African-American History Month - "I hear her voice as the cold winds blow"


I’m going to end this series with - surprise, I know - a singer/songwriter you may not know. These 28 days of honoring African-American performers, producers, and America’s music pioneers has been a great learning experience for me. I missed some facts, and found published material that turned out not to be true. In one case of that, I missed the actual date of an American tragedy - the death of a young veteran and musician, but I’m happy I didn’t write the piece with the incorrect information I found. In another, I found a great story but couldn’t corroborate a great piece of trivia in it. He too is put aside for further investigation. Once upon a time I promised myself to use my original photographs on anything I wrote. I realized I needed more pics to accompany articles - thanks for that advice - and will get out on some field trips to build that portfolio of relevant pictures. But those songwriters were so gifted that sometimes photos I did have matched a lyric or picture “painted” by their music. I will never remember the stories I found so I’m happy to have written them down.

John Brunswick made horse-drawn carriages, cabinets, and fashioned pool tables in the mid-19th Century. The billiards business took off so he opened factories, warehouses, and a headquarters in Chicago. His son-in-law starts the family business in bowling - lanes, pins, and balls. In a branch of the business that made bar backs and church pews, they venture into building phonograph cabinets and then phonographs. Which of course led them to making records. In a growth mode they bought Vocalion, then in a “focus” move sold both. The label had recorded orchestras and one-offs, Al Jolson, King Oliver, and Duke Ellington. Vocalion had Billie Holiday, and some great blues, including Robert Johnson.

I’m not sure if the 22 year old receptionist knew all of this Brunswick history, but she knew music. She had been singing from the time she was a child in Chicago’s Big Zion Baptist Church, after her family moved from Oakland, California, then in clubs. She recorded backing vocals for the Chess brothers and a record of her own under a pseudonym. The young secretary-songwriter managed to impress superstar Jackie Wilson with a demo of a song she co-wrote. Jackie had it in the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks, peaking just out of the top ten. That moved her from behind the desk to the floor of the studio. She had a hit in a duet on her second record, then four charting songs - two on her own. Through it she continued to write. With her new partner, she helped create a hit for Peaches and Herb, then co-wrote a classic for her partner’s group which found new life in a pop-hip-hop artist in his “time.” She and the group’s front man wrote two more hits for the group before she left the storied company. Later, for Capitol, she had a minor hit and returned to backing work and her roots for artists like Otis Clay on his “Gospel Truth” album. The savvy secretary and songwriter, the girl with the big voice from Big Zion, died all too young of pneumonia in Omaha Nebraska at 55 years old in 1998. On this day in 1943, her story began - the one about the co-writer (with Eugene Record) of The Chi-Lites’ beautiful smash hit “Have You Seen Her,” - remade by MC Hammer - Jackie Wilson’s "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)", Peaches and Herb’s “Two Little Kids” and her own hits, "Love Makes a Woman", "Just Ain't No Love", and "Am I the Same Girl." Born in Oakland on this 28th day of African-American History Month, let’s remember the talent, drive, and the dreams of Barbara Acklin on what should have been her 75th birthday!

Fitting for the day and record rain here this month, here is the recorded version of her last hit.

Raindrops

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In my journeys over the last three years, both physical and personal/internal, I have discovered Memphis and a drive to create. This site will display my goals to informally promote and tell stories about Memphis and the surrounding areas - music, culture, history - through my observations, photography, and telling the stories of people I meet along the way.

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© 2016 by Wil Little Pitcher