LEIMERT PARK — Through her music, Barbara Morrison has touched people’s lives in a positive way. When she sings, she brings smiles to the faces of her faithful fans.
A powerhouse performer, Morrison, 73, is known for a commanding, down-home, emotive singing style that lends itself to expressing feelings rather than telling stories.
During a recent conversation, she spoke openly about her life, her career and why she decided to plant her roots in the Leimert Park area of Los Angeles.
Her story begins in Ypsilanti and Romulus, Michigan, where she was born and raised, respectively.
As a little girl, she was surrounded by music. She would listen intently to her father, who was part of a doo-wop group. She and her father had a great relationship. She remembers hanging out with him at the pool hall and playing their own brand of golf.
By the age of 8, she was studying piano and by the age of 10, she had already recorded her first appearance for a radio station in Detroit.
Education was important to Morrison, who won a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University where she studied business, was a cheerleader and planned to become a gym teacher. But music had other plans for Morrison.
One day her father asked what she wanted to do with her life. Morrison replied she wanted to be a singer. Her father encouraged her to follow her dreams.
In 1973, she moved to Los Angeles to further her musical career. She wasn’t totally on her own in the music world. She had an uncle named Eli ‘Lucky’ Thompson who played with John Coltrane. Her first gig was with a band featuring James Bigbee, a drummer who had made a name for himself with the Jackson 5.
The story goes that Bigbee asked Morrison if she was interested in making a record.
“I called my mother and she said, “You can’t record no record, you haven’t even finished college yet,’” said Morrison. “They called me up and I told them I couldn’t go because my mother would kill me. They sent a car for me anyway. When I got there, all the songs they wanted me to sing I already knew because of my father. All but one.”
Morrison said Leonard Feather, a composer and a journalist for the Los Angeles Times at the time, wrote a song for her. She did it in one take. When she sent her first recording home for her family to hear, her father cried with joy.
“He said, ‘You did it, baby. You said you were going to be a singer and you did it,’” Morrison said. “He was so proud of me, he cried every time he played it.”
By the age of 23, Morrison was singing with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s band. What followed were numerous recordings with Johnny Otis.
“My first trip to Europe was with him,” said Morrison referring to Otis. “One day he pulled me over and said, ‘Why do you sing like Barbra Streisand?’ “I said, ‘I thought if I sang those songs, I could be as famous as she was.’ He said, ‘Have you ever thought about singing the blues? Why can’t you be Barbra and be Black? Why can’t you sing it like you feel it?’ What did he tell me that for?”
By that time, everyone was discovering her talent. Tour requests began to pour in.
In 1986, Morrison went on a 14-city, one-month tour of Japan, Canada, Australia and the Philippines with the Phillip Morris Superband. She played with jazz organist Jimmy Smith, saxophonist James Moody, guitarist Kenny Burrell, Jon Faddis on trumpet, and Grady Tate on drums.
Next up was a 33-city U.S. tour where she co-headlined an all-star tribute to composer Harold Arlen, who wrote the songs in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Morrison’s talent and professionalism led to high-profile gigs including a televised tribute to Ella Fitzgerald. Today, the Grammy-nominated Morrison has performed with a roster of renowned jazz and blues musicians, including Joe Williams, Ray Charles, Nancy Wilson, Gerald Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, Etta James, Joe Sample, Kenny Burrell, Terence Blanchard, Tony Bennett, Keb’Mo, Jimmy Smith and many more.
Unfortunately, Morrison’s health began to take a toll.
“In my 30s, I started feeling bad,” said Morrison. “In my 50s, I was diagnosed with diabetes.”
Still, Morrison continued to tour, ignoring the warnings of her young doctor. She went to the Middle East, England and Japan. She played Carnegie Hall and then went to Scotland. By then, her health had gotten worse.
“Next thing I knew, I had to have my leg amputated,” said Morrison. “That was kind of hard, so I figured I’d better find something to do. I decided to make my own Carnegie Hall. It would be called the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center.”
In 2008, her love of children and the arts prompted her to open the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Leimert Park. It’s a 99-seat theater and adaptable performance space. The organization supports the Harmony Project, which helps children encounter music in an after-school program.
“We are designing a state-of-the-art recording studio, a 200-seat state-of-the-art theater and classrooms for children called The Harmony Project,” said Morrison. “We will have computer classes where children can learn to stream and do social media. I have seen these children growing up with positive attitudes. That’s why I’m here.”
Morrison, an adjunct associate professor in Global Jazz Studies at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School Of Music, said she picked Leimert Park as a location because ‘They are people like me.”
“I felt wanted,” said Morrison. “We’ve been here for 12 years. Every April, we do 30 plays in 30 days, and in June we celebrate Black Music Month. We also do International Jazz Day every year as well as produce live theater and a play reading series. We keep the music alive here in Leimert Park.”
In the same Leimert Park community on the famous 43rd Street and Degnan Boulevard intersection, Morrison founded the California Jazz & Blues Museum, considered an important and influential jazz spot. Its grand opening was April 2, 2017.
A trooper, Morrison continues to perform. In 2011, she began performing with popular Southern California musician Jack Hale. In 2014, she began performing throughout Southern California with Bobby Barron and His Swing Thing Band.
Barbara Morrison’s career as an international, down-home, blues, and jazz singer supports the notion that dreams can come true.