BARBARA LEWIS: HELLO STRANGER (1963)
1) Hello Stranger; 2) Puppy Love; 3) On Bended Knees; 4) My Heart Went Do Dat Da; 5) My Mama Told Me; 6) Gonna Love You Till The End Of Time; 7) Would You Love Me; 8) Longest Night Of The Year; 9) Does Anyone Want A Lover; 10) We're Too Young To Marry; 11) Love Is A Castle; 12) Think A Little Sugar.
In the early 1960s, mainstream R&B was going through much the same crisis as mainstream rock'n'roll, caught up in the drive to make teen-oriented music sweeter and softer — and so, if you ever wondered, like me, how could Atlantic Records switch its focus from the harsher, cooler, more ass-kicking sound of Ruth Brown to the tender, fragile, bubblegummier sound of Carla Thomas and Barbara Lewis, well, do not forget that it was essentially the same relation as between Gene Vincent and Ricky Nelson. Despite being marketed as an R&B artist, there was really very little R&B about Barbara Lewis and quite a bit of pop. But, now that we are long out of that time loop and no longer feel any pressure to choose one over the other, who cares?..
Even though Barbara's debut album is quite a rarity nowadays (it did get an official CD release, but has probably been out of print for years now), there is one outstanding thing about it: it was completely self-written — yes, that's right, not just the hit singles, but every single track here is credited exclusively to Barbara Lewis and nobody else. How she got Atlantic to trust her on that is not entirely clear, but it most probably had to do with the big commercial success of ʽHello Strangerʼ — a song with a strange, subtle charm, emanating from John Young's organ riffs, backing vocals from the Dells, and Barbara's own croon, half-sexy, half-sad, and, lyrically and attitude-wise, probably more aligned with Sinatra than with Ray Charles. The song does not even have an explicit vocal hook (unless "shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby" counts), essentially becoming a hit based on atmosphere more than melody.
The funniest thing is that both of the other two single A-sides included on this record, ʽMy Heart Went Do Dat Daʼ and ʽPuppy Loveʼ, are far catchier — the former is a lushly orchestrated twist number that tries to express the same kind of first-time excitement that is found on ʽI Saw Her Standing Thereʼ, the latter a piece of hard-to-resist bubblegum that shows Barbara is as good at describing situations of emotional disappointment as she is with sudden teenage crushes. Cool, cuddly numbers with decent musicianship, yes, but neither of them captured the national heart as strongly as ʽHello Strangerʼ — perhaps because the nation felt some sort of intangible intrigue in Lewis' performance, as opposed to complete clarity and one-dimensionality of the other two.
On the whole, her songwriting is surprisingly diverse: the songs include straightforward doo-wop numbers (ʽOn Bended Kneesʼ), Brill Building-style teen-pop (ʽMy Mama Told Meʼ), a bit of very light R&B (ʽGonna Love You Till The End Of Timeʼ is pretty much a cuddlier re-write of ʽMoney (That's What I Want)ʼ — well, nobody claimed Barbara Lewis was a completely original songwriter), some jazz-pop (ʽWould You Love Meʼ), and slow orchestrated balladry (ʽLove Is A Castleʼ). «Great» is not a word I'd associate with any of this, though, for some strange reason, the otherwise bland pop ditty ʽWe're Too Young To Marryʼ is distinguished by a highly melodic, inventive, and energetic string passage that is resolved with an amusingly Beethoven-esque flourish. But it's all pretty, listenable, tasteful, and the diversity helps you form the impression that you are actually listening to some sort of artistic statement, rather than a simple bunch of filler quickly produced as packing material for the hit single. As far as I'm concerned, that's sufficient grounds to give the record a thumbs up — it is not every day, admit it, that you run across a pop album from 1963 where all the songs have been written by the artist (even if, admittedly, some of these songs did not involve that much songwriting); in fact, as far as labels such as Atlantic and Motown are concerned, I am not sure that (barring professional songwriters who also had their own bands, like Smokey Robinson) there was even a real precedent.