WHEN BARBARA ACKLIN succumbed to pneumonia in late November of 1998, thirty years had passed since top-of-the-charts success was snatched out from underneath of her by an enterprising producer with dollar signs in his eyes. And over the course of those thirty years, the world had largely forgotten the singer. Her career became an asterisk in a tragicomic event that ended her reign as soul supreme before she ever took the throne. Acklin possessed one of soul music’s most evocative voices. She sang with as strong and dynamic a tone as Mariah Carey, but never lacked an identity like so many of today’s R&B singers. Adding insult to injury, Acklin capably wrote hit songs, striking gold with both Jackie Wilson and the Chi-Lites. And yet, at the time of her death at 55, Barbara Acklin had been relegated to background singing and the oldies circuit.
Barbara Acklin was one of a gaggle of female soulsters readying for stardom in the middle 60s. Acklin’s tenacious attitude led her to the bright lights early on, reaching the charts as a writer, and as a solo act and later in a move that took its cue from the partnership of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, paired with Gene Chandler. In fact, Terrell’s dramatic collapse on stage into Gaye’s arms in 1967 opened the door for Acklin and Chandler’s push.
After a secretarial stint at St. Lawrence records, Acklin took a receptionist job working for Carl Davis at the Brunswick Records office. Brunswick is a story itself, starting at the dawn of recorded music producing jazz orchestras in 20s and 30s Chicago. The label developed an offshoot called Vocalion for “race” music- blues and r&b. But by the fifties blues and r&b and soul came out on Brunswick directly, establishing a heavy competition with soul’s prevailing champ, Detroit’s Motown label.
Monk Higgins, a saxophonist and producer, hired Acklin, his cousin, to sing background on some St. Lawrence sides, getting Acklin the office job so she could make ends meet. Higgins then arranged for cousin Barbara to record a pop song under the name Barbara Allen for his own label. The song stalled. The singer didn’t. She had a taste of the secular music industry and she wanted more.
At Brunswick, Acklin exploited her position introducing herself to soul sensation Jackie Wilson, a member of Brunswick’s stable. Wilson, aka Mr. Excitement, shared with Acklin a church choir background, but the comparison ends there. Where Acklin turned to office work, Wilson took to street corner doo-wop. After getting pinched by Detroit’s finest, Wilson went to juvie. His term in the detention center led to a briefly successful stint as a Golden Gloves boxer. Seeing the local singers finding more female devotion than he did boxing his face off, Wilson quit, replacing legendary singer Clyde McPhatter in the Dominoes. In 1957, Wilson joined Brunswick as a solo act striking pay dirt right off with “Reet Petite,” co-penned by Motown’s Berry Gordy Jr.
Aware of Wilson’s importance, Acklin made sure to give the singer a demo she’d made of one of the songs she’d written the next time she saw him. The superstar’s popularity wavered in the rearview mirror, Acklin’s perky good looks in front of him, Mr. Excitement took the demo, and gave Acklin’s song a listen. It had a prescient youthfulness and surprising depth. Wilson knew Acklin’s song, “Whispers (Getting Louder),” could be a hit. The comeback hungry singer pushed the song onto Davis. Where’d you find it, the producer wanted to know. Wilson nodded to the Brunswick receptionist. The song climbed to number five on the charts r&b charts, making it to eleven on Billboard. Davis, the song and album’s producer, took note.
Born in Oakland in 1943, Barbara Jean Acklin relocated with her parents to Chicago when she was three. Twenty years later Chicago’s music scene did not solely shuffled to the electric blues the city is known for. By the middle of the 60s, soul acts like former Impressions Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, and soul chanteuse Fontella Bass, produced a quirky pop sound that stirred both pop and r&b audiences.
