Soul Serenade: Barbara Lewis, “Hello Stranger”
Barbara Lewis not only had a distinctive voice, she was somewhat unique in that unlike many of the other popular artists of the pre-Beatles days, Lewis wrote her own songs. She grew up close to Ann Arbor, MI and as a teen she began working with producer Ollie McLaughlin. We’ve seen McLaughlin’s name before in this column for his work with Deon Jackson. He is also credited with discovering Del Shannon.
Lewis’ first release was “My Heart Went Do Dat Da.” It didn’t do much on a national level, but scored big in the Detroit area. Her first album was released in 1963, and all of the album’s songs were written by Lewis. Included among them was “Hello Stranger”, which went on to be an enormous hit. The record had a two week stay at #1 on the r&b chart, and crossed over to #3 on the pop chart.
“Hello Stranger” was recorded at the legendary Chess Studios in Chicago in January, 1963. Backing vocals for the occasion were provided by the Dells. It took 13 takes but when it was done at least one person, Chuck Barksdale of the Dells, thought it was a hit.
Atlantic Records had picked up Lewis’ previous two singles for national distribution, and McLaughlin sought them out again for “Hello Stranger.” The label agreed to pick up the new single, but then had second thoughts because the recording, with its eerie organ riff and Latin rhythm, was somewhat unusual. Then Ruby & the Romantics scored a huge hit with the equally unusual sounding “Our Day Will Come,” and Atlantic decided to go with Lewis’ record.
By April, 1963, “Hello Stranger” was in the Billboard Hot 100. A month later it was in the Top 40, and by June it was in the Top Ten, where it remained for five weeks.
Follow up singles for Lewis, including “Straighten Up Your Heart,” and “Puppy Love” saw modest success. Then Lewis began working with producer Bert Berns in New York, and the pair collaborated on another big hit, “Baby I’m Yours,” a song written by Van McCoy which reached #11 on the pop chart in June, 1965 and sold a million copies. Their next collaboration, “Make Me Your Baby,” did nearly as well.
In 1966 Lewis had her last Top 40 hit with a song called “Make Me Belong To You” that was written by Chip Taylor and Billy Vera. By the end of the ’60s, she was recording for Stax Records. Lewis released a tougher sounding southern soul album for the label, but when it didn’t find any success, she retired from the music business.