Abyss of Consequences 2012 Bob Miller
Barbara McNair

What was Barbara McNair’s biggest hit? You don’t know? Please read on.

Barbara McNair is the perfect example of a beautiful, exceptionally talented and successful black woman. From her early start as a nightclub singer to her expansive acting career and her own television variety show, Barbara McNair enjoyed success that few African-American women of her day did. Yet she never became egotistical or self-involved. Instead, those who had the opportunity to spend time with her remember her as being warm, loving, courageous, and one hell of an entertainer.
After she completed high school, Barbara used her savings to put herself through the American Conservatory of Music, and then the University of California in Los Angeles. Her musical inspirations included Sarah Vaughn, Dorothy Dandridge, and June Christy. During her studies, McNair finely honed her singing skills, and never let go of her dream of becoming an entertainer.
In 1954, McNair felt that it was time to accelerate her career, so she relocated to New York City, where she felt she would have more opportunities. She found work as a secretary, and began singing during the evenings at the Village Vanguard. In 1955, she married her long-time love, Earl Wright, although the union would eventually end in divorce.
Although her marriage may have fizzled, McNair's singing and acting career did exactly the opposite. Her powerful performances at the Village Vanguard landed her a spot on the Arthur Godfrey television show, Talent Scouts. This led to bookings at the Purple Onion nightclub, where she was finally able to kick her secretarial job to the curb. It was at the Purple Onion that McNair met Dick Kollmar, who offered her a role in the Broadway musical, The Body Beautiful.
McNair performed in The Body Beautiful for 3 months in 1958. In an interview with Jet magazine, she said of the show, "I remember my first Broadway show, The Body Beautiful. It was three years from when I was first asked to opening night. Then the darn show closed in three months. But I love the stage."1 In the same year, McNair began recording with Coral Records, and released her hit single, Bobby.
During this time, the soulful singer also landed enviable gigs at nightclubs across the country, including the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles, The Persian Room at the swank New York Plaza Hotel, and the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas. She also made guest appearances on many popular television shows, and was signed to the Signature label, where she produced many singles.
Perhaps Barbara's most notable break in her acting career was when she took over the role of Diahann Carroll in the Broadway musical No Strings in 1963. The plot of the musical was about the love affair between a novelist and a fashion model in Paris, and Richard Rodgers made a socially progressive move by casting a black woman and a white man as the lead actors.
Although the musical received rave reviews and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Musical, Richard Rodger's decision to cast a black woman in the role received negative press from a few small-minded people. Donald Bogie wrote of No Strings in Brown Sugar, "In this era of sit-ins, protests, and of an evolving black nationalism, the idea that a black woman might have an affair with a white man was viewed as being politically treasonous."2
The 1960s were a productive time for Barbara McNair. She began to tour with Nat King Cole in his stage shows, appeared in many television shows, including Hogan's Heroes, Mission: Impossible, Dr. Kildare, and McMillan and Wife, and she was signed to Motown, where she released two albums, Here I Am, and The Real Barbara McNair. Her hit single You're Gonna Love my Baby quickly became a hit in the record charts, (one of her biggest hits).
During this time, McNair also began to appear in films. Her first film role was in Spencer's Mountain, opposite popular actor Henry Fonda. However, it was the 1968 film, If He Hollers, Let Him Go that made ripples on the airwaves for McNair. The film tells the story of a black man who is wrongly imprisoned for murdering a white woman. McNair appeared in controversial nude scenes in the film, and the film was promoted with a photo spread in Playboy magazine, titled 'The Real Barbara McNair'.
McNair said of the risque film, "This film really socks it to all those other film makers who wouldn't allow love between a black man and a white woman. People are looking for a more honest approach to life, and that includes a more honest approach to the body."3
After her appearance in If He Hollers, Let Him Go, McNair appeared in the film Change of Habit as a nun with Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore in 1969. She also featured in the films They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and The Organization with one of the most celebrated black actors of all time, Sidney Poitier.
Perhaps McNair's greatest achievement was her own syndicated television variety show, The Barbara McNair Show, which ran from 1969 to 1972. She was the first African-American women to host her own musical variety show, and this led the way for many other black female entertainers. During this time she also married Rick Manzie, who managed and helped produce the show. The Barbara McNair Show featured top musical acts such as Sonny and Cher, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, and Bob Hope.
Despite the success of her show and her happy marriage, hard times befell Barbara McNair in the 1970s. In 1972, she and Rick Manzie were arrested for heroin possession when a package containing the drug was delivered to her dressing room and she signed for it. She was later acquitted of the charges. Then, in 1976, Rick Manzie was shot dead in the couple's Las Vegas mansion. Many believe the murder was a mafia hit, although this has never been officially proven.
These events drastically affected McNair's career. After the murder, she told Jet magazine, "For months I just couldn't do anything. People kept telling me I had to get back to work for my own good. But for a year there was no joy in it."4 Bookings for McNair were slow during the late '70s. However, not one to let life's pitfalls defeat her, McNair was soon back on her feet again.
Barbara McNair stayed true to her calling as an entertainer for the rest of her life. She continued to appear in television shows, including General Hospital, The Redd Foxx Show, and The Jeffersons. She performed at nightclubs, and in the stage production, Sophisticated Ladies, which was a tribute to Duke Ellington's music. She also produced more music including the Motown Ultimate Collection, which featured 48 soulful tracks, and Here's to Life in 2005.
Barbara Jean McNair was born on March 4, 1934 in Chicago, but her family moved to Racine, Washington, when she was very young. She had a natural talent for singing, and would perform in church, at school, and in local talent shows. Her family always supported her talent, and encouraged her to pursue her dreams. She told Ebony magazine in 1958, "My Mom is my biggest booster. She encouraged me and saw that I got good instructions. I consider her my Number 1 fan."5
At 72 years of age, Barbara McNair lost her battle with throat cancer. She will forever be remembered as a woman who never sat back and waited for life to hand her things. She fought hard to achieve her dreams, and she bravely stepped into new ventures that many would not even dream of attempting. In an interview with Jet in 1980, she said, "If you want to be an actress, you have to do what I did. I went up for every part that came along. I didn't wait for them to say we want a black woman for this part. Sometimes you have to convince the producer, and that way you can create parts for yourself."6
In this way, Barbara McNair helped to pave the road for many female entertainers who would follow in her footsteps. She opened doors for black women that had previously been closed, and she never backed down from a role or a performance just because it would raise eyebrows. Throughout her career, McNair remained level-headed, warm, compassionate, and true to herself up to the very end. With her dazzling beauty and natural talents, Barbara McNair continues to inspire millions through the legacy of her music and performances. Please Visit: http://www.barbaramcnair.com/
1 Smith, Jessie Carney (1996).Notable Black Women Volume 2 (p.463). Thomson Gale; annotated edition
2