Barbara Died Oct., 2005 - Tribute Page Here

The following text block was posted April 27, 1999 - taken from the liner notes of Barbara's "Getting Better All The Time."

The female sex was not heavily represented at Sun, and certainly one of the heavy weights (musically speaking) was Barbara Pittman, who appeared on both the Sun and Phillips International labels. Barbara was born one of twelve children, in Memphis. Her father was an Indian and her mother of Irish descent, and the family name was literally derived from digging pits. Raised in North Memphis, her mother was friendly with Gladys Presley, and from an early age Barbara got to know Elvis, attending the same school as he did. Although her father played the fiddle for his own amusement, musically she was raised on the sound of big bands and vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, and soon harboured ambitions of becoming a singer herself. A grounding in blues came courtesy of her uncle who had a pawn shop on Beale Street, where she would spend time listening to the impromptu jam sessions that took place in the vicinity. She was not yet a teenager when she presented herself to Marion Keisker at 706 Union as a potential recording artist, only to be told to come back when she had learned to sing and grown up a bit! After crying her heart out for a couple days, she determined to carry on, and succeeded in getting a job with D.J. Sleepy Eyed John. He went on to become her manager, and she performed at amongst others, the Eagle's Nest getting as much as $5 a gig.

However, her extreme youth was something of a problem, as the band played mainly licensed premises that she was not legally entitled to enter. And so in 1955 she went off and joined the Western star Lash Larue, with whom she toured for nigh on a year. Being a family variety show, mainly featuring Larue's prowess with the whip, her age was no problem. Barbara's initial job was as a babysitter, but eventually Larue allowed her to sing on the show, where she would perform popular songs of the day.

Having gained a year's experience on the road, touring as far afield as California, she returned to Memphis in 1956 and met Stan Kesler. Because of her close association with Elvis, Stan asked her to cut a demo of a song he wanted to get to Elvis, who was now with RCA. They recorded "Playing For Keeps" at the Cotton Club, and when Kesler played it to Sam Phillips, Sam was duly impressed. Not only did Elvis record the number, but the demo was sufficient to convince Phillips that here was a singer he should record. To date this demo hasn't surfaced, although a demo of "I'll Never Let You Go" did appear on Bear Family and Magnum Force albums. In the meantime Barbara had got herself a singing job with Clyde Leoppard's Snearly Ranch Boys who were residents at the Cotton Club in West Memphis. There her age was no problem as drinks were not served on the premises, the venue being aimed mainly at youngsters. It was Leoppard's band who provided the bulk of the backing for her first Sun session with Buddy Holobaugh playing guitar, Stan Kesler on steel, Smokey Joe Baugh on piano and Hank Byers on trumpet, and Johnny Benero on drums held on April 15th, 1956. "I Need A Man" and "No Matter Who's To Blame" were released on Sun 253, and simply confirmed that female rockabilly, no matter how good, just did not sell. Hit or no hit, she was signed up by Bob Neal, and went out on many of the Sun package tours that he put on the road. These tours were often wild affairs, with all manner of practical jokes, drinking and japes going on. It is a period that Barbara recalls with fondness, as the artists treated her like a kid sister and looked after her well. She would get to join in on the famous Saturday night jam sessions, where they would sing all manner of songs including gospel with Elvis often coming along to join in. She toured with Jerry Lee Lewis in his "Great Balls Of Fire" touring bus, and generally had a ball.

On the recording front, things weren't going so well. During the course of 1956 and the first half of 1957, she was in the studios a few times and recorded an uninspired version of "I Forgot To Remember To Forget", and had a first stab at "Sentimental Fool" and "I'm Getting Better All The Time", again backed by Clyde Leoppard's band. In the spring of 1957 she recorded demo versions of "I'm Getting Better All The Time" and "Take My Sympathy", just accompanied by Jack Clement on acoustic guitar, and also recorded another version of "Sentimental Fool", (whereas the early version has steel, the next recording had guitar and piano, and finally the version with Bill Justis featured sax). But none of this was getting her another record released, and Sam appeared to have lost interest in her. approaches from Joe Cuoghi at Hi and Slim Wallace at Fernwood galvanized Sam into giving Barbara a contract, the only female recording artist to be accorded such an honour at Sun. She was offered the choice of labels, and whimsically selected Phillips International because it had a pretty label. A recording session held on June 5th, 1957 produced her first single on the label, "Two Young Fools In Love"/ "I'm Getting Better All The Time". Jack Clement, composer of "Two Young Fools In Love", played acoustic guitar behind Barbara's double tracking vocal, accompanied by Billy Riley on Bass, Jimmy Wilson on piano and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums. Hank Byers provided the harmony vocal. The session was engineered by Roland Janes, who to Clement's disgust forgot to switch on the echo machine, but in the event it was decided to issue the record as it stood. The demo version and one alternate take of "I'm Getting Better All The Time" were issued on BFX 15359, a further two alternate takes are included on this set, which are without chorus and come from the same session as the single version. They are quite similar to the single release, but there are subtle differences. The record was a regional success, but failed to take off nationally. "Careless Love" recorded at the samw session cannot be found, which is the case with a number of songs on other sessions, as well as complete sessions logged for April 5th and June 24th, 1957, March 28th, 1958 and April 6th, 1958.

