This chapter is one of 42 profiles in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran.
“Crazy Cajun” Huey P. Meaux was still working as a barber in Winnie and a DJ on KPAC-AM in Port Arthur, when he started making his name as a record producer and talent scout in the Houston/ Golden Triangle area. His first Top Ten hit was “Let’s Talk About Livin’” by East Texas rockabilly singer Bob Luman in 1960, and Huey was hungry for Meaux.
He’d heard about a left-handed Creole girl who played electric guitar and sang like Guitar Slim’s sister and as soon as he could, Meaux was there at The Palomino Club in Vinton, LA, just across the Texas border, watching Barbara Lynn Ozen fronting the band Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols. Meaux’s jaw dropped when he watched the guitarist pick out leads with her thumb, while strumming with her index finger. Just seeing a female playing an electric guitar was impressive enough back then, but this southpaw had her own style. Then, when the 20-year-old sang with such soul and clarity, the regional music wildcatter knew he’d found his next strike!
The big bonus was that Barbara Lynn, as became her billing, also wrote her own songs, which was very rare for a female singer of the era. While attending Hebert High in Beaumont, Lynn penned such tunes as “Until Then I Suffer,” “Teen Age Blues” and “You’re Losing Me,” based on her own experiences. She’d come up with the title first, then sit in her room for hours writing lyrics and melodies. One day she told her boyfriend Sylvester, whom she’d caught with a roving eye, that if he didn’t watch it, he was going to lose a good thing and a great song just came rolling out.
“You’ll Lose a Good Thing” was Barbara Lynn’s only Top 40 hit, but it was a big one, knocking Ray Charles out of No. 1 on the R&B charts in 1962 and hitting No. 8 on the pop charts. Simple and bluesy, the tune was a ladies’ choice slow dance favorite with an unmistakable New Orleans feel, because that’s where it was recorded, at Cosimo’s studio in the French Quarter. Lloyd Toups set the song’s mood with mournful tenor sax, while piano player Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack pounds a Gulf Coast rhythm.
Follow-up single “Second Fiddle Girl,” which hit No. 63, was the closest Lynn would ever get to the Billboard Pop Top 40 again, though 1963 single “You’re Gonna Need Me” did reach R&B No. 13. Still, calling Lynn, who turned 73 last month, a “one-hit wonder” cheapens her influence. One hit wonders don’t have streets named after them in their hometown, an honor Lynn received three years ago. Every female who ever picked up an electric guitar and fronted a rock or soul band owes a debt to the trailblazer who still lives in the house in Beaumont she had built with her first royalty check ($85,000!). “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (which lists Meaux as a co-writer) was covered by Aretha Franklin in 1964 and 12 years later taken to No. 1 on the country charts by Freddy Fender.
“There weren’t really any women playing electric guitar that I knew of coming up,” says Lynn, who says she didn’t play guitar on her early records because she wanted to concentrate on singing. “But after I saw Elvis Presley on the TV when I was just a kid, I just wanted to play the guitar so bad.”
She started off with a $10 right-handed ukulele, which she played upside down, but her factory-worker parents eventually saved up enough money to buy her an electric guitar down at Swicegood Music in Beaumont. “They had to special order a left-handed guitar, so I had to wait,” Lynn says. “Longest three months of my life.”
Playing mostly covers of Elvis, Chuck Berry and Brenda Lee, Lynn was the queen of the teen talent shows in the Golden Triangle, often performing with some of the other musically gifted kids in the area, including Johnny and Edgar Winters, Jerry LaCroix and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The big man in Beaumont back then was guitarist Clarence “Bon Ton” Garlow, who had a couple of Cajun-flavored, minor R&B hits and played guitar for Clifton Chenier. As Lynn would do 20 years later, Garlow moved to Los Angeles after regional success in the Golden Triangle, but came back to Beaumont. The returning local hero got a part-time job as a DJ on East Texas R&B powerhouse KJET-AM and had an eye of discovering talent.
“Clarence Garlow had a little studio there at the corner of Houston and Washington Boulevard,” she recalls, “and he wanted to cut a record on me, but that’s around the time I met Huey Meaux.” After Lynn signed with Meaux’s Starfire label, Garlow and the Crazy Cajun had a falling out, Lynn says.
After Lynn’s first single “Dina and Patrina” failed, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” didn’t and was quickly picked up by Philadelphia-based Jamie Records. As the bluesy number shot up the charts and led to two appearances on American Bandstand, Lynn’s simple life became wonderfully complicated almost overnight.
