• June 17, 2021

Exclusive: More blues-playin’ sisters take on the strings and the frets

 Exclusive: More blues-playin’ sisters take on the strings and the frets

When I was 15 years old and in high school in 1962, like many of my friends, I listened to a wide cross-section of music. However, the slow tunes of blues-fed R&B were the favorite dance tunes during those teenage years, fraught with love, crushes, heartaches, and heartbreaks. It’s no surprise that Barbara Lynn’s hit “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” soared to the top of the charts, though at the time it didn’t occur to me that she was playing the guitar—it was her lyrics and the deep-felt message to her boyfriend that struck a chord. She made it really clear, no holds barred:

I’m givin you one more chance, for you to do right
If you’ll only straighten up, we’ll have a good life
Cause if you should lose me, oh yeah, you’ll lose a good thing
This is my last time, not asking any more
If you don’t do right,I’m gonna march outa that door

Here she is performing her hit live on The !!!! Beat, a 1966 syndicated television show featuring R&B artists.

Steve Huey’s biography of Lynn, who not only sang and played the guitar left-handed incredibly well, but also wrote some of her own songs, for AllMusic covers what was originally a short career:

Lynn was born Barbara Lynn Ozen in Beaumont, TX, on January 16, 1942; she played the piano as a child before switching to guitar, inspired by Elvis Presley. In junior high, Lynn formed her own band. […] 

After winning a few talent shows and playing some teen dances, the still-underage Lynn started working the local clubs and juke joints, risking getting kicked out of school if she had been discovered. Singer Joe Barry caught her live act and recommended her to his friend, producer/impresario Huey P. Meaux, aka the Crazy Cajun.

With her parents’ consent, Meaux brought Lynn to New Orleans to record at the legendary Cosimo’s studio. Lynn cut a few singles for the Jamie label with the understanding that if none hit, she was to attend college instead of pursuing music right off the bat. In 1962, her self-penned ballad “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” became a national hit, reaching the pop Top Ten and climbing all the way to number one on the R&B charts. Her first album (of the same name) was also released that year, featuring ten of her originals among its 12 tracks. Lynn continued to record for Jamie up through 1965, producing follow-up R&B hits like “You’re Gonna Need Me” and “Oh Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’),” the latter of which was recorded by the Rolling Stones in 1965. In 1966, Lynn switched over to Meaux’s Tribe label and cut “You Left the Water Running,” which became something of an R&B standard and was covered by the likes of Otis Redding. In 1967, she signed with Atlantic and had another R&B hit with “This Is the Thanks I Get” early the following year; she also issued another album, Here Is Barbara Lynn, in 1968. Lynn scored one last hit for Atlantic in 1972’s “(Until Then) I’ll Suffer,” but by this point, she had several children to worry about raising; dissatisfied with her promotion anyway, she wound up effectively retiring from the music business for most of the ’70s and ’80s, though she did play the occasional low-key tour.

That would not be the end of her story. Amelia Feathers picks up the next chapter in Lynn’s life for Blues Access. The headline says it all: Barbara Lynn Is Back in a Big Way:”

  “…when her children grew up and her second husband died, the music inside her still burned to get out. She began playing again and recorded a live album, You Don’t Have to Go (Ichiban), during a 1986 tour of Japan. She made a second album, So Good, for Bullseye Blues in 1994 and was the recipient of a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 1999.

A trip to Austin in the late ’90s kick-started Ms. Lynn’s renewed musical quest and led Antone’s Records to record Hot Night Tonight, which the record company describes as “soulful blues bridging the gap between the past and future and hip hop.”

Here’s “Lynn’s Blues” from that album, which gives you a great listen to her guitar work.

2009 found Barbara Lynn & Friends performing Texas rhythm and blues for the Library of Congress, American Folklife Center Homegrown 2009 Concert Series.

In this short clip from the I Am the Blues, the 2016 Canadian documentary film, directed by Daniel Cross, Lynn demonstrates her left-handed style.

I’ll close the musical part of her story with this electrifying 2010 live performance of “Wild Night Tonight” in Texas at the Jazz + Blues Festival. Take it away, Miz Lynn!

Barbara Lynn is now 79 years old,; we recently lost another amazing blueswoman from her era, Beverly Watkins, in 2019. Richard Sandomir wrote her New York Times obituary.

Beverly Watkins, a rare woman among blues guitarists, who cleaned homes when music did not pay her enough and did not record her first solo album until she was 60, died on Oct. 1 in Atlanta. She was 80. Her son and only immediate survivor, Stanley Watkins, said the cause was a heart attack that had been preceded by a stroke.

Ms. Watkins called her music lowdown, stomping blues and complemented it with crowd-pleasing antics into her 70s — playing her electric guitar on her back and behind her head, sliding across the stage. When she sang, it was often with a growl. “She’d been doing all that since the late 1950s, but she wasn’t a star because she’d been a sideman most of her career, playing with bands that didn’t have hits,” Brett J. Bonner, editor of Living Blues magazine, said by phone. “She was a fabulous guitar player.”

Ms. Watkins, who was often billed as Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, followed in the footsteps of women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer whose brilliant electric guitar playing helped influence rock ’n’ roll, and the blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Memphis Minnie. But even in the 21st century, after having worked since the late 1950s with the R&B star Piano Red, and with bands like Leroy Redding and the Houserockers and Eddie Tigner’s Ink Spots, she was something of an anomaly.

