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Barbara Lashley, A Love Affair with Song

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Lashley Belle Portrait “It was always hard to believe, for most of us who worked with Barbara, that any jazz singer could be that sweet and that uncomplicated. She didn’t have a cynical or a snide molecule in her.” — Richard Hadlock, Annals of Jazz, KCSM-FM, 1992

Singer Barbara Lashley (1935-1992) was a bright light in San Francisco Bay Area jazz during the 1980s.  This article offers an introduction via her best but long out-of-print 1983 record album and three newly recovered live performances.  The live sessions are not polished enough for commercial publication yet recall her love affair with song and celebrate the music of a beloved and gifted singer who departed too soon.

For a few years Lashley sang primarily with piano player Ray Skjelbred (b. Chicago 1940), a skilled accompanist who was most influenced by Joe Sullivan and Earl Hines.  The love they shared for popular song of the 1930s and ‘40s was the foundation of a tight musical partnership.  Skjelbred was well ensconced in Bay Area jazz, bringing Barbara into the orbit of Bob Mielke (trombone), Richard Hadlock (reeds), Leon Oakley (cornet) and Bob Helm (reeds).  All became her good friends and musical colleagues — as heard below.

Tiburon, 1985. Mielke collection.

A Late-Blooming Jazz Flower

Lashley had already had a career in media at Voice of America and film editing at ABC-TV, raised a family in Washington D.C. and divorced.  Moving west in 1974 she worked as a freelance film editor while studying for a degree in African American Studies, exploring blues and jazz history at University of California, Berkeley.

Originally from New York City Barbara always loved music and grew up in a musical family.  But she didn’t start singing in earnest until her forties.  It was a short step around 1980 from the Berkeley Community Chorus to guesting with local jazz musicians.  She found a mentor in bass player Billy Cayou who gave her some pointers.  Her natural talent blossomed and she became a regional star.  In interviews Barbara often expressed regret that she hadn’t become a professional singer earlier in life.

Barbara Lashley Sings 8.85 flyer. This mid-1985 publicity flyer shows her busy performance schedule in the Bay Area and Napa Wine Country. Courtesy Richard Hadlock.

As her reputation and affiliations spread, bandleaders Jimmy Diamond, Rex Allen and Gene Gilbeaux hired her.  In December 1981 She organized a New Year Eve party for the Shattuck Hotel in Berkeley presenting Earl Hines’ last big band, with which she sang.  Hines called her “a natural singer” telling her, “Don’t try to change.”

That led to Lashley organizing the regular Friday night tea dances at the Shattuck Hotel.  Richard Hadlock says it, “offered a lot of opportunity for Barbara to stage her ‘taxi dances.’  She . . . appeared in vintage costume and dress, and just had a good time with people dancing, and sometimes with classes learning to do Ballroom dancing.”

Barbara moved onto the international jazz touring circuit, singing in Breda, Holland with pianist Dick Hyman and in Japan with Royal Street Jazz Band.  She performed at a folk arts festival in Rimini, Italy as part of a Bay Area group of African-American artists including a gospel choir.

This image appeared on the cover of her 1983 LP album.

The Shoestring Record

How Long Has This Been Going On?, 1983

Barbara’s warmth, charisma, confidence and superb musicality drew a Bay Area jazz family around her.  That community coalesced in 1983 to create her first and best album issued by Bozy White’s tiny Oakland-based Shoestring Records label — both long departed.

Surrounded by her favorite musicians and close friends, Lashley was an exemplar of tasteful singing.  Her personal style was in full flower, rooted in the melodic manner of singers from a half-century earlier — Ivie Anderson, Maxine Sullivan and Ethel Waters.

In the album liner notes, writer and broadcaster Phil Elwood pointed out that Barbara and  Ray’s close partnership grew from a mutual love for the lyric gems of 1930s popular music typified by George and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?”  Elwood noted that “He’s Funny That Way” reflects the influence of Billie Holiday and Lee Wiley:

“This is a tough lyric nut to crack but Lashley handles it cleanly – Skelbred’s in his Joe Sullivan mood here. . .  [She] not only uses her magnificent, rich contralto vocal instrument in interpreting a song’s music, she has a remarkably fine sense of lyric interpretation.”

Barbara’s effervescent vocal duet with bassist Steven Strauss in “My Blue Heaven” reprises Jimmie Lunceford’s 1935 recording.  She finds passionate depth in “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long” — arranged by Skjelbred with smoldering solos by Leon Oakley (cornet) and Richard Hadlock (soprano sax).  Her simple treatment of “How Deep is the Ocean” in easy rapport with her piano accompanist brings us to the heart of the Lashley-Skjelbred pas de deux.

Tiburon, CA, 1985. Mielke collection.

How Long Has This Been Going On? is long out-of-print, never made it to CD and reissue is unlikely.  The instrumentalists heard with Barbara in various combinations are Ray Skjelbred (piano), Leon Oakley (cornet), Richard Hadlock (clarinet, soprano & alto saxophones), Steven Strauss (bass, vocal) and Tom Stamper (drums).

That’s Life I Guess


He’s Funny That Way


A Woman’s Intuition


My Blue Heaven (vocal duet with Strauss)


Side A clips complete


How Deep is the Ocean? (duet with Skjelbred)


After You’ve Gone


You’ll Never Know


Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long  (arranged by Skjelbred)


How Long Has This Been Going On (arranged by Skjelbred)


Side B clips complete

Technical note:  This LP transfer was made with a vintage Panasonic SP-10 broadcast turntable, Audio-Technica AT-29SX cartridge, Creek 640P phono preamp, RME Fireface 24-bit 48 Khz D/A conversion to Pro Tools with Bybee Quantum products and Legacy speakers.  After minor adjustment of dynamics and gentle audio compression these 320 kps mp3 files are the result.

2 Responses to Barbara Lashley, A Love Affair with Song

  1. Dick Karner says:

    Very enjoyable! Thanks, Dave.

  2. Marie Gomariz says:

    Thanks for this tribute to Barbara Lashley. Indeed, she was a lovely lady. Back in the early 1980s, when I was in high school, I remember going to her country place (Napa? Sonoma?) where she hosted weekend jam sessions. Fun times and great music.

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