“Oh, boy, that was something!” Lynn remembers of the time Beaumont topped Billboard. “I went out on tour with all the big acts – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye. I met Michael Jackson when he was nine years old.” Those package shows could get a little crazy out on the road, with gambling, drugs and sex at every stop, so Lynn’s mother Mildred Richard quit her job at the box factory to look after her daughter, still a choir member of Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church. Other musicians learned that you didn’t have to watch out for just the authorities, but Mildred, or “Mag,” who once interrupted a drug deal and told those boys to “get on away from here” and they did. “My stepdad thought I was too young to go on tour by myself, and he was right,” says Lynn.
A true triple threat, singer/guitarist Lynn wrote 10 of the 12 songs on her debut LP You’ll Lose a Good Thing, and also penned most of the 1964 follow-up LP Sister of Soul, including “Oh! Baby (We Got a Good Thing Goin’), which the Rolling Stones covered on their 1965 LP Now!
After recording four singles for Meaux’s Tribe label, circa 1966, which yielded the minor hit “You Left the Water Running” (later covered by Otis Redding), Lynn signed to Atlantic Records. This was the deal she’d been waiting for. But after 1968’s Here Is Barbara Lynn didn’t take off, she was dropped from the label.
There were some big things happening in her life away from music at the time- like marrying an Army man from back home while he was on leave from Vietnam- and Lynn didn’t make another album for 20 years. Instead, she and her husband moved to Houston, where he got a job as a conductor for the Southern Pacific Railroad and they raised a family. Occasionally, Lynn performed in clubs and released singles for Meaux’s R&B label Jetstream that went nowhere, a Jetstream trademark.
In 1975, Lynn and a girl friend went to Las Vegas on vacation and when Barbara hit two jackpots on the slots in two hours, she decided to go on to Los Angeles, while her friend went back to Beaumont. “I wasn’t divorced from my husband, but I needed a fresh start in L.A.,” she says. Her three kids came out to live with her. “When word got around that I’d moved to L.A., I started getting booked at all the chitlin circuit clubs on the West Coast. I’ve never worked an 8- 5 job in my life.”
Her estranged husband died of emphysema, and Lynn remarried in L.A., But the singer moved back to Beaumont in ’85 after her second husband died of a heart attack. “I came home to take care of my mother,” says Lynn, but back in Texas, she was tracked down by Port Arthur native Clifford Antone, who gave her an open invitation to play his blues club in Austin whenever she wanted. Lynn told Antone she didn’t have a band and he said to just show up with a guitar and he’d take care of the rest. So a 42-year-old Barbara Lynn took a Greyhound bus from Beaumont to Austin and ended up playing one of the most memorable gigs of her life.
“They knew all my songs,” she says of both the house band and the singing-along crowd. “That shocked me, but then I found out that Lou Ann (Barton) and Sarah Brown and Marcia Ball and Angela (Strehli) had been doing my songs for years.”
Lynn also discovered she had a big following in Japan and was signed to record her first album in 20 years for the Ichiban label in 1988. You Don’t Have To Go stayed in the Gulf Coast, with Lynn’s cover of Lazy Lester’s “Sugar-Coated Love” a standout. She also made it to the soundtrack of John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, giving legs to “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” In the ‘90s, she released So Good on Bullseye and took to the road to promote it. Club owners loved Lynn, whose sweet and accommodating personality is the opposite of diva.
Some nice royalty checks came in 2002 when Moby used “I’m a Good Woman,” which Lynn released on Tribe in 1966, as the foundation of “Another Woman” on the platinum LP 18. The latest career uptick was in 2014, when Light In the Attic reissued This Is Barbara Lynn as a vinyl-only release, introducing her to the turntable-crazed hip crowd. When Lynn played a one-off show at the ND venue in Austin in December, the average age of the audience looked to be about 30-35, and that included all the pot-bellied grayhairs who used to see her an Antone’s in the ‘80s.
She started off the set with a cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” with the guitar in her lap like a Fender Pomeranian, and it seemed like it might be one of those walkthrough performances by an aging legend. But then Lynn and the pick-up band went into “I’d Rather Go Blind,” the Etta James song she recorded in 1996 for oldies soul label ITP, and she picked out a lead on the guitar that excited and stung like a goodbye kiss. At age 73, Barbara Lynn has still not lost that good thing.
“Everybody knows her hits like ‘You’ll Lose a Good Thing’ and ‘Oh, Baby, We’ve Got a Good Thing Going,’ but until you see her live, you don’t realize what an incredible guitar player she is,” says Ira Padros, who booked Lynn to play his Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans for 10 straight years. He recalled a rehearsal at the November 2008 tribute to Les Paul at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, where Lynn was playing with Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. The side of the stage was full of guitar greats, including James Burton, Slash, Duane Eddy and Lonnie Mack, and after Lynn ripped out the notes from her soul on one lead, percussion was provided by slaps on the forehead.
She may be the sweet grandmother of seven, but when she’s got a guitar in her hands, Barbara Lynn will always be “The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul.”