About The Artist
Barbara Pittman was one of the few women to cut rockabilly numbers for Sun Records. Despite her promise, label owner Sam Phillips expended most of his energy promoting his male stars: Elvis Presley (until he sold his contract to RCA), Johhny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins. As a result her recordings did not sell much, but later became treasured collector's items.
Pittman was a Memphis native who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Elvis Presley family; in fact, their mothers were close friends. At seventeen she sang some in a traveling show led by former western star Lash LaRue. Back in Memphis she recorded a demo of a song that the writer hoped with success that Elvis would record. This led to Phillips signing her to Sun. After her first session, she toured with Jerry Lee Lewis.
Barbara's later Sun masters from Sun sessions were released on Phillips International and did somewhat better, but fell far short of being hits. She also recorded in 1958 as part of a group called the Sunrays made up of herself, Elsie Sappington, Hank Byers, and Jimmy Knight. In 1960, Pittman went to California where she sang on cruise ships and movie soundtracks.
Columnist William A. Bruning of the Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis would inform readers of his impressions of Ms. Pittman and who and where she was working. His first mention of her was in March 1960. He was quite impressed with her after her appearance with the Paul Graves gruop in a Miss Dixie Belle Contest at the Ellis Auditorium. He said "...seems destined for big things." He mentioned she had signed to Phillips International by Sam Phillips for three years and was scheduled to do 12 sides. He indicated "Eleventh Commandment" b/w "Handsome Man" was to be the first release.
In a July column in 1960, he wrote that she was "turning hillbilly" to be a part of a Webb Pierce and Eddie Bond show that was being held on July 4 in Halls, TN. He said she was being touted as "...another Memphis distaff singing sensation since she plattered a pair of tunes — "Two Young Fools" b/w "I'm Getting Better All The Time." He also indicated that Pappy Graves and Barbara had just did a gig in Columbus, MS the previous night.
Later in July he provides insight as to Pappy Graves and where the group performs. Pappy himself was said to be a comic, weighing about 350 pounds. His troupe "...plays for private parties and clubs around Memphis and the Mid-South." But then Mr. Bruning tells readers that Russ Carlyle who had an orchestra playing at the Peabody Skyway and Plantation Roof had an interest in Ms. Pittman. His present female vocalist, Dorothy Ferguson, was due for a vacation and Mr. Carlyle wanted her to join his orchestra during that time.
Mr. Bruning may have stirred up the ire of Pappy when he hinted that she is "...at her best alone instead of surrounded by a group of lesser talent." Mr. Bruning begged that all he was trying to do was play up Barbara's potential as an entertainer. Pappy went on that he had a contract on Barbara and she could not accept solo engagements without his arranging them. Pappy then invited Mr. Bruning to see his troupe at the Peabody Skyway for a private party. Mr. Bruning said the troupe was good, but it did not change his opinion about Ms. Pittman being a worthy solo performer. He said she opened with "Night Train", then "The Lady Is A Tramp." Then the audience really got into it when she did "Birth of the Blues." Mr. Bruning told readers of comments he had heard from two other bandleaders - Chuck Foster and Chuck Cabot. Mr. Foster was quoted, "Man, what is this gal doing hidden her? I could get her two, maybe three bills a week (aka $300) in many joints in Chicago." Mr. Cabot told Bill, "SHe's got everything a chick singer needs. She's a pretty girl, she has stage presentation, she's full of curves and, above all, she has a terrific voice." Bill said he agreed Pappy had a great group, but he still felt Barbara Pittman was the standout in that group.
A 1982 interview with Memphis reporter Ron Wynn talks about her place in the shadows of the stars that recorded at the Sun studios. Part of her legacy with Sun is that she was one of the few female vocalists to have a signed contract with the label. It was stated her singles were produced by Jack Clement, though the labels on the records back then did not include the producer's name. Charlie Rich may have played piano on her sessions.
In that interview readers learned that her vocal skills were influenced by singing with native and traveling blues singers, similar to what Sun records' style. In addition, she was a featured vocalist with the Snearly Ranch Boys that did '...straight country and honky tonk pieces.'. Later, she sang with a group called The Bluettes.
Her Hollywood credits include appearing or perhaps singing in two movies, "Hell's Angels" And "Wild Angels". She said working with Vincent Price on "Dr. Goldfoot and The Girl Bombs" was fun even though the movie was not so great. She said they had a great time and they couldn't be serious because "...you couldn't be with that script." She sang the theme song for the movie.
Her husband, Willie Gutt was known to Memphis area radio fans as "The Catman." The couple had many rare rockabilly, blues and R&B LPs and tapes in their collection.
In closing, Mr. Wynn said she had been in the music business for over 30 years, "...which is as close as she'll come to telling her age." She told him that she's "...never been discouraged enough to consider entering another line of work."
In 1970, she returned to Memphis, married a German record collector named Willie Gutt, formed a band, and settled in Houston. With an interest in rockabilly roots in Europe, she appeared at the Rockhouse Festival in Eindhoven in 1983 and at two concerts in Great Britain in 1985.
Over the years, several of her unreleased Sun masters came out on various rockabilly anthologies and in 2005, the same year of her death, the British label Charly released a compact disc of her complete Sun masters including alternate takes, Getting Better All the Time (Charly SNAP 223).
She died in October 2005. A small obituary appeared in the Commercial Appeal in Memphis only mentioning briefly her association with the Sun and Phillips labels. However, The Independent in London wrote a more detailed article of her passing and readers learned a bit more of her career and encounters.
As to her recording with Sun/Phillips, she was said to have "...a tough rock'n'roll voice, but despite good songs, had no hit records. She is said to have blamed Sam Phillips. "That was a man's label and Sam didn't spend any money 'cause I was a girl. He would promote an instrumental .... rather than prmote a woman. She is said to have told him, "Why didn't you tell me that at the time and I could have gone some place else."
She was born one of 12 children. She said if they'd been any poorer, they would have starved to death. Her obituary by Spencer Leigh indicates her father was an American Indiana and her mother of Irish descent. An uncle had a pawn shop in Memphis and she got interested in the musicians who came into the shop to hock their instruments.
She auditioned at Sun Records in 1954 (she would have been just 16) and was told to return when she was older. She began to do shows with DJ Sleepy Eyed John, who became her manager who got her bookings for $5. She worked once at the Eagle's Nest, but they had to dismiss because she was a minor.
She did a demo at the behest of Stan Kesler who wanted to get Elvis to do the song, "Playin' For Keeps." Phillips heard it and was impressed enough to give her a $100 advance. At the time, she was working with Clyde Leopard's Snearly Ranch Boys at the Cotton Club in West Memphis. It was that band that backed her on her first Sun session on April 15, 1956, "I Need A Man" b/w "No Matter Who's To Blame." In March of 1955, the Snearly Ranch Boys released two sides on the Flip record label, a subsidiary of Sun. They recorded "Split Personality" (vocals by Bill Taylor and Smokey Jo) b/w "Lonely Sweetheart" (vocal by Bill Taylor) (Flip Rec. No. 502).
She became a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Credits & Sources
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