In Barbara's own opinion, the best record she ever cut was "Cold Cold Heart". Coupled with the fiercely rocking "Everlasting Love" it was issued on Phillips International 3527. On this session Barbara was backed by the Bill Justis band with Sid Manker and Roland Janes on guitars, Jimmy Wilson on piano, Bill Justis on sax and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums and an unknown bass player. The male contingent of the Gene Lowery Singers including bass man Cowboy Vernon Drake provided vocal backup on a session held on February 24th, 1958. This time it was Bill Justis who engineered the session, and he had good reason to feel satisfied with the outcome. The record was certainly capable of being a hit, and the fact that it was not may have had more to do with the success of Carl McVouy's "Tootsie", than with any inherent flaw with Barbara's record. Sam was notorious for concentrating all his time and energies on one record, when it showed signs of taking off, to the detriment of other worthy offerings. Two further titles from this session that have disappeared without trace were "Hide My Tears" and "I Wanna Be Loved", but an alternate take of "Cold Cold Heart" has turned up and is included here. Sometime later that year, Barbara recorded again, this time as part of the Sunrays, a vocal group assembled by Stan Kesler that included Elsie Sappington, Hank Byers and Jimmy Knight. Stan played bass and did all the arrangements with accompaniment from an otherwise unidentified band. Barbara sang the lead vocal until the solo by Elsie on "Love Is A Stranger". Issued on Sun 293, it wasn't a particularly inspired offering, and duly sank without trace.

Although she continued to work, Barbara entered another frustrating period of inactivity on the recording front, and it was not until February 3rd, 1960 that she recorded another single. It was also to be her swan song on the label. "Handsome Man" was written by one of Barbara's heroes, Charlie Rich who also produced the record. It betrays Charlie's jazz leanings, and was probably unnecessarily overdubbed with a chorus by the Gene Lowery Singers for release on Phillips International 3553. There were two guitarists on the session in Billy riley and Brad Suggs, whilst R.W. Stevenson played bass, Charlie tinkled the ivories and, as more often than not, Jimmy Van Eaton played the drums. The record got a bullet in Billboard, but the elbow from Sam.. The flipside caused a furore at the time. Recorded at the new studio on Madison Avenue on February 3rd, 1960, a whole string section was wheeled in by the writer of the song, Charles Underwood. In the absence of Sam Phillips who was ill with pneumonia at the time, Underwood assumed command of the whole operation, bringing in a whole array of strings (Noel Gilbert, Joe Bracciante, Nino Ravarino and elizabeth Jetter). Barbara hated "Eleventh Commandment", but that was as nothing to the uproar caused in the bible belt, where such sacriligious prouncements as 11 Commandments were rejected with ferocious venom. Many radio stations banned the record, and whereas in Britain this would almost certainly have guaranteed it being a hit, this was not the case Stateside. It is ironic to reflect that being married at 13 (Barbara's mother was already married and had a child at that age) was perfectly acceptable, but adding an extra commandment was totally taboo.

Somewhere along the line Barbara also recorded "Just One Day" that was first released on the Rockhouse album "The Original Sun Sides" (LPM 8307), with a picture of Barbara Thomas on the front cover, and "Voice Of A Fool" which came out on "Rock & Roll Pills" (LP 1023). There are also two versions of "Take My Sympathy" that were probably recorded at the same time as the demo of "Im Getting Better All The Time". The longer of the two (and they're only just over a minute long), first appeared on the Bear Family album "I Need A Man" (BFX 15359). Another title that has vanisghed is "Lost My Only Love", from the last session in February, 1960. Although the Sun label would carry on well into the sixties, its golden age was over, and Barbara is unlikely to have made any further headway, even if she had decided to hang around. In the event, she packed her bags and headed west for California. She signed with Del-Fi but no releases were forthcoming, and got into the movie business performing on movie soundtracks in various guises that ranged from Barbara & The Visitors to the Thirteen Committee. She met up again with Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, played shows with the Righteous Brothers and got by. Her voice could be heard on horror films as well as three teen movies including "Wild Angels". She continued to make a living working on crusie ships down to Acapulco, working the American bases as far afield as Greenland, but stardom proved to be elusive. She returned to Memphis in 1970 and there, still only in her thirties met and married German record collector Willie Gutt. They settled in Houston, Texas where she formed her own band, and in 1983 made her European debut playing at the Rockhouse Festival in Eindhoven. A couple of years later she played in the UK.

