Barbara Lewis was born in February 1943 in rural Salem, Michigan, about 15 miles from Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. Music was a part of her family life; both parents played musical instruments and had led orchestras. She attended high school at South Lyon, Michigan, where she was the only African-American student. At one point there, she had finished second in a school talent contest. She had been writing music since the age of nine, and began recording in her teens. She worked with record producer Ollie McLaughlin, a black disc jockey at Ann Arbor’s WHRV radio station, since renamed.
By 1962, she had cut a record, an upbeat song titled “My Heart Went Do Dat Da,” which became a local hit but did not chart nationally. However, the song convinced Ollie McLauglin that Lewis had potential.
In January 1963, McLaughlin took Lewis to the Chess Studios in Chicago the day before they had arranged a recording session. There she watched Etta James cut a single, and came home a bit depressed, saying to her Mom, “I’ll never have a hit like that.” But on the next day, for her own session, she brought a song she had written, “Hello Stranger.” The lyrics came to her from traveling around town with her father. “I would make the circuit with my dad and people would yell out: ‘Hey stranger, hello stranger, it’s been a long time’,” Lewis recalled. “…But I know that second verse [in the song] makes it sound like lovers.” And indeed, that’s the interpretation that sticks for most listeners — a romantic, come-hither plea to a returning lover.
The song’s arrangement uses a signature organ riff in the lead along with drums and cymbal as the vocals come in. At the recording session, DJ Ollie McLaughlin managed to pull in as background singers a good popular group called the Dells. The Dells have a memorable part backing Lewis with classic sounding “shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby” vocals. Lewis had also written the background vocals. In the recording session, Lewis was in a tiny booth with the five Dells and two microphones. Riley Hampton did the arranging and John Young played the keyboards. They did 13 takes before they were satisfied with the song. At the end, one of Dells, Chuck Barksdale, became very excited about what they had recorded. As Barbara Lewis later recounted: “Chuck kept jumping up and down and saying, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit.’ …I didn’t really know. It was all new to me.”And the song was a hit. “Hello Stranger” broke into the Top 40 in May 1963 and rose to No. 3 that summer remaining in Top 40 for about 10 weeks. It went to No. 1 on the R & B charts. A debut album also titled Hello Stranger followed, with a dozen songs, all of which Lewis wrote.
It was unusual at the time — a time when professional songwriters in New York’s Brill Building and elsewhere across the land were turning out songs for new groups — for the performer to also write the music. Still, despite her talents, Lewis’s share of the rewards for her music was not what it should have been, especially in the early years.
When she began her career, she was naïve about the business side of her music, and executives got most of the money. Some of her royalty checks were sent to fictitious persons. At one point, Lewis was given a check for $500, with her handlers telling her it was the best they could do.
Following her initial hit, Lewis continued to work with Olllie McLauglin. In August 1963, Sharon McMahan, a writer and later artist in her own right who worked with McLaughlin and Lewis, wrote a follow-up single for Lewis, “Straighten Up Your Heart” that hit No. 43 on the music charts. McMahan would also write another later song for Lewis on Stax Records, “Do I Deserve It Baby.”
Barbara Lewis soon found herself in the work-a-day world, where she did everything from running her own jewelry store to working security. But in her various jobs, she never touted her former fame to co-workers; nobody knew she had earlier been a popular recording artist. “I never felt like a big star, anyway. …I went back to Michigan and I never told a soul….” - Barbara Lewis “I never felt like a big star, anyway,” Lewis told former Minneapolis Star writer, Chuck Laszewski, in a 2008 interview for MinnPost.com. “I went back to Michigan and I never told a soul. I would hear it on the radio and it was disassociation. It was another lifetime. I was never sad about it. I just went about my life.”
By 1993, however, Lewis began wondering if she could still sing and perform. She made a few calls to old contacts and before long was once again playing on the nostalgia circuit. As of mid-2008, she was still performing, explaining to Chuck Laszewski: “Last year, I worked an awful lot. My voice is better than it ever was. …I still sing the songs in their original key. I’ve been very, very blessed.”
Over the years, Lewis’ songs, or the ones she initially recorded, have found a number of willing users among other artists. Even in the 1960s and 1970s her contemporaries were covering her songs. In 1965, the same year that Lewis cut her second hit song, “Baby I’m Yours,” Peter & Gordon of the U.K. did the song for the British market, becoming a Top 20 singles hit there. The following year, the U.K.’s Cilla Black recorded the song on her album Cilla Sings a Rainbow. In 1969, Dusty Springfield did Lewis’s 1966 song, “Don’t Forget About Me.” Country singer Jody Miller remade “Baby I’m Yours” in 1971 and released it as a single, reaching No. 5 on the Country Singles chart. Canada’s Suzanne Stevens hit with a 1975 disco version of “Make Me Your Baby.” Back in the U.K., Linda Lewis had a top forty hit in 1976 with “Baby I’m Yours.”
In 1977, “Hello Stranger” was recorded by U.S. singer Yvonne Elliman, which hit No. 15 on the pop chart and No.1 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It also hit the U.K. singles Top 30. Debby Boone’s 1978 version of “Baby I’m Yours” — a B-side to her “God Knows” song — peaked separately at No. 18 on the Adult Contemporary chart and No. 33 on the Country Singles chart. A range of artists — from Debby Boone to the Arctic Monkeys — have covered her songs. “Baby I’m Yours” was also done by Tanya Tucker in 1983, and also made the Billboard country chart. In 1990, U.S. singer Cher released her version of “Baby I’m Yours” as the first European single release from the soundtrack to the movie Mermaids. In 1995, “Baby I’m Yours” was featured on the soundtrack from the film The Bridges of Madison County. Other artists who have recorded “Baby I’m Yours” include Petula Clark, The Paramounts, Billy Preston, and Maureen McGovern. And last but not least, in 2006, the Arctic Monkeys released a cover of the song in a collaborative effort with The 747s. It was released as a B-side of the single, “Leave Before the Lights Come On,” which hit No. 4 on the U.K. Singles Chart. There are also a range of other artists who have done Barbara Lewis tunes, as this is not a complete list.
“The Best of…”
In July 1994, Rhino Records released a compilation of Lewis’s tunes, titled Hello Stranger: The Best of Barbara Lewis, a 20-tune compendium of her hits, basically tracking her career. This album also includes Lewis’s endorsement on the back as well as extensive liner notes. In one review of this album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine at All Music.com, says that Lewis’s work, along with Atlantic’s production, resulted in “an alluring body of work that still sounds seductive, yet comforting, years after their release.” He calls The Best of…, “an excellent compilation.” Other online reviewers, such as Dave Moore at Hitsville Soul Club.com, have gone through Lewis’s discography in detail, offering additional perspective on her music and its impact, including some of her lesser-known songs.
Date Posted: 17 March 2009
Last Update: 30 December 2011
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Jack Doyle, “Hello Stranger, 1963-1966,”
PopHistoryDig.com, Mach 17, 2009.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Richie Unterberger, Song Review, “Hello Stranger,” All Music.com.
Chuck Laszewski, “‘Hello Stranger': Barbara Lewis In Town For ‘Taste’,” MinnPost.com, Monday, June 30, 2008.
Dave Moore, “Barbara Lewis: No Stranger To Soul,” Hitsville Soul Club.com, August 2005.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Hello Stranger: The Best of Barbara Lewis, Album review, All Music.com.
Website of singer/songwriter, Sharon McMahan.
“Barbara Lewis,” African American Registry.com.
“Barbara Lewis Fan Club,” Squidoo.com.