In 1962, a young left-handed guitarist from Texas named Barbara Lynn Ozen penned a song called “You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” More than 50 years later, the song continues to resonate with audiences: It was a chart topping hit when released and was featured in John Waters’ camp ‘80s flick Hairspray, extending its influence beyond the cult of soul aficionados who’ve long treasured it. It’s impossible not to be drawn in by Lynn’s plaintive, bared soul intensity, which she developed on two albums for Jaime and one for Atlantic – 1968’s Here Is Barbara Lynn, which was reissued by Light in the Attic Records in 2014.
In the early ‘70s, she turned her focus to raising her children, but continued playing, eventually resuming an active tour schedule and releasing new music, including 2000’s Hot Night Tonight, which featured some hip-hop touches by her son Bachelor Wise. Though Lynn’s spent the past couple months dealing with the death of her mother, Mildred Richard, who passed away in August at 93, she recently took the stage triumphantly at the Ponderosa Stomp festival in New Orleans. Below, the busy 73-year-old spoke to Aquarium Drunkard about her career, keeping up with modern pop, and her beautiful custom guitar.
Aquarium Drunkard: Did you have fun playing at the Ponderosa Stomp?
Barbara Lynn: Oh boy, did I. You step out on that stage and see all the people…it makes you feel so great. What’s happened [recently] with the loss of my mother, seeing them, it just motivated me more to go on out there. Do your show, girl! That made it all so much better.
AD: Condolences on the loss of your mother.
Barbara Lynn: I had a good dream about her last night. We’d go everywhere together. I had other singers calling her “my dear,” because they would her me calling her “mother, dear.” B.B., Stevie, Smokey, Gladys. They all called her “dear.”
AD: As a young girl, what drew you to the electric guitar?
Barbara Lynn: I started with an Arthur Godfrey ukulele. That’s how I got started: on a little ukulele. I would hear music on the radio… I realized I wanted to play electric guitar when I’d see other guitarists playing. My mother bought me a guitar. I think my first guitar was a Gibson. Seeing people like B.B. and Elvis Presley…that really got into me.
AD: You were inspired watching them?
Barbara Lynn: Yeah. I had been playing the keyboard, but I thought it was so very common seeing a young lady sing at the piano. So I thought, “I want to play something odd.” Something I felt I could make money at. And I made money at it, too! I really did. [Laughs]
AD: You have a very unique picking style. Where did that come from?
Barbara Lynn: I tried picking with my fingers like most guitarists I saw, but the pick would just slip right through my fingers. I never could hold them. I decided I’ve got to do something there, so that’s when I tried a thumb pick. And that did it. It stayed on, too. It stayed on all these years.
AD: You not only played guitar, but you wrote many of your own songs, which wasn’t very common at the time.
Barbara Lynn: Yes indeed. In fact, I wrote all the songs on my first album, except the one by Jimmy Reed, “You Don’t Have To Go.” Well, of course I collaborated with other songwriters too…but most of those songs were written by me.
AD: Did you have a sense of how uncommon what you were doing at the time, as a left-handed, guitar-playing songwriter?
Barbara Lynn: I don’t guess I did. I was just so interested in writing poems and setting them to music.
AD: You put together a band called the Idols.
Barbara Lynn: That’s when I was in grade school. We were Barbara Lynn and her Idols, winning talent shows. [People were excited to see the] lead singer was a young black girl playing an electric guitar – we were tearing it up!
AD: And you were a girl group – all ladies playing their instruments.
Barbara Lynn: Three or four girls. But a lot of them didn’t pursue the career. After high school, I was determined. “I’m gonna be a recording artist and make it.” Some of their boyfriends were a bit jealous, and I said, “Oh well. That’s life.” I knew what I wanted to be. My boyfriend, he had to understand that I was going to be a singer. I’m going to travel. I did just that.
AD: You traveled with a who’s who of popular artists at the time: Ike and Tina, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Carla Thomas, James Brown, and so many more. Did you like being on the road?
Barbara Lynn: Oh, yes indeed. We had a lot of fun. In fact, I opened up for Michael Jackson, not knowing that [the Jackson 5] were going to be such superstars. All I knew was this guy in Chicago at the High Chaparral, he told me “There’s a young group going to open up for you named the Jacksons.” The group came on and sung, and peeked through from the backstage and saw that little guy singing and dancing and said, “These guys are fantastic!” And then, Marvin Gaye opened up for me in Baltimore. At that time, these people were just as young as I was, trying to make it. I had a good experience in music, and I thank God for that.
AD: “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” is such a stinger. How does it feel knowing that all these years on people are still connected to that song and the heartbreak you’re singing about?
Barbara Lynn: I think that’s what it is: a lot of young people are getting their hearts broke. That song tells the story, that if you lose me you’re going to lose a good thing. I say on every stage that I wrote it with the women in mind, and when I say that they really let out a scream. Because they know what song I’m fixing to sing.
AD: What were your reasons for leaving the music business when you did?
Barbara Lynn: I can’t understand that. I never left. Different reporters always ask me that, but I have never left. When I got married I had three children, you know, so I took off some time and I raised my children. That’s probably how that rumor got out. But I ain’t never stopped singing, oh gosh no.
AD: You’re clearly very active and working hard these days.
Barbara Lynn: That’s all I ever wanted to do. I never had to find a 9-5 job. It was always music, music, music.
AD: Your newer records feature some elements of funk and hip-hop. Do you listen to newer music?
Barbara Lynn: Oh, do I. I look at a lot of young singers today, because having seven grandchildren come in and out of the house, they turn to those videos and I can’t help but see it. I keep up, I really stay on it. I like Ciara, I like Rihanna, I like Drake. I have a granddaughter, Angelica, she’s 22, and a lot of people say she sounds like Rihanna.
AD: I’ve got one last question: That beautiful guitar of yours — where did that come from?
Barbara Lynn: James Trussart saw me perform one time a few years ago, and said he’s always been a fan of my singing. He said, “Barbara, I’m making a guitar for you.” I played in a town called Santa Anna, California, about a year ago, and he came with that guitar in a beautiful case and everything, and he said, “I want to present this guitar to you on stage.” Oh my God, it’s a beautiful guitar. It’s real gold on there, with beautiful flowers and my name engraved on it. He gave me that guitar on stage and I put down my old guitar and I continued my show with that brand new guitar. A lot of people admire that guitar. words / j woodbury photos / jeff paul