Take a listen to what you may have missed.

AnalogPlanet editor Michael Fremer posted this obit and description of Watkins’ performance and his interview with her:

79 year old Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, unknown to most in the audience, puts on a fiery, funky and fierce standing ovation hour-long performance on the first night of Chad Kassem’s “Blues at the Crossroads” Blues Festival Friday October 26th.The Atlanta, Georgia native has had a long, productive career including two successful singles “Dr. Feelgood” and “Right String But the Wrong Yo-You” as a member of Piano Red and the Houserockers.

A later group in which she played included Roy Lee Johnson, who composed “Mr. Moonlight” later popularized by The Beatles. You’ll hear Ms. Watkins cover a very similar sounding tune in this incredible set. She’s also worked with James Brown, B.B. King and Ray Charles and remains active. Watch her amazing performance here and remember she’s 79 years young! While she plays much of it sitting down, when she stands and plays with the guitar behind her back you may find yourself standing and cheering while watching this on your computer. Everyone in the audience did that too. AnalogPlanet editor Michael Fremer encountered Ms. Watkins in the hotel dining room the next morning and asked how at 79 her hands remain so supple and her rhythmic drive and musical inventiveness remain so fresh. “You gotta find Jesus” she replied with the absolute certainty that displayed on stage the previous evening.

As the ranks of elder blueswomen thin, we are left with a question: What younger Black women are going to carry the tradition forward?

When Latonya Pennington wrote this op-ed for Afropunk, lamenting their loss, the top photo used for the story was Memphis Minnie, who I featured last week. Pennington also references Deborah Coleman’s “I’m a woman.”

Pennington critiqued the decidedly male bias in the business, as well as offering her thoughts on Black women who have carried the music forward.

“I’m a woman/I can sing the blues/I’m a woman/I can turn old to new”. This lyric comes from “I’m a Woman”, one of the best known songs by blues guitarist Deborah Coleman. Coleman has the distinction of being nominated for the W.C. Handy Blues Award nine times. She is also a rarity in blues music. A black woman playing the blues on guitar isn’t anything new. Memphis Minnie was a pioneering black blues guitarist. Lady Bo played backup to her boss Bo Diddley in the late 50’s. Yet with Lady Bo’s recent passing comes the knowledge that there are too few living black female blues guitarists[…]

For a black female blues listener like me, this can be problematic when some black male blues artists put out songs with misogynistic lyrics. In Robert Johnson’s “Me and The Devil’s Blues”, Johnson sings of beating his woman until he’s satisfied. In Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up”, he tells his woman to stop complaining while likening her to an animal he’s caught and taken care of.

While there is no denying the influence of Robert Johnson or the late B.B. King in music, sometimes it can be vexing to have to look up the lyrics to their songs & wade through offensive tracks. It is also disappointing to think that Deborah Coleman may never get the same recognition as her male counterparts.

I agree with Pennington’s complaint about misogynistic lyrics, which are all too frequent in both blues and contemporary R&B, hip-hop, and rap. Not only do women get disrespected in lyrics, the industry as a whole relegates many sisters to second-class status.

She speaks lovingly about playing Deborah Coleman, who sadly, we lost in 2018.

Her record label, Blind Pig, has Coleman’s bio, and a tribute that announced her passing.

Coleman was born in Portsmouth, Virginia and raised in a music-loving military family that lived in San Diego, San Francisco, Bremerton, Washington, and the Chicago area. With her father playing piano, two brothers on guitar, and a sister who plays guitar and keyboards, Deborah felt natural with an instrument in her hands, picking up guitar at age eight. At fifteen, she started to perform with a series of rock and R&B bands. She started out as a bass player, but after hearing Jimi Hendrix, switched to lead. Radio was an important early influence. “Back then, the formats of the radio stations were more diverse. I remember hearing Joe Cocker, James Brown, Ray Charles and the Beatles on the same station.” As her interest in guitar grew, she began listening to rock groups such as the Yardbirds, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, and followed the roots of their music back to the blues. “Jeff Beck was one of my favorites,” she recalls. “I didn’t find out until later that they were doing blues tunes and I went to find the original artists.” A pivotal event for Deborah was a concert she saw when she was twenty-one that featured Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker all on the same bill. “I will never forget that show. It started me on a path to my roots.”

Coleman would gain notoriety and critical acclaim after releasing her first album I Can’t Lose in 1997, and would continue to wow blues critics with her second release in 1998, of Where Blue Begins.

Watch her getting her groove on at the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland, Maine, in 2007.

RIP Sister Coleman.

Her passing is not the end of the line. There may not be many new Black female blues guitarists out there that we are hearing about—yet. But they do exist. So allow me to post a little teaser since I’ve run out of space to give them the full treatment.

Check out Austin, Texas, native, Jackie Venson, who started out as a classical pianist and now rocks the blues.

And reclaiming a blues into rock tradition that has become an almost exclusive venue of white males, rocking an upside-down guitar, meet Malina Moye.  

And last but not least, from the rural town of Gause,Texas, Ruthie Foster, winner of the 2019 Blues Foundation’s Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues Female Artist.

I hope that these teasers wet your blues tastebuds, and you’ll join me in the comments section below for more blues from sistas strokin’ those strings and frets.

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