No cooing dove, Barbara had a tough, aggressive vocal style that was not fully exploited by Sam, who on the whole preferred his females to be sweet and feminine, and never quite dame to terms with Barbara's raw approach. It may have cost her a more high profile career, but the music she recorded for Phillips during a four year period establishes her place in the annals of rock'n'roll.

by Adam Komorowski, London, June 1997.
With acknowledgements to:
Sun Session Files - Hawkins & Escott
Ian Saddler, Hank Davis
Unpublished Interview 1983 by AK

Barbara Pittman was born on Easter Sunday in Memphis, Tennessee. She came from a very large and poor family. She grew up listening to the blues and big band sound. She loved listening to black artists which included Little Richard.

Barbara went to the Sun Studio in Memphis when she was 10 or 11 to audition. Sam Phillips told her to go home and learn how to sing. She had only been singing for a couple of months at the time. She was fired from the Eagle's Nest for being underage. Elvis was also appearing there and had gotten Barbara her audition at the club. She was making the large sum of $5.00 a night.

From there, she went on the road with cowboy star, Lash LaRue. She worked with him for a year - from the latter part of 1955 to early 1956. They toured all over the country.

After being on the road for a year she returned to Memphis and joined up with Stan Kesler. Stan wanted her to do a demo for Elvis that he had written called "Playing For Keeps." They recorded it at the Cotton Club and Stan took it to Sam Phillips. Phillips liked her voice and didn't realize she was the one he had sent away before. The demo made it to Elvis and he recorded it later as the flip side of "Too Much." Barbara claims that if it wasn't for Elvis, she would never have started her singing career. She dated him up until he went into the Army.

Barbara recorded her first session for Sun in the fall of 1956. She recorded "I Need A Man," which she co-wrote with Stan Kesler and "No Matter Who's To Blame." It was released as her first single on Sun 253, but failed to make it to the charts.

Her following single was released on Phillips International, "Two Young Fools In Love" backed with "I'm Getting Better All The Time." Jack Clement played acoustic guitar on the top side. Barbara's third single was produced by Bill Justis, "Everlasting Love" and "Cold Cold Heart." This record was her favorite of all the singles she recorded at Sun Records. It was released on the Phillips label and reviewed in Cashbox magazine on August 2, 1958. There was one more single released, "Eleventh Commandment" backed with "Handsome Man" which was written by Charlie Rich. On the strength of these singles, Barbara did many sun package tours with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.

Although she never came within striking distance of a national hit record, Barbara Pittman's place in rock & roll history is assured. Her four year affiliation with the legendary Sun label during its peak years more than qualifies her.

Barbara Pittman recorded four singles for Sun and Phillips International between 1956 and 1960, as well as leaving a host of unreleased material for future generations of musical archaeologists. Quite apart from her recording activities, Barbara is known for her long relationship with Elvis Presley at a time in both their lives when stardom was barely a dream. Thirty-five years later, it is obvious that Barbara Pittman was never simply a two dimensional rockabilly singer, a "female Elvis" or "Sun's answer to Janis Martin", as she was variously called. Her life story has taken some unexpected turns and through it all Barbara Pittman has retained a healthy perspective and sense of humor uncommon to veterans of the early days of Memphis rock & roll. Barbara sums up herself clearly with the observation, "There's never been anything typical about me from day one."

Indeed, Barbara's career has been the proverbial press agent's dream. As a kid, she spent time behind the scenes at her uncle's pawn shop on Beale Street where she listened to jam sessions with legendary bluesmen like B.B. King. Barely in her teens, Barbara appeared along with their classmate, Elvis Presley, at the Eagle's Nest, a Memphis nightclub, until she was fired for being underage. " I was making $5 a night. Big money at the time." Barbara's association with Elvis grew naturally out of shared history and the central role music played in each of their lives.

