There's still a light, shining bright
Within this old heart of mine
American Soul singer and songwriter, virtually unknown in the United States, clocking up only three minor Billboard R&B hits, but whose recordings achieved more lasting recognition in the United Kingdom where they helped define the early Northern Soul sound; so much so that he has been called The King of Northern Soul.
My Love Came Tumbling Down
Born James Jay Barnes, in Detroit, Michigan on 30th November 1943, in his teens he attended North Western High School and sang in two local groups; the first the Halo Singers sang Gospel, the second the Five Seniors sang Doo-Wop. Overheard by his postman Fred Brown who just happened to have his own record label 2, he was offered a recording deal.
It was therefore at the age of 17 that J.J, released his first single, My Love Came Tumbling Down for Kable Records. Produced by Don Davies and featured backing vocals by the Del-Phis3; the record achieved national distribution via Rich Records but failed to chart.
Kable released a number of further singles by J.J. on its Mickay lable Just One More Time did well enough to be picked up by Scepter Records but the sales never amounted to much.
J.J. had one release through Ring Records in 1964, Poor Unfortunate Me, before returning to the Mickay lable for what proved to be the last time in 1965 for Lonely No More
A Real Humdinger
Kable Records ceased trading and J.J. ended back on the Chrysler Motors assembly line but not for long, as he was soon back recording for a new Detroit label named Ric Tic. His first release was Please Let Me In in 1965 was promising, but its successor Real Humdinger gave J.J. his first taste of success, hitting number 20 on the R&B chart and number 60 on the pop chart. A George Clinton produced version of the Beatles' Day Tripper which achieved some success in the United Kingdom where it was issued by Polydor.
Unfortunately for J.J. (as it turned out) there was another record label in Detroit, owned by one Berry Gordy Jnr that didn't like the competition4, and eliminated it by the simple expedient of buying it up. The Ric Tic/Golden World empire was acquired by Motown Records and with it J.J. Barnes's contract.
"I got the hell out as soon as I could!"5
Despite recording a great deal of material for Motown, nothing was ever released. The tale is that J.J. sounded too much like Marvin Gaye (and he does), and there already was one Marvin Gaye at Motown, and he'd married the owner's daughter and didn't like the competition, so J.J.s career hit a dead end 7. He co-wrote a couple of songs that were recorded by other Motown artists 8, but that was as much exposure as he got, so he asked for and obtained a release from his contract, frustrated no doubt at having almost but not quite making it.
Baby Please Come Back Home
Meanwhile in Detroit, producer Don Davis set up a company named Solid Hitbound Productions with Lebaron Taylor which was to release material on the Groovesville and Revilot labels. Freed from his obligations to Motown, J.J. joined up with his old friend and released Baby Please Come Back Home in 1967 which made number 9 on the Billboard R&B chart, which, it has to be said, was the closest that J.J. Barnes ever really got to any kind of real commercial success in the country of his birth.
Its successor, Now That I Got You Back only made number 44 and the third release, Sweet Sherry by some strange aberration of fate, failed to sell at all 9. In the end, tired of competing for attention with the might of Motown, Don Davies decided he'd had enough , and went south with the master tapes to Memphis. Lebaron Taylor struggled on single handed, issuing material on the Revilot label including Our Love (Is In The Pocket)10 for J.J. before going out of business.
Don Davis went to Memphis for a purpose, he had a job working as a staff producer for Stax Records. Without a record deal in Detroit, J.J. followed the trail to Memphis but the end result wasn't particularly successful with only the one single Got To Get Rid of You being released on the Volt label.
However the Don Davis association with Stax did result in the repackaging and release of some previous Groovesville material on the Rare Stamps album. This album featured five tracks by J.J. on one side 11 with other side featuring fellow Groovesville artist Steve Mancha. Rare Stamps might not have threatened the charts but it did bring J.J. wider exposure, particularly in the United Kingdom.
J.J. was back in the wilderness again, with no real record deal. A sequence of labels Magic Touch, Buddah, Leo Perception, and Invasion Records released the odd J.J. Barnes single over the next four years. Perception even released an album Born Again in 1973, shortly before it folded. It looked as if he was about to fade into complete obscurity.
"It was just like I'd drifted into the past" 12
By 1973 Northern Soul was in full swing in Britain (although almost entirely ignored by the London based media); J.J. might have been forgotten in the United States, but in certain quarters on the other side of the Atlantic he was a star; the man who recorded Sweet Sherry and Please Let Me In . Dragged across the ocean to tour J.J. made his first appearance at the 100 Club in London on 1st November 1973, and was surprised to find that audiences didn't just want to hear Real Humdinger but old material that he could hardly remember himself. Even mighty Motown, who had earlier ignored him, got in on the act and re-released three of his old Ric Tic tracks for the UK market.
J.J. ended up with a record deal with the UK based Contempo Records who leased and re-released material aimed at the Northern Soul market before they tried to make J.J. a disco star and issued an album, Sara Smile. J.J. wasn't particularly happy with this turn of events, not that it particularly mattered, as none of the disco material sold very well.
As the Northern Soul boom faded away in the 1980's J.J. had a release on Organic and released a couple of cover versions of old Northern Soul classics on Inferno before recording some material for Ian Levine's Motor City Records.
