Music in America has always been mixed up. It started that way when white songwriters began writing black minstrel tunes in the 1830s. These songs sounded in no way like black music but strangely continued when blacks started singing them a few years later themselves. Its never disentangled itself. Two sides of the same coin, inextricably intertwined and eventually giving birth to blues and jazz and country and bluegrass and rock n roll. American music can be defined as two separate things done at once.
In Beaumont, Texas, 1942, a little girl was born who would be something different. She started her first band in junior high called Bobbie Lynn and the Idols and began playing around town in talent shows and local clubs. She sang a bit like Connie Francis or Brenda Lee. Her first instrument was the piano, but Elvis changed that, and she switched over to guitar. Elvis is many things; a guitar god isn’t one of them, though, and she soon found guys like Guitar Slim and Jimmy Reed to model her playing after. Cajun rock and roller Joe Barry caught her act one night and took her to see Huey P. Meaux and in 1962, with her parents’ permission, she went to New Orleans and laid down a self penned ballad, You’ll Lose a Good Thing. It went national. Her first LP had 12 songs on it, 10 she wrote herself. It’s not like Miss Barbara ever really went away, but still, it didn’t quite happen for her either. I often find myself listening to an old record and wondering what went wrong. Why didn’t this person become a big star? Certainly not the music, not the band, and not the singer, but just bad luck or bad promotion or bad timing or all of the above. It would be easy to say the world wasn’t ready for a black guitar-playing, blues-singing woman, but that’s not quite right to my ears, though I suppose it’s not far wrong either.
I stumbled on her myself. Compulsively, I spider web through music, one thing connecting to another. Side men become gateways, songwriters become sign posts, songs become obsessions to hear different versions. Don’t Be Cruel was the first song I heard Barbara Lynn sing because I was looking, compulsively, for Elvis covers. There’s a lot out there. That’s how good this one is. Might just be the best actually. It’s unbelievably sexy.
Let’s digress. All songs have a beginning, and this one goes back to Brooklyn, NY, 1932. Otis Blackwell was born and raised around music. All music: country and R&B and whatever else happened to be on the radio. He won his first amateur night at the Apollo in 1952, which led to a recording contract, and he began to write songs. Maybe you’ve heard of a few of them. Fever (credited as John Davenport), All Shook Up, Great Balls of Fire, Brace Yourself, Return to Sender, Breathless, and of course, Don’t Be Cruel. The story goes that producer Steve Sholes was drinking coffee with Elvis one day and pulled out a demo record of Don’t Be Cruel and played it. Presley learned it in minutes.
Miss Barbara’s version sounds much more like Elvis’s than Otis’s demo. It’s the right choice. Ultimately, it’s a playful song. Some small slight has been committed, and the lover sits with back turned away, arms crossed. Barbara Lynn practically coos into the ear and teases him. The words sound lonely:
You know I can be found
Sitting home all alone,
If you can’t come around,
At least please telephone.
Don’t be cruel to a heart that’s true.
She’s smiling the whole way through the verse, putting down this snaky little guitar riff. A couple of “Hey, Hey” girls behind her pushing the whole thing along. The song becomes a poke in the ribs when the guy would rather be mad. It’s so hard to stay mad, though, when you have this song playing behind you.
I really love you baby, cross my heart.