Are you ready for some Windy City soul? That’s right, we’re off to Chicago this week to take in some of that city’s great sounds. Barbara Acklin wasn’t born in Chicago, but by the time she was five years-old her family had moved there. She was only 11 when she began singing solos for her church’s gospel choir, and by the time she was a teenager she was singing in Chicago’s clubs.
Acklin went to Dunbar High School and after graduation she got a job as a receptionist at St. Lawrence Records. It was on a St. Lawrence subsidiary, Special Agent, that Acklin released her first single. The record was produced by her cousin Monk Higgins (who also played sax), and released under the name Barbara Allen. Around the same time Acklin was working as a backing vocalist for Chess Records. Her voice appeared on recordings by Fontella Bass, Etta James, Koko Taylor, and others.
Although Acklin was still working day jobs, her break came when she got a job as a receptionist at Brunswick Records. There she submitted demos of songs that she had written to producer Carl Davis. One of those songs was called “Whispers (Gettin’ Louder).” When the song (which was co-written with David Scott) was recorded by Jackie Wilson, it soared to #5 on the Billboard R&B chart, and #11 on the Hot 100.
The success of the single, and Wilson’s assistance, allowed Acklin to sign a recording contract of her own with Brunswick. Her third single for the label proved to be the charm. “Show Me the Way to Go” was a duet with Gene Chandler, and it was a Top 30 R&B hit.
Acklin began to write songs with Eugene Record, the lead vocalist of the Chi-Lites. Among their successful songs was “Two Little Kids” by Peaches and Herb. Then Record, along with producer Davis, arranger Sonny Sanders, and guitarist Gerald Sims wrote Acklin’s biggest solo hit, “Love Makes a Woman.” In the summer of 1968 the single was a #3 R&B hit, and crossed over to #15 on the Pop chart.
Acklin followed up with more hits for Brunswick over the next few years including “From the Teacher to the Preacher” (another duet with Gene Chandler), “Just Ain’t No Love,” and “Am I the Same Girl.” The latter two were produced by Record, and some sources say that he and Acklin were married. When “Am I the Same Girl” was released without Acklin’s vocal, and with an added piano part, it became a huge hit for Young-Holt Unlimited as “Soulful Strut.”
Acklin continued to release albums for Brunswick into the ’70s, and she also continued her songwriting collaboration with Record. In 1971 the pair scored a huge hit when their song “Have You Seen Her,” originally intended to be an album track for the Chi-Lites, turned into a massive hit single. “Have You Seen Her” topped the R&B chart, and reached #3 on the Pop chart. Acklin and Record also wrote the Chi-Lites hits “Stoned Out of My Mind” (1973), “Toby” (1974), and “Too Good to be Forgotten” (1975).
Acklin left Brunswick in 1974 and signed with Capitol Records. Her first single for the label was “Raindrops,” and it turned into her biggest R&B hit since “Love Makes a Woman,” reaching #14. A Capitol album A Place in the Sun was released, but when subsequent recordings failed to find chart success, Acklin was dropped by the label in 1975. She didn’t give up however, and continued to tour as a solo artist, and also as a backing vocalist for the Chi-Lites, Tyrone Davis, and others.
Barbara Acklin had just started to record a new album in 1998 when she contracted pneumonia and passed away. She was only 55 years-old at the time of her death. Acklin left a legacy of great records, and great songs. She was the very epitome of the Chicago soul sound.