Acklin’s first hit as a singer came in 1968 with “Love Makes a Woman” and it remains her biggest. Already comfortable on the charts after the Wilson success Acklin now found a place for her spectacular vocal range. The song was written by Acklin’s beau, Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites and Brunswick records producer Carl Davis with a couple of other Chicago songsters who had earlier hits with Jerry Butler and Mary Wells. Love Makes a Woman, with its bright music and bubblegum temptation, built a temple around Acklin’s zaftig voice. With Davis and Record directing her, Acklin avoided pushing all out on the song, instead wrapping her talent in the gauzy pop of the song, allowing it to climb to the heavens a few spare times that hint at her capabilities while gifting the song with its an angelic ether all its own. The debut LP gained momentum on the title single’s success. But listeners also grooved to the singer’s take on “What the World Needs Now.” Stripped of the gooey sensitivity at its heart, Acklin’s interpretation popped with a rollicking choral backing arranged by “Funky Chicken’s” Willie Henderson. The album clocked in a few seconds shy of thirty minutes, and ran eleven songs long. Notably featured are the singer’s first three collaborations with Eugene Record.
Carl Davis recognized his young protégé had more hits to come. That first record established his receptionist as a contender, an entity recognized outside the Midwest. Much as her talent drove Acklin nearer to soul’s crown, outside circumstances helped. Otis Redding, the king of soul, died in a December 1967 plane crash. Diana Ross relegated the remaining members of the Supremes to a backing role, rechristening the decade old girl group as Diana Ross and the Supremes. Change waved a red flag on the horizon, and Acklin would definitely be a part of that change, perhaps not as she wished, but an indelible part of musical history nonetheless. Having snagged two duets with Gene Chandler, Acklin readied for the Klieg lights.
Whatever personal relationship existed between Eugene Record and Barbara Acklin is second to what music the couple produced. Record succumbed to cancer in 2005. Obituaries in the New York Times and the Independent listed Acklin and Record as married and divorced, a claim writer Robert Pruter discredits. “ I interviewed them both a number of times,” Pruter says, “neither mentioned that they were married.” Record’s band, the Chi-Lites, recorded their first album in ’68 as Acklin worked on her second full length. When the Chi-Lites debut appeared in 1969, it included three Motown songs, and one co-written by Record, and Acklin.
Readying for her sophomore recording, Acklin and Record and Davis gathered arrangers Sonny Sanders and Willie Henderson once again. Acklin was, at 26, a seasoned veteran, experiencing the perks and peculiarities from her time as a recording artist/songwriter, as well as from her time working behind the scenes office jobs. She understood the implicit subtext of a second record. Deliver a stormy one, and she could take her place next to Aretha.
Record and Davis set about writing the songs this go round, leaving Acklin to focus on singing and assisting on arrangements best suited to her vocals. The results astounded all of them. Davis in particular heard something in the music they’d created, thinking the backing tracks might have a life of their own. And the germ of that idea is the poison of Acklin’s story. In a back room, somewhere in Chicago, a plan sprouted, a little from greed and a lot from hubris.
The Young Holt Trio originally served as Ramsey Lewis Trio’s other two members. Lewis and company were best known for transforming pop hits like “Hang on Sloopy” and “The ‘In’ Crowd” into swankier jazz grooves. The trio string a successful few singles up on the hit tree. Band members Eldee Young, and Isaac “Red” Holt felt like they could continue that success by stepping out on their own. In 1966 they had some luck with the breakout hit Wack-Wack, a spy-tinged goof that surfed its way to #40. By ‘68, Young and Holt changed the name of their group twice more, settling on the Young-Holt Unlimited. Known largely as an instrumental force, with a somewhat developed identity of their own, Young and Holt hankered for a bonafide hit of their own. Enter Brunswick’s Carl Davis.
Davis convinced Young and Holt that the instrumental tracks from Acklin’s Seven Nights of Day recording could bring them all what they wanted. Davis would get two recordings for the price of one. Young Holt would climb the charts, and even Acklin could score a few hits when her sophomore release followed a few months later. Was Davis’s plot vicious subterfuge? A Machevellian scheme? No. It was his wallet doing the thinking. Two hits from one session- what’s not to like?
