Since 2005 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
I love a good mystery. Sometimes even my most exhaustive research turns up nothing more than a few details about a great musician, not enough to tell the full tale. As much as I might want to blast that story from the mountaintops, I also respect the value in leaving an artist’s mystique intact—a rare and even beautiful thing in this era of digital information saturation. Creators deserve privacy, and some actually manage to maintain theirs, as impossible as it can seem. Soul diva Barbara Livsey might be doing just that, and in any case, she left the limelight long ago. Her career is worth celebrating, though, so I’ll do my best. No matter where Livsey is now, the allure of her songs endures.
Barbara Livsey was born May 27, 1946, in Atlanta, Georgia, and around 1958 her family moved to Chicago, where she attended Parker Academy on the south side. In high school Livsey (also known as Barbara Bates) took music classes and formed her first group, the Du-Ettes, with her cousin Mary-Francis Hayes. They specialized in brash, hard-edged soul that was perfect for riling up teenagers, and like many R&B acts of the era, they got their big break at a local talent contest.
Representatives from One-derful Records, a Black-owned Chicago label founded by George Leaner, saw the Du-Ettes win the competition and signed them. Beginning in 1963, they released a series of slammin’ singles for One-derful and its subsidiaries, most frequently the M-Pac! label. The gritty but tuneful “Mister Steel,” the group’s debut, was cowritten and produced by R&B legend Andre Williams. The hard-groovin’ “Move On Down the Line” and its mellower girl-group B side, “Have You Seen (My Baby),” were both arranged by Milton Bland (aka Monk Higgins) and produced by Otis Hayes (aka Little Otis).
Williams also produced the Du-Ettes’ next 45, “Every Beat of My Heart” b/w “Sugar Daddy,” released by One-derful imprint Mar-V-Lus, which made them labelmates with local dance-craze king Alvin Cash (of “Twine Time” fame). Its thumping, powerful soul earned the single a UK release via President Records in 1972 (it’s still beloved overseas by Northern Soul aficionados). The Du-Ettes’ final platter, the 1965 single “Please Forgive Me” b/w “Lonely Days,” was even more danceable—the A side features lively hand claps, rollicking sax, and a fierce tempo.
To support these records, Du-Ettes toured extensively (sometimes under the name “Tate’s Du-Ettes”) with a revue headlined by One-derful labelmates the Five Du-Tones, who’d had a hit with the first recording of “Shake a Tail Feather” in 1963. But by 1966, the Du-Ettes had called it quits—Livsey got married and moved to Detroit.
Within a few years, though, Livsey came back to the Windy City and started making music with her sister in a duo simply known as Barbara & Gwen. They performed in clubs for a stretch and then in 1969 signed to New Chicago Sound Records (owned by Leo Westbrook, C.D. Wilson, and Bill Parker). They released two singles with the label, the soulful “Just the Two of Us” b/w “I Love My Man” and the downright funky “Right On (to the Street Called Love)” b/w “Take Me as I Am (Don’t Try to Change Me),” but aside from some local airplay for the latter, neither got much traction.
The label added Doris Lindsey to the group, who changed their name to Barbara & the Uniques. They started out with a bang on small New York label Arden with “There It Goes Again” b/w “What’s the Use.” The smooth, brassy A side was written by Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites, and it became a national hit, spending 11 weeks on the Billboard soul chart in late 1970 and early ’71.
Arden released some excellent follow-up tunes by the group, such as the wah-wah-addled “I’ll Never Let You Go” and the bouncy “You Make Me Feel So Young Again.” California label Abbott Records put out the 1972 single “Take Me as I Am” b/w “He’s Gone (and It’s All Over Now).” Sadly, none of them sold especially well. Livsey, now known as Barbara Blake, signed the Uniques with producer Jimmy Vanleer, who’d had some success with the likes of the Southside Movement and Jackie Ross.
Vanleer brought Barbara & the Uniques to the fairly large 20th Century label, which released a proper album by the group (and a fair number of singles from it). It’s the Uniques’ most professional-sounding production, though the group by this time was just Livsey and several male studio musicians. Why the 1975 LP Barbara Blake & the Uniques wasn’t a smash is a head-scratcher to me—Livsey’s confident voice mingles with the group’s confident backing vocals on a consistent lineup of stylish tunes. “Let Me Down Easy” and “Everlasting Thrill” should’ve been snappy, dance-floor-filling smashes—if you ask me, they’re on par with anything by Sister Sledge or Anita Ward. The soulful ballads “Teach Me” and “Superman” equal or even surpass the best of Gladys Knight & the Pips or the Three Degrees.
Now comes the mystery—after Livsey’s contract with 20th Century Records expired later in ’75, she all but vanished from the public record. I can’t be certain if she’s dead or alive, but it seems pretty clear that she left the music business and never looked back. On social media I found a woman named Barb Livsey with a not-much-to-see account who meets her description, but my requests for an interview went unanswered.
If that’s the same Livsey, I have a feeling she doesn’t want to be found—or else she’s simply living her life and not looking at social media often enough to notice music writers trying to find her. We may never know. But Livsey’s music and her gutsy, passionate voice live on for all who take time to look—so maybe there’s no need to locate her bad self.
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.