As far as can be established, J.J. Barnes is alive and well; CDNow lists an album entitled Still in Love with a 2001 release date but no other information, so it would seem that he is still performing and recording to this day.
- Rare Stamps - Volt 6001 (1969) with Steve Mancha
- Borne Again - Perception (1973)
- The Groovesville Masters - Contempo
- Sarah Smile - Contempo
- Try It One More Time - Motor City Records
- The Groovesville Masters Goldmine Soul Supply GSCD 108
- Still in Love (2001)
The Groovesville Masters, on Goldmine should still be available, a double CD collection thirty nine vintage J.J. Barnes tracks and basically everything half way decent that he ever recorded. With the exception of his Ric Tic material such as Real Humdinger and the Day Tripper cover which remains under lock and key at Motown and has never seen the light of day on CD.
Biographical information sourced from the All Music Guide entry by Andrew Hamilton, the Ritchie's Cellar of Soul at www.ritchie-hardin.com/soul/index.html plus the liner notes to the Goldmine Soul Supply release mentioned above.
The long Singles Discography has been stuck right at the end after the Notes.
1Quoted from the lyrics of Sweet Sherry co-written by Don Davies and J.J. Barnes
2Part owned by Ivy Joe Hunter future Motown pianist and songwriter
3Better known later as Martha and the Vandellas
4Or the fact that his studio musicians were moonlighting there and getting paid union rates what's more.
5As quoted by the All Music Guide
6 Nor has been since, much to the frustration of many who think that somehwere in those Motown vaults...
7Well according to J.J. himself this is what Eddie Holland told him.
8 Show Me the Way by Martha and the Vandellas (released October 1967) and Don't Make Hurting Me a Habit by the Marvelettes (released December 1968).
9 But is probably his most popular track in Britain; "the epitome of Northern Soul" and in some people's opinion (like mine) the best Motown track that was never on Motown.
10 Destined to become another Northern Soul classic.
11 J.J. insists that the vocal on the Easy Living track credited to him is in fact Steve Mancha and is not happy about it "To this day I've never forgotten it..To me it was an insult." (As Per the liner notes to The Groovesville Masters
12Same source as 11
- My Love Came Tumbling Down / Won't You Let Me Know - Kable 437 (1960) a
- Teenage Queen / Someone - Mickays 351 (1962)
- Just One More Time / Hey Child I Love You - Mickays 3004 (1963)b
- These Chains Of Love / Color Green - Mickays 3114 (1963)
- So Far Away / Love Requires Understanding - Mickays 353 (1964)
- Lonely No More / Get A Hold Of Yourself- Mickays 4472 (1965)
a Also released as Rich 1005 in 1960 and Rich 1737 in 1962
b Also released as Scepter 1266 in 1963
- Poor Unfortunate Me / She Ain't Ready - Ring R-101 (1964)
- Please Let Me In / I Think I Found A Love - Ric Tic 106 (1965)
- Real Humdinger / I Ain't Gonna Do It - Ric Tic 110 (1966)
- Day Tripper / Don't Bring Me Bad News - Ric Tic 115 (1966)
- Say It / Deeper In Love - Ric Tic 117 (1966)
As one of The Holidays (Edwin Starr, Steve Mancha and J.J. Barnes)
- I'll Love You Forever / Makin' Up Time - Golden World 36 (1966)
Solid Hitbound Productions
- Baby Please Come Back Home / Chains Of Love - Groovesville 1006 (1967)
- Now That I Got You Back / Forgive Me - Groovesville 1008 (1967)
- Easy Living / I've Lost You - Groove City 206 (with The Holidays) (1967)
- Now She's Gone / Hold On To It - Revilot 216 (1968)
- Sad Days A Coming / I'll Keep Coming Back - Revilot 218 (1968)
- Our Love Is In The Pocket / All The Goodies Are Gone (inst.) - Revilot 222 (1969)
- So Called Friends / Now She's Gone (inst. - The Lebaron Strings) - Revilot 225 (1969)
- Evidence / I'll Keep Coming Back - Buddah 120 (1969)
- Snowflakes / Got To Get Rid Of You - Volt 4027 (1969)
- Soul Emotions / Wouldn't It Be A Pleasure - Leo (shown As Jay Rhythm) (1970)
- To An Early Grave / Cloudy Days - Magic Touch 1000 (1970)
- You're Just A Living Doll / I Make Believe I'm Touching You - Perception 546 (1973)
- My Baby / You're Still My Baby - Invasion 1001 (c 1974)
- To An Early Grave / To An Early Grave (instrumental) - Contempo 2009
- Sweet Sherry / Chains Of Love - Contempo 2048
- Baby Please Come Back Home / Cloudy Days - Contempo 2063
Late 1970's disco stuff
- Errol Flynn / She's Mine - Contempo 2105
- Sara Smile / Let Me Feel The Funk - Contempo 2111
- How Long / I'm The One Who Loves You - Contempo 2123
- I Think I've Got A Good Chance Pt. 1 /pt. 2 - Organic 1
- Competition Ain't Nothing - Inferno (1984)
- Guess I'll Try Again / Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) - Inferno (1985)
Singles Discography compiled from the following sources