The woman who wrote and sang one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs is coming to St. Paul for Independence Day.
Barbara Lewis, the vocalist behind “Hello Stranger,” had a brief, brilliant career from 1962 to 1965 on the Atlantic label. But from the time she walked out of a recording studio in 1970 until she resumed performing in 1993, the native of tiny Salem, Mich., did everything from running her own jewelry store to working security. Nobody knew that the woman working next to them had a song that made it to No. 3 on the pop charts in 1963. She also is known for the hit “Baby I’m Yours.”
“I never felt like a big star, anyway,” said Lewis in a recent interview from her Orlando, Fla., home. “I went back to Michigan and I never told a soul. I would hear it on the radio and it was disassociation. It was another lifetime. I was never sad about it. I just went about my life.”
Lewis was reared in rural Salem, 15 miles from Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan. She grew up in a musical family where everyone played an instrument and both her parents led orchestras. Lewis was the only African-American student in nearby Lyon, where she said she came in second in the high school talent contest to a pair of tap dancers.
A better judge of her abilities was family friend Ollie McLaughlin, a promoter and DJ at WHRB radio in Ann Arbor and the man who discovered singer Del Shannon.
In January 1963, McLaughlin took Lewis to the Chess Studios in Chicago a day before her scheduled session “because I had never been at a recording studio like that,” Lewis said. She watched Etta James cut a single, and although she doesn’t remember which song, she recalls going back to the hotel and telling her mother, “I’ll never have a hit like that.”
Lewis, who was still weeks shy of her 20th birthday, walked into the studio with the song she had written. While “Hello Stranger”
strikes most listeners as a romantic, heartbreaking plea to a returning lover, Lewis said when she wrote it she didn’t have a boyfriend and intended it as a song between friends. (You can listen to her sing it below.)
“I would make the circuit with my dad and people would yell out ‘Hey stranger, hello stranger, it’s been a long time,’ ” Lewis recalled. “I was writing it as a friend, ‘don’t leave me.’ But I know that second verse makes it sound like lovers.”
In the studio, doing the arranging, was Riley Hampton. He had John Young available to play keyboards, and they decided to use the song’s signature organ and a drum and cymbal to lead the vocals.
“That was the genius of him,” Lewis said of Hampton. “He did everything.”
Well, almost everything. Somehow, McLaughlin got the Dells, a popular group at the time, to sing backup. But it was Lewis who had written their background vocals. And while many listeners think they are singing “shoo-bop, shoo-bop, my baby,” Lewis said she insisted they sing “Chew-bop.”
Lewis, with her full, aching vocals, was in a tiny booth with the five Dells and only two microphones. They did the song in 13 takes, and after one of them, the Dells’ Chuck Barksdale became very excited.
“Chuck kept jumping up and down and saying, ‘It’s a hit, it’s a hit,’ ” Lewis recalled. “I didn’t really know. It was all new to me.”
Like many artists of the time, Lewis was naïve and the business executives kept most of the money. She was once told that her royalty checks went to a Barbara Louise Mitnik. They cut Lewis a check for $500 and said that was the best they could do.
By 1993, she began to wonder if she still could sing and perform. She made some contacts and began playing the nostalgia circuit. Now, she travels and performs regularly. She will play the Taste of Minnesota July 4th at 2:30 p.m. along with the Chiffons and Maxine Brown as part of the Ladies of Doo Wop.
“Last year, I worked an awful lot,” Lewis said. “My voice is better than it ever was. Maybe it’s because I never got on drugs. I still sing the songs in their original key. I’ve been very, very blessed.”
Chuck Laszewski, communications director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for 25 years. He is the author of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Radical: The Life and Mysterious Death of Dean Reed.”