So, in the late part of that year, Brunswick released an album credited to the Young-Holt Unlimited with instrumentals that blasted off the vinyl. Only thing about it was, the album climbed to the very top of the jazz charts. Rather than a mild mannered jazz hit, Davis, Holt and Reed sat atop a volcanic eruption of public delight. Listeners could not get enough of the music. The song would not quit. It hit number two on the r&b charts and nine on the Billboard 200.
That the record appeared before Acklin’s own is, in itself, no major issue. It appeared before the Chi-Lites debut as well. What is of note is that the Young-Holt Unlimited’s release “Soulful Strut” was almost a song-by-song mirror of Acklin’s Seven Days of Night. “Am I the Same Girl,” the song Acklin’s career was balancing on, stripped of her vocals, with a piano track added in their place, became “Soulful Strut” in a few quick studio maneuvers. Davis probably had not banked on the Young-Holt Unlimited occluding Acklin’s own release. With the Young Holt release he meant to satisfy the jazz circles, and maybe a few crossover r&b types would buy it. When its charting receded, Brunswick would release Acklin’s version and pump up the jams. It didn’t happen that way. When Acklin’s Seven Days of Night finally appeared in February of ‘69, the Young Holt Unlimited continued charting with material from the same sessions. Top it off, neither Eldee Young nor Isaac Holt played on their most famous recording. The music is credited to Brunswick Band. The musicians were likely paid scale.
Acklin eventually left Record personally and professionally. She stopped working with Davis. Without naming names, she recounted her discomfort over the turn of events to writer Pruter ascribing the situation to a marketing decision. “They took my voice off and added a piano,” the singer remembered. “I was pretty ticked off… but that’s what happens…the earlier release of “Soulful Strut” completely undercut the success of “Am I the Same Girl.” “They told me mine did better overseas than it did in the United States,” Pruter agreed. “I thought it was brilliant Davis could hear a hit in an instrumental.”
Acklin’s release of the same songs included incredible vocals, soul splitting deliveries of lyrical genius, and because of that it made the r&b top forty, but only just. On the pop side, the song drifted to a feeble 79. “Carl said we (Record and Acklin) were too deep. I wanted stuff that was more pop. He wanted a more r&b type thing.” The Young Holt Unlimited offered Davis just that. Today it’s the Young-Holt Unlimited release that choogles along on oldies station airwaves, not “Am I the Same Girl.” But when you listen to Acklin’s shimmering version, her vocal gymnastics issue such a beguiling addition to the music, her singing lingers long after the music drifts off.
Amazingly, Acklin didn’t leave Brunswick right away. She stuck around for three more go rounds with Record and Davis. But you can hear that her heart wasn’t in it. Someone Else’s Arms came in 1970. Her next offering, I Did It, collected some of the same songs from Someone Else’s Arms. It was more sabotage from Davis and Acklin knew this time she couldn’t ignore it. She ditched Record and Davis and Brunswick for 1974’s funk-i-fied A Place in the Sun, with Willie Henderson helming a solid danceable groov-a-thon. It was the right move for the wrong person. With her glistening soprano, disco proved a good fit for the singer providing for the strong singer a place for her vocals to shine. But Acklin preferred funky emotion and depth to orchestrated dance tunes, and disco was a cold place for those notions. The move to Capitol didn’t take, and the singer ended up taking backup jobs for Record’s Chi-Lites to make ends meet, before Record left the band as a result of an IRS tax case resulting from Carl Davis’s mismanagement.
In the 80’s the English punk/soul band The Jam included the Acklin/Record Stoned Out of My Mind on an EP. The 90’s provided even better for Acklin. Both Swing Out Sister and the indubitable M.C. Hammer had hits covering her songs. Acklin even continued with her behind the scenes mode, taking over management of Holly Matthews, the singer Ike Turner had hoped would replace Tina.
In late 1998, Acklin did a phone interview with a Chicago DJ, addressing new recordings and expressing new excitement about her career. A week later the singer/songwriter was gone, the soulful funk of her career memorialized alongside of her two grown children. And what of the rarely recognized Seven Days of Night LP? It’s been relegated to the Internet’s version of the cutout bin, combined with her other recordings on out of print Brunswick and Edsel compilations.