After playing this lady’s Motown music for the last couple of days, I decided to dig a little deeper into the fascinating life and times of Barbara McNair. Here’s what I came up with which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I did….
Following her birth on 4 March 1934 in Chicago, Illinois, to parents Horace and Claudia, Barbara Jean McNair and her family relocated to Racine, Wisconsin. She had four siblings; Sam, Horace, Juanita and Jacqueline. Encouraged by her parents to study music from an early age, Barbara sang in church services and school plays, before studying music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her sister Jacqueline always believed Barbara was headed for a career in show business, saying – “She sang from the time she was five years old in churches and then at school. We always encouraged her.”
After her high school years, Barbara moved to Los Angeles to attend UCLA but left after a year believing that New York with its “school of hard knocks” would give her a more practical education. It was the right move to make, because among other things, she won an episode of Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts programme, where audiences selected the winners using an applause meter. And while working a secretarial day job for the National Foundation of Settlements, and of an evening auditioning for Manhattan nightclub gigs, she got that all important break when impresario Max Gordon offered her a stint at the legendary Village Vanguard Jazz Club in Lower Manhattan. This led to another turning point in her career when she was offered residences at the Purple Onion, New York, and the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. One of her performances encouraged a New York Times journalist to write that although Ms McNair was strikingly beautiful she didn’t have to depend on looks alone. “She is a highly knowledgeable performer who projects an aura of beauty, a warm personality and an appealing sense of fun.” While the singer had other ideas as she told the New York Post in 1963 – “People talked and smoked and drank while I sang. People never did that in Racine so I was shocked.”
From her nightclub performances Barbara became a popular headlining jazz singer and enjoyed guest spots on television variety programmes like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Hollywood Palace. As her exposure grew she switched from jazz to sing popular tunes of the day, saying – “not necessarily rock and roll but good solid standards.” Ralph Carmichael, her musical director at the time, told The Times – “She’s got a big great, wailing voice. She swings so well I hate to hear her doing anything else.”
Her recording career appears to have kicked off as a member of the cast for the film “The Body Beautiful” in 1958, when the soundtrack was released on Blue Pear. A year later, she switched to Coral Records to record “Front Row Centre” featuring show tunes like “Hello Young Lovers”, “The Party’s Over” and “I’ve Got A Crush On You”. Somewhere in this time span (probably late-1957) she recorded what she called “a terrible rock and roll record” called “Bobby”. Enthusiastically performed by her, this quirky single with teenage lyrics, was held together by a male chorus, and was so typical of what record buyers were buying at the time. For some reason though, Barbara failed to hit the mark. My research also throws up that she signed with Roulette to yield “That’s All I Want From You” in 1961, and “Honeymoonin’”, the following year.
The “Love Talk” album for Signature followed. This time the track listing included “He Is A Man”, “Kansas City” and “All About Love”. Before recording for Warner Brothers in 1964, Barbara made musical shorts for Scopitone, a franchise for coin operated machines that were said to be the forerunners of today’s music videos. “The Livin’ End” for Warner Brothers was a far cry from her recognisable sultry Motown sessions as she returned to her roots to musically dance with jazz, plus the obligatory standard material. Tracks like “When In Rome”, “Secret Love” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade” were intended to appeal to a cross section of adult buyers. I noticed that on the reverse album sleeve, alongside the necessary blurb, the headline ran – “This Is One Classy Singing Lady, Barbara McNair. Also Known As The Livin’ End.” Indeed!
The leap from nightclub performances to the Broadway stage was a smooth one. She replaced (future Motown recording artist) Diahann Carroll in the lead role of “No Strings”. While she wowed the New York audiences, it was a different story when the company toured, as she told The Times in 1968. “In St Louis and Kansas, I got a lot of hate mail and obscene phone calls. There were no threats on my life, just messages like…’how dare you stand up on stage and kiss a white man?’” This wasn’t the first time racism smacked Barbara in the face, as she recalled being forced to walk out of a hotel in Miami. Sure, she was offered a room but forbidden to swim in the pool. In another instance she said she was told in no uncertain terms to eat in the employees’ dining room and not with the other guests. From “The Body Beautiful”, Barbara joined the cast of “The Pajama Game”.
In 1967 she travelled to Southeast Asia with Bob Hope to perform for the American troops during the Vietnam War (“I went over there to see what war was like and to comfort the men and I was appalled”) and toured with Nat King Cole, before kick starting an acting career on television, guesting in popular programmes like Dr Kildare, I Spy, Mission: Impossible and McMillan And Wife, when she played Rock Hudson’s ex-girlfriend. However, one of the most ground breaking moves came when she hosted her own syndicated The Barbara McNair Show because she was one of the first African-American women to do so. It ran for three seasons – 1969-1972 – and featured top names like Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers, Della Reese, Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, and so on.
