Barbara Pittman, Sun Records' Female
Barbara Pittman

Sam Phillips and the Sun label are synonymous with rockabilly. Surely there can be no more famous address than 706 Union Avenue, Memphis. The list of artists that the label generated reads like a who's who of rock n' roll; Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Ray Smith, Warren Smith, Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley, Sonny Burgess. The list seems to go on and on, but wait isn't there just one thing wrong with this list? Well in these days of womens' lib, surely the absence of any female artists should raise some eyebrows amongst the de-braed fraternity?

A notable exception is Barbara Pittman, who with a mere four single release on the Sun and Phillips labels, almost single handedly sustains the feminine rock 'n' roll reputation of the Sun stable. It is a thoroughly ungentlemanly thing to do to give away a lady's age, so I will restrict myself to saying that Barbara was born somewhere around the end of World War II. At the tender age of 12 she presented herself at Sam Phillips' studio and informed Marion Keisker that she whished to sing. She was given a hearing and then informed that her voice wasn't good enough and it was politely suggested to her that perhaps she would be better off selling her sights on becoming a secretary, or something of that sort.

Barbara was mightily upset by this rejection to the extent that she cried her eyes out for a couple of days. However it only strengthened her resolution to succeed. She decided to set about learning to sing and her apprenticeship included a spell of touring with Lash Larue that lasted for a year and took her to California. Returning home to Memphis a year later she landed a job with the Snearly Ranch Boys, working at the Cotton Club in West Memphis, Arkansas.

However it is Elvis himself that Barbara credits with her start in the music business. At the time that Elvis was working the Eagles Nest under the auspices of DJ Sleepy Eyed John Lepley, Barbara was a mere 10 year-old. Her mother and Elvis got to know each other and as a result Barbara got to know Elvis. He recommended her to Sleepy Eyed John who auditioned her and she got the job at $5 a night. Her friendship with Elvis continued even atfer Elvis had left Sun. "Of course Elvis and I were dating then and we knew each other real good". Elvis persuaded Barbara to do a demo for him of a song written by Stan Kessler called "Playing For Keeps". "Well I did it in Elvis' key and style and Elvis bought it. He took this dub over to Sam Phillips. Well Sam listened to it and said, my Lord who the heck is that?'. He liked what he heard. Just think, and I was told a year earlier that I didn't have enough talent to sing". Well, the story of Sun Records is littered with artists being turned away but by dint of perseverence finally making it. Barbara feels that perhaps she made a fairly good job of learning to sing! At all events she was signed up to Sun and her first single was recorded in 1956 along with several members of Clyde Leopards' Snearly Ranch Boys including Clyde himself on drums, Bill Taylor on trumpet, Buddy Holobaugh on guitar and Joe Baugh on piano. Also on the session was bass player Marcus van Story virtually a resident sessionman at Sun. The two titles cut "I Need A Man" is a powerful driving rocker that compares favourably with Wanda Jackson at her best.

As with a lot of top notch Sun material it seemed to go by relatively unnoticed. In the summer of 1957 Barbara recorded her second single "Two Young Fools"/"I'm Getting Better All The Time" which this time was released on the Phillips International label in the September of that year. It became a regional hit and established her reputation. Backed by Billy Lee Riley and his band (Roland Janes on guitar, Jimmy Van Eaton on drums and Jimmy Wilson on piano), it was a more restrained performance from Barbara. Her husky tones sensitively interpreted the ballad "Two Young Fools In Love" with the sparse but sensitive backing blending in to perfection. "I'm Getting Better All The Time" a mid-tempo rocker is another gem. It was back to the studios in February of 1958, three weeks after Buddy Holly's death in a plane crash, to record "Cold Cold Heart"/"Everlasting Love". On this occasion she was accompanied by Roland Janes on guitar, Bill Justis (tenor sax); Sid Mankes on bass and Jimmy Van Eaton on drums, with Jimmy Wilson on the piano. The record was issued in June 1958 on Phillips International.

In the meantime the teenaged Barbara continued performing with Clyde Leoppard's band. Her final session tor Sun took place in February 1960 when she recorded a jazz flavoured "Handsome Man" written by Charlie Rich who also accompanied her on the piano. whilst Brad Suggs on guitar, Jimmy Wilson on piano and Jimmy van Eaton on drums completed the band. "Eleventh Commandment" is perhaps the tritest song that Barbara was called upon to record at Sun, a weepie that would have done Connie Francis proud. Certainly Barbara gives it her all.

With the turn of the sixties, Sun was no longer the power in the land that it had been and the exodus of stars was formidable. Barbara moved to California in search of fame but failed to find it and eventually dropped out of the music business all together. It is only in the eighties that with re-awakening of interest in fifties music that she has been traced down, and in the company of such others as Janis Martin, been persuaded to rekindle her musical career in front of an European audience at the Rockhouse International Rock & Roll Festival in Eindhoven, Holland. Rockhouse re-issued the above mentioned songs on an LP named "The Original Sun Sides" (Rockhouse 8307, 1983). Also worth mentioning is the LP "I Need A Man" (Bear Family BFX15359, 1989) which contains Barbara's recordings with "The Sunrays" and a number of previously unissued alternate takes.

Adam Komorowski (Editor of New Kommotion)

Courtesy of Rockhouse Records