Obituary: Barbara Acklin

Spencer Leigh
Thursday 10 December 1998 00:02 GMT

"HAVE YOU Seen Her", a melancholic, haunting ballad by the Chi- Lites, is amongst the best soul records of all time. Eugene Record's switch from wistful narration to soaring falsetto is perfect as he recounts how he took love for granted: "With all the people I know, I'm still a lonely man." The song was written by Record and another soul singer, Barbara Acklin.

Acklin was born into a musical family in Chicago in 1944. Her grandmother was the blues singer Asa Eskridge, and her cousin the arranger and keyboard player Monk Higgins, although neither performer is known in the UK. Her parents encouraged her to sing and she was a soloist by the age of 11 in the choir of the New Zion Baptist Church. A few years later, she was working clubs on the South Side of Chicago.

After graduation, Barbara worked as a secretary for St Lawrence Records and sang background vocals for their productions. Her first single, produced by Monk Higgins, was under the pseudonym of Barbara Allen. Moving to the legendary Chess label, also in Chicago, she sang background vocals for such soul stalwarts as Etta James, Minnie Riperton, Fontella Bass and Koko Taylor.

In 1966 Acklin was working as a receptionist in Chicago for Brunswick Records. She submitted demonstration records of her own compositions to the label's main producer, Carl Davis. He liked a song that she had written with David Scott of the Five Dutones called "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)". Jackie Wilson, whose long run of US successes had ended, recorded the song and it restored him to the US Top Twenty after a three-year absence. Surprisingly, the record was not a UK hit, although it has now become a dance-floor favourite.

Jackie Wilson was so grateful that he told Acklin, "Let me know if there is anything I can do for you." She replied, "Tell Carl Davis to give me a recording contract." And that's what happened. Her first two singles for Brunswick flopped, but then a duet with Gene Chandler of "Duke of Earl" fame, "Show Me the Way To Go", made the Rhythm & Blues chart.

Acklin started writing with another Brunswick artist, Eugene Record, and they wrote a US Top Forty hit for Peaches and Herb, "Two Little Kids" (1968). Record also produced Acklin's version of "Love Makes a Woman". This catchy single with its brassy arrangement became a US Top Twenty hit. It was nominated for a Grammy but lost to Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools".

"Love Makes a Woman" was followed by "Just Ain't No Love" and a further duet with Chandler, "From the Teacher to the Preacher" (both 1968). Love Makes a Woman (1968) and Seven Days of Night (1969) are highly rated soul albums, and they have recently been combined on one CD for a UK release.

Her excellent single of "Am I the Same Girl" (1968) was also produced by Eugene Record. Dusty Springfield covered the song and took it into the UK Top Fifty, but its fate in America is much more intriguing. The musicians on Acklin's version included Eldee Young (bass) and Isaac Holt (drums). Brunswick were so taken by the backing track that they released it separately and it made No 3 in America under the name of "Soulful Strut" by Young- Holt Unlimited.

Acklin released further albums for Brunswick, namely, Someone Else's Arms (1970), I Did It (1971) and I Call It Trouble (1973). One of her most amusing songs was "I'll Bake Me a Man (1973)".

Eugene Record was impressed by Isaac Hayes's 1969 album, Hot Buttered Soul, which is arguably the first rap record as Hayes prefaces his songs with extended monologues. Record and his group, the Chi-Lites, recorded a five-minute ballad, "Have You Seen Her", in a similar groove but it was only released on an LP. Radio stations picked up on the song's unusual vibes and when Brunswick realised that a cover version by Frankie and the Spindles might take the sales, they released the Chi-Lites' original as a single. The Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her" was a US No 3 in 1971 and it has made the UK Top Ten twice in 1972 and 1975.

By now, Record and Acklin were married and they wrote together for the Chi-Lites including "Stoned Out of My Mind" (1973, with its memorable line "I was a back-seat driver in the car of love") and "Toby" (1974). However, Eugene Record longed for a solo career and, since that time, he has oscillated between solo performances and rejoining the Chi-Lites. The Chi-Lites amounted to little without him, but, by then, the Stylistics had become the champions of sweet soul music.

Acklin moved to Capitol Records in 1974 but her singles "Raindrops" and "Special Loving" met with no success. She recorded an album, A Place in the Sun, before the label dropped her in 1975. She joined her husband's own label, Chi-Sound, in 1980, and recorded further tracks with Gene Chandler. Barbara Acklin had hardly recorded under her own name since that time, although she did contribute backing vocals to the album The Gospel Truth (1993) by another soul singer based in Chicago, Otis Clay. She worked on the road as a backing singer for Tyrone Davis and as a manager for Holly Maxwell, Ike Turner's replacement for Tina.

In 1982 the Jam recorded "Stoned Out of My Mind" and an updated version of "Have You Seen Her" was a 1990 Top Ten hit for the rapper MC Hammer. In 1992 "Am I the Same Girl" was a Top Thirty UK hit for Swing Out Sister.

Barbara Acklin was a fine singer and performer and, despite her success, she could have, and should have, achieved more. She had warmth, range and passion in her voice, and with the right promotion and more application, she could have rivalled the soul diva Dionne Warwicke.

Barbara Acklin, singer: born Chicago, Illinois 28 February 1944; married Eugene Record; died Omaha, Nebraska 27 November 1998.

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