From the small screen, Barbara enjoyed a successful film career via a diverse selection of roles. The first appears to be an unbilled part in the family drama film “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda, where in the small print, Barbara is listed as a graduation singer. However, the most notable films, of course, were with Elvis Presley and Sidney Poitier. In 1969 she played Sister Irene in “Change Of Habit”, a nun who helped a physician, played by Presley, to run a clinic. So taken was he by Barbara that during a 1969 performance in Las Vegas, he dedicated “Suspicious Minds” to her, telling his audience that “..I found her to be one of the nicest, warmest, lovingest people I’ve ever met.” When some members of his audience complained they couldn’t see her, Presley instructed the house lights to be turned on full. Off set, he would, with guitar in hand, visit Barbara at her home where they sang and jammed together. There was also an instance when Mahalia Jackson visited the film set for “Change Of Habit”. Barbara said – “Elvis and I were sitting together and Mahalia …..asked if Elvis would participate in a fundraiser that she was going to organise. Elvis was so gracious. ‘Mrs Jackson, I am so happy to meet you. I would love to do it but I still have to ask the Colonel.’ So, after she left, he said to me, ‘I’ll never do it, the Colonel won’t let me’. But he was so gracious to her (because) he knew all the time the Colonel wouldn’t let him do it.”
A year later, Barbara played Valerie, the wife of the black police detective, Virgil Tibbs, played by Poitier in “They Call Me Mister Tibbs”. This was the second instalment in a trilogy, the first being the award-winning “In The Heat Of The Night” in 1967, and Poitier reprised his previous role, with the film title liberated from the first film. Considered to be a disappointing sequel, it attracted comments like “the film is poorly paced….Poitier seems bored…flat return for the detective… taking on a cool, protoblaxploitation feel, this is a step down to its predecessor.” The final in the trilogy, “The Organisation” was poorly received, due to its unbelievable plot. Barbara also played Lily, a nightclub singer, girlfriend of an escaped prisoner in “If He Hollers Let Him Go!” released in 1968. Playing opposite Raymond St Jacques, the film was slated for its two unfair angles – racism and nudity – with a storyline exploiting black/white tensions. Barbara agreed to promote the movie by posing nude, and told The Post that her steamy photo spread for Playboy magazine – “helped my career immensely.”
When talking about the film industry, Barbara was outspoken, not like some who feared that speaking their minds would leave them jobless. She told The Times – “When I was making a lot of movies, they didn’t want women to look too black. But black people objected to that policy, so then the industry did a reversal. (They) went all the way in the other direction. For the industry to limit itself to one look or another is unrealistic”. Troubled by programmes that showed African-American as under-achievers, she further told the newspaper – “There’s so little to inspire the young black child.” Then during 1968, Barbara told a reporter that Lenny Bruce had said she was in fact Caucasian – “and that someone took a paintbrush and painted me brown. White people are not aware that Negroes look all kinds of different ways. We don’t all have wide noses and full lips.”
In 1966, “I Enjoy Being A Girl” was issued by Warner Brothers, the result of three different recording sessions with three different orchestras. “The Friendliest Thing”, “If I Had A Hammer” and “On The Other Side Of The Tracks” were included in the track listing. Also this year, Barbara debuted on the Motown label with “Here I Am”, an album that was, to all intents and purposes, alien to the commercial company sound. However, the elegance and sophisticated artistry that Barbara delivered in this album was to be applauded, particularly her version of The Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You”. The obligatory standard material was included, like, “Strangers In The Night”, “Message To Michael”, “For Once In My Life” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile”. It would have been foolish to ignore the musical heritage that Barbara brought to Motown, because it was her film and television career which Berry Gordy wanted to capitalise upon. So throwing in a couple of company songs was probably to placate Motown fans. The ploy didn’t really work out, yet the album is now an expensive must-have.
Three long years later, her second album “The Real Barbara McNair” was issued, with the front sleeve credited to her Playboy shoot. Once again versions of Motown originals were featured, like Brenda Holloway’s “When I’m Gone”, The Miracles’ “If You Can Want”, The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony”, together with outside covers of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and “What Now My Love”. Naturally, Barbara’s delivery was faultless, her styling and presence unbeatable, almost perfect to a tee, yet it was the opening track that dipped into the funk/soul melting pot, that attracted Motown fans the most. “Where Would I Be Without You”, co-written by Frank Wilson, grabbed immediate attention with its off-beat, uptempo approach, and it was probably thanks to our Northern Soul friends that the song remains relevant today. Many claim “The Real Barbara McNair” was another desperate attempt by Berry Gordy to break Barbara as a cross over artist: once again, he failed. And once again, the original pressing of this album is now exchanging hands at considerable expense.
Following the release in the late sixties of “More Today Than Yesterday” on Audio Fidelity, with tracks like “Something Happy”, “I Can Tell” and “Didn’t We”, it seems Barbara’s recording career hit a sticky patch until 2004 when “The Ultimate Motown Collection” was issued with a massive 48 tracks. The double CD package featured her two released Motown albums plus the unreleased masters of “Barbara Sings Smokey”, together with a handful of non-album singles. A more complete and thorough release would be hard to find, encompassing as it does, her Motown tenure which, while unsuccessful and disappointing at the time, is now revered as an invaluable niche in the growth of the company.
