. She had earlier been talent spotted by Ollie McLaughlin a music business mover and shaker who managed to combine being a DJ with Ann Arbour’s WHRV with managing Del Shannon and producing records. Olllie insightfully recognised that it was rare to find a poised young woman who could write and sing in such a distinctive fashion.
A sympathetic team of seasoned professionals supported Barbara on this classic recording. John Young coaxed a warm embracing sound from the Hammond Organ. Riley Hampton skilfully arranged Barbara’s romantic melody to ensure listeners and dancers would be spellbound throughout every second of its duration.
Filling out the sound with characteristic excellence were one of the greatest and most durable of all vocal groups – The Dells. The Rhythm Section maintained a swooning tempo underneath Barbara’s astounding mature – you won’t be able to resist falling desperately in love with me right now vocal.
Listen to the effortless precision of her diction and the way she seems to almost hugging the song to herself. Singing it like a thrilled lover devoutly recalling the intoxicating pleasures of young love. I think the word Luscious can be properly invoked here!
The sharp eared Atlantic Records team knew a hit when they heard one and issued, ‘Hello Stranger’ as Atlantic 2184 which became a No 3 pop hit as well as an R&B No 1. To which signal achievements we can now add the accolade of a hallowed place as:
A 14 on The Immortal Jukebox!
Over the next six years at Atlantic Barbara issues a further 16 singles every one of which showcased some aspect of her gloriously distinctive artistic persona. Through the Atlantic connection she also got to collaborate with some of the finest record industry talents of the era such as Bert Berns, Jerry Wexler, Carol King and Gerry Goffin and Van McCoy.
While I could hymn every one of the Atlantic singles I have chosen three to feature on The Jukebox to persuade you (if any is needed after hearing, ‘Hello Stranger’) of how essential her recordings are for anyone seeking the very best of the frequently neglected gems of the early sixties.
Let’s turn first to a record that will have even the flintiest hearted curmudgeon swaying misty-eyed in a romantic reverie. From 1965 the Van McCoy penned classic, ‘Baby I’m Yours’.
‘Baby’ was recorded in New York and benefited from the pooled talents of Bert Berns, Van McCoy(something of a secret hero of 60s pop), the backing vocals of The Sweet Inspirations featuring Cissie Houston and a well schooled string section.
The silky come hither charm of Barbara’s vocal here has rarely been matched and will surely be so until the stars fall from the sky and the poets run out of rhyme. In other words until the end of time.
Next a change of tempo with a song much beloved by my veteran friends of the, ‘Northern Soul’ scene. I can just imagine the delighted reaction of those tireless fanatical dancers as the first strains of Sharon McMahon’s, ‘Someday Were Gonna Love Again’ rang out at the Wigan Casino or Manchester’s, ‘Twisted Wheel’ club.
While I would have tried in my lumbering way to respond to the call of the beat I would undoubtedly have been lost in admirations as Barbara and the driving musicians behind the record inspired the serious dancers to ever greater heights of virtuosity as they glided and pirouetted across the dance floor.
Nights spent dancing to such music are stored forever as treasure in the soul.
I’m going to conclude with another example of Barbara’s ability to cradle a song in her imagination before slaying us all with the irresistible slow burning power of her recorded vocal.
The way she sings, ‘Come on, come on, make me your baby’ here could make even a dead man rise like Lazarus!
I can’t imagine there’s ever been a man alive who wouldn’t feel ten foot taller if Barbara sang, ‘Make Me Your Baby’ to him. I know it works for me!
Barbara Lewis essentially retired from the music business after a last hurrah with Stax records as the sixties concluded (look for the marvellous side ‘The Stars’).
But, in her 60s heyday she recorded a series of records, highly potent quiet storms, that will resonate forever in the hearts of those lucky enough to have heard them.
I find Barbara Lewis’ records to be endlessly alluring and captivating. I have remained in thrall to their spell since my teenage years.
So, here’s a tip – if I’m ever forty floors up, stranded on the ledge and threatening to jump, its Barbara’s voice that I want talking me down!
I whole heartedly recommend, ‘The Complete Atlantic Singles’ on Real Gone Music and the more selective, ‘Hello Stranger’ on Rhino Records.