"I sang with him, I knew him, I lived down the street from him when we were kids in North Memphis. His mom and mine used to get together to have what they used to call Stanley parties, they call them Tupperware parties now. I practically lived out at Graceland in the '50s before Elvis went into the service. He was going to take me on the road with him, then he got drafted." Barbara offers some fascinating recollections of Elvis in the earliest days of his Sun affiliation.

"I remember we were playing at a Catholic School on Jackson one evening. This was back in '55 before Elvis had dyed his hair black. It was still blond. He had his dad's old "pushmobile", we used to call it. You used to have to push it to get it started. It was pouring down rain when we came out of the show. Elvis had this black shoe polish in his hair. This was before he could afford to dye it properly. And it was raining and the shoe polish was running down his face and all over his clothes. And all these little screaming girls were after him and here's Elvis looking like Al Jolson in makeup. It was awful. "The King" standing there with black dye running all down his face." Barbara also recalls time spent at 706 Union Avenue.

"Elvis and I used to go down to the Sun studio in the afternoons after he got off from work. Sam had given him the key to the studio and he and I used to go down there. Sam was never there, he and Marion were off somewhere ... and Elvis used to answer the phone. There was really nothing going on there in the afternoons at that time. Everything was done at night. So Elvis and I were taking care of the studio. A lot of people were talking to Elvis on the phone at that time and never even knew it."

If the Memphis authorities believed Barbara was too young for night life in the local clubs, Barbara accommodated their wishes by going out on the road. She began touring with cowboy star Lash LaRue. I was with him for a year. The late part of '55 and the early part of 1956. We went all over the country. He had quite a show. He really could use that bullwhip. They used to do fight scenes, he would knock ashes off cigarettes with his whip, knock guns out of guys' hands. He hired me on as a baby sitter and then he let me sing. I performed whatever was selling at the time. Songs like 'Let Me Go Lover' and 'Just Because'."

Barbara's career with Sun began in earnest when she returned to Memphis, a seasoned veteran of life on the road and still a teenager. "Actually, I had auditioned for Sun before I ever went on the road with Lash. Sam told me to go out and learn how to sing. I had only been singing for about two months at the time. He said 'Come back when you know how t sing.' So, I did. When I came back from the road with Lash, I met Stan Kesler and he had this tune he wanted to get to Elvis, called 'Playing For Keeps'. I did the demo. When Stan played it for Sam, he didn't even recognize it was the same girl he had sent away a year earlier.

Barbara continued to record demos throughout her career at Sun. Curiously, she has no firm recollection of recording Sentimental Fool, a song represented here by three distinctly different versions, which date from obviously different sessions.

"I was also singing over in West Memphis with Clyde Leoppard's band. There were no age problems over there 'cause they didn't serve drinks. Their clientelle was sometimes 13 or 14 years old. So, I got with Sam and signed a contract in the late part of 1956. I still have a cancelled check from Sam for $100. He paid it to me when I signed and the check is dated October 9, 1956."

After her affiliation with Sun ended, Barbara Pittman headed west. She continued to support herself in the entertainment business, recording a host of movie soundtracks under a variety of names (Barbara and the Visitors, The Thirteenth Committee) which hardly conjured up images of her tenure with Sun. Few Sun fans who went to see a Vincent Price film called "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bomb" realized they were listening to Barbara Pittman singing the theme song. While on the coast, Barbara continued to rub shoulders with the famous, gigging with luminaries like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, the Righteous Brothers, but major stardom continued to elude her.

Barbara at American Sound studio, Memphis, TN - 1984.
Rumor has it she does a MEAN JLL impersonation.

It is now years since Barbara left Sun Records. Not surprisingly, the four years spent at a tiny Memphis label continue to be inordinately important to her and her fans. Barbara continues to sing and to tour. When asked of her plans to record, she replied without hesitation, "At this point in my life, "I'd love to do some blues. Just blues. An album of gutsy blues. Just like I wanted to do when I was at Sun, but I couldn't. You know, Sam wanted me to do Connie Francis stuff. Little girlie tunes, cutesy, petite and pretty, and I just wasn't there. I came from North Memphis. I was beating up the boys by the time I was three. I just refused to sing that stuff. I never did like Connie Francis and Frankie Avalon, all that bunch, the Bobbies..."

By Hank Davis, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, April, 1989.

"Getting Better All The Time," 27 tracks by Barbara, some previously unreleased alternate takes. Running time: 69-min. Includes "I Need A Man." Excellent liner notes. Charly Records CPCD 8319.

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