Time passed until 2012 when a surprise album appeared titled “Here’s To Life” that included “Autumn Leaves”, “Tomorrow Mountain”, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”, among others. Barbara’s nephew, John Thomas said the songs were personally chosen by her – “and were inspired by her husband Charles and our family. We are a close knit family even though we lived on other sides of the country.”
So now let’s go behind the spotlight. Personally speaking, the singer married Jack Rafferty in 1963 but that ended in 1971. She married her second husband, Rick Manzie a year later in Las Vegas and lived in a 20-room house at 4265 S. Bruce Street, near to the Sahara Hotel. (Their house is now an apartment complex). While her husband was ostensibly her manager, he was also a heroin user, gambler, and a minor associate of the Chicago mob known as The Outfit. However happy she may have been, the marriage signaled the singer’s professional downfall. Having applied her lipstick and eye liner in her dressing room at the Playboy Club in McAfee, New Jersey, where she was due to perform in October 1972, two white men stood at her open door. They asked for confirmation of her name, and told her she was under arrest for possession of narcotics and should follow them to the nearby police station. Moments prior to this, a small brown package had been delivered by messenger, and as it was addressed to Barbara, she had signed for it, setting it aside, to continue her preparations for the evening’s performance. Following her arrest, the Playboy Club naturally cancelled the remainder of her engagement there, with other venues following, like the Elmwood Casino in Windsor, Ontario. A television special which was partway finished was also pulled. Barbara told reporters later that she had been paid off. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same again. It’s like a bad dream. I just wonder where it’s going to end. Emotionally, it has shattered me….This whole thing has had a devastating effect on my career.” Meanwhile, her spokesperson told Jet magazine, that people had taken the prerogative of prejudging Barbara – “and they’ve cancelled shows without knowing the outcome of the case.” In a later statement, the shocked singer emphasized – “I do not use narcotics of any kind. I’ve never taken drugs, never had the need for them. With my kind of life, you can’t function if you take them. I’ve known kids who were about to experiment with drugs and I tell them, don’t do it!” To The Post in 1979 she sighed – “You can spend all this time building something and it can be destroyed in a minute.”
If she was convicted she and her husband faced one year in jail and a $5,000 fine each. However, a federal grand jury in Newark, New Jersey, concluded Ms McNair was an innocent by-stander and that no charges should be brought against her. On the other hand, they returned an indictment charging her husband with possessing one-half ounce of heroin. He was sentenced to one year’s probation and a $1,000 fine. That wasn’t the end of it because in December 1976, Rick Manzie’s half-nude body was found in their Las Vegas mansion home: he had been shot several times. In 1979 Barbara married again. This time to Ben Strahan, and the marriage lasted five plus years. Seven years on, her fourth marriage to Charles Blecka sadly ended in her death in 2007. In between times, during 1987, the singer faced another battle – that of bankruptcy. She filed in a Las Vegas court saying she had assets of $23,080 and debts nearing $458,399, telling the bankruptcy court that she owned no valuable jewelry, save a diamond ring from a previous marriage. The chief cause of the debt was a business arrangement with her then husband, Ben Strahan. I’m unclear about the outcome.
Yet despite all these pitfalls and everything life threw at her, Barbara McNair continued to perform in nightclubs and cabaret bars. She delighted audiences with her stage tribute to the music of Duke Ellington, and was signed for occasional guest television spots on programmes like The Redd Foxx Show. During 1984, she accepted a recurring, if short-lived role, in the daytime programme General Hospital, followed a year later by a role in the little known “Neon Signs” film. Starring William Smith and Carol Lynley, Barbara played Grace in this low budget movie that few people saw. It was her last film. Outside of her professional life, Barbara enjoyed her family and socializing with friends. Playing tennis and skiing kept her in shape, standing her in good stead for her touring commitments.
Then, tragically, Barbara was to fight her biggest battle in life when she developed throat cancer and a later an inoperable brain tumor. Her husband, Charles Blecka, and their family supported her through her brave battling years but in the end the disease won. Barbara McNair lost her fight in February 2007. “She was the strongest person I knew” said Charles. “She was powerful in a strong way. If she set her sights to do something, she did it in a dignified way. …A lot of people think celebrity comes with a burden. Barbara never did. Along with her inner strength she had this ability to accept everybody, in all walks of life. Ask anybody in the business, she was one of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to come across….She had a special quality that was infectious, that everybody loved.”
A New York reporter wrote of a 1982 performance – “Ms McNair is a gorgeous looking woman with a warm, easy, communicative personality and a voice that can range from softly intense ballads to the edges of gospel, to crisp and rhythmic comedy or to a saloon singer’s belt.”