During rehearsals for a November 2008 tribute to Les Paul at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, the side of the stage was full of milling guitar greats, including James Burton, Slash, Duane Eddy, Richie Sambora and Lonnie Mack. But when Barbara Lynn took the stage for a blues duet with Billy Gibbons, she became the center of attention.
"She destroyed," says witness Ira Padros, who has booked Beaumont native Lynn to play his annual Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans since its 2002 inception. "Everybody knows her (early '60s) hits like 'You'll Lose a Good Thing' and 'Oh, Baby, We've Got a Good Thing Going,' but until you see her live, you don't realize what an incredible guitar player she is."
Picking leads with her thumb while keeping up a strong rhythm with the rest of her left hand, Barbara Lynn Ozen, of Louisiana Creole descent, is a self-taught dynamo who should've been bigger yet has no complaints.
"There weren't really any women playing electric guitar that I knew of coming up," says Lynn, now 68 and living in Beaumont with her 88-year-old mother, Mildred Richard. "But after I saw Elvis Presley on the TV when I was just a kid, I just wanted to play the guitar so bad."
After she started off with a right-handed ukulele, her factory-worker parents finally saved up enough money to buy her a Gibson electric guitar down at Swicegood Music in Beaumont. "They had to special order a left-handed guitar, so I had to wait," Lynn says. "Longest three months of my life."
At Hebert High School, she dropped her last name for good and formed a band called Bobbie Lynn and Her Idols, whose versions of Presley's "Jailhouse Rock" and "Sweet Nothings" by Brenda Lee always tore it up. But Lynn was also filling her notebook with song lyrics, which she would set to music with her guitar in her bedroom at night. Lynn had a boyfriend named Sylvester, and when she found out he was cheating on her, she wrote the bluesy, soulful pop number "You'll Lose a Good Thing."
After graduating from high school, Lynn started playing clubs in the Golden Triangle (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange), where she studied Guitar Slim and traded licks with Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown. Another friend on the circuit, singer Joe Barry, who had a 1960 hit with "I'm a Fool to Care," brought her to the attention of Houston-based producer Huey P. Meaux.
"Joe told Huey, 'there's a black girl over here playing electric guitar that you've gotta see,'" Lynn recalls. Meaux caught the 19-year-old at the Palomino Club on the Louisiana border and cut "You'll Lose a Good Thing" with her at Cosimo Matassas' studio in New Orleans the next week. When Philadelphia's Jamie Records picked it up, the record became a national smash in 1962, knocking Ray Charles out of the No. 1 slot on the R&B charts.
"Oh, boy, that was something!" Lynn remembers of the time Beaumont topped Billboard. "I went out on tour with all the big acts — Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye. I met Michael Jackson when he was nine years old." Lynn's mother quit her job at the box factory to look after her daughter, still a choir member of Our Mother of Mercy Church, and once reportedly shooed away a drug deal going down backstage.
"My dad thought I was too young to go on tour by myself, and he was right," Lynn says.
Aretha Franklin covered "You'll Lose a Good Thing" in 1964, and a version by Freddy Fender, also produced by Meaux, made it to No. 1 on the country chart in 1975. But Lynn's time in the spotlight was short.
She married an Army man from back home in 1970, while he was on leave from Vietnam. After her husband died of emphysema, leaving her with three small children to raise, Lynn put her career aside. "I'd play a club here and there in L.A.," she says, but she hadn't recorded since 1968.
Protégés unknown to Lynn at the time kept alive the songs, including "I'm a Good Woman" (which was sampled by Moby in 2002). When Lynn made her Austin debut in the mid-'80s, after Port Arthur's Clifford Antone tracked her down, seemingly every blues musician and R&B collector in town was crammed into the club at 2915 Guadalupe St.
"They knew all my songs," she says of both the house band and the singing-along crowd. "That shocked me, but then I found out that Lou Ann (Barton) and Sarah Brown and Marcia Ball and Angela (Strehli) had been doing my songs for years. I love those girls."
With eight grandchildren, Barbara Lynn can still wail on guitar, still draw chicken skin when she sings ballad/blues numbers such as "You'll Lose a Good Thing" and "I'd Rather Go Blind." Her fan Sharon Jones is trying to make a new record with Lynn on Daptone Records in New York. And there are always calls from promoters in Europe, where Lynn is especially popular.
"I can't leave for too long 'cause I got to care for my mother," she says. Padros calls Lynn "one of the most genuinely sweet people you'll ever meet." Lynn moved back to Beaumont 20 years ago, after her second husband, a Los Angeles salesman, died of a heart attack.
"Beaumont is home," she says. "I feel like I belong here."
"The Empress of Gulf Coast Soul" will be honored Thursday at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with a Star of Texas Folklife award. Also receiving Stars will be fiddle great Johnny Gimble and accordion master Santiago Jiménez Jr. The event is a benefit for Texas Folklife, an organization that has promoted Texas roots music for 25 years. Classy and soulful Barbara Lynn, meanwhile, has made Texas proud for almost 50 years.
Texas Roots: 25th Anniversary Party
Honoring Barbara Lynn, Santiago Jimenez Jr. and Johnny Gimble
Special guests: Sarah Bird, Gus Garcia, Marcia Ball, Ray Benson, Guy Forsyth and 18-year-old zydeco accordion whiz Keyun Dickson.
When: 6:30 to 10 p.m Thursday
Where: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave.
Cost: $125. Tables from $1,250 to $10,000 sponsorship packages
Information: (512) 441-9255, texasfolklife.org