Born Ben Milam Barnes, Jr., 1 January 1936, Beaumont, Texas
An exponent of classic honky-tonk country, Benny Barnes liked to sing and play the ukulele from an early age, but family tradition coaxed him to become an oilfield roughneck during his teens. After an oil-rig injury, Barnes pursued his musical leanings and landed a job singing with guitar at a local Beaumont lounge. In a 1974 interview with two Swedish musical experts, Barnes told how one night in 1956 he accompanied his friend and fellow Beaumont resident George Jones to a Houston studio to play rhythm guitar on a Starday session. During a break, Jones told the producer, Pappy Daily, 'I want you to hear this boy sing'. A surprised Barnes sang his own composition "Poor Man's Riches" and Daily said 'I like it, let's cut it, kid'. A few months later, Benny's Starday 45 of "Poor Man's Riches" was # 2 on the Billboard country charts.
A nice story, but Barnes had an earlier release on Starday in April 1956, the George Jones composition "No Fault Of Mine" (Starday 45-236), one of his best recordings. ("Poor Man's Riches" came out in August 1956.) An earlier demo of "No Fault Of Mine", recorded for Shelby Singleton in 1955, was unearthed by Cees Klop and released on a White Label LP. This version is available on YouTube, but not the Starday cut.>From January 1, 1957, Starday was distributed by Mercury. Pappy Daily's agreement with Mercury allowed him to continue with his Starday venture and other independent labels like D. "Poor Man's Riches" was reissued on Mercury 71048 in January 1957. Its success created a demand for public appearances, including a stint on the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. But a follow-up hit proved hard to find. Benny stayed with Mercury until 1961, but during this time he also had releases on Starday, its subsidiary Dixie (for which he recorded sound-a-like covers of Johnny Cash songs) and D. "You Gotta Pay" (also known under the title "One Of These Days") was an excellent rocker, released in September 1958 (Starday 45-401), but it sold poorly.
His sole release on D was a tribute to Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, recorded in March 1959. Titled "Gold Records In the Snow", it spent two weeks on the Cash Box country charts. However, I much prefer the other side, "Happy Little Bluebird", a truly happy song. From 1959 on, Benny's sessions for Mercury were produced by Shelby Singleton, starting with one of his finest singles, "Fastest Gun Alive"/"Beggar To A King", both sides written by J.P. Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper. It is possible that these songs (released in December 1959 on Mercury 71552) were recorded prior to Richardson's death, as he is reported to be on the session. "Yearning" was Benny's last substantial seller (Mercury 71806, 1961), peaking at # 22 (country).
Barnes continued to record until 1982, for Hall-Way (1962-65), Musicor (1965-67), Kapp (1967-68), RCA Victor (1969-70), Mega (1972), Starday (1973, a re-recording of "Poor Man's Riches"), Guyden (1974-75), Playboy (1976-77), Kik Kik (1981) and Brylen (1982) but apart from a very modest country hit with "I've Got Some Gettin' Over You To Do" (Playboy, 1977, # 94), there were no further chart entries.
Most of his 1960s and 1970s recordings were cut in Nashville, sometimes with accompaniment from the city's top session men. But they were fairly standard country material, with a few exceptions like "How Blue Can You Get" (1962), written by Jack Clement. Benny's 1950s Houston recordings are more adventurous, with occasional excursions into rockabilly and brillliant guitar work by Hal Harris. The honky-tonk piano of Doc Lewis also adds to its attraction.
In 1970, Barnes moved to California where he worked for a year, but he soon returned to Beaumont and bought a night club at the Houston Highway called The Benny Barnes Melody Club, where, with his band the Ranch Hands, he proved to be a popular entainer. He kept the club until 1973. Benny Barnes died too young, in 1986, at the age of 51. Life on the road and too much alcohol had taken its toll. One of the best honky-tonk singers was gone. Pappy Daily said of Barnes : "I thought Benny was a fine singer. He was a great artist with a fine stage act. I never could understand why he didn't make it big."
Sessionography / discography :
Acknowledgements : Claes Olofsson and Bo Berglind, Liner notes for the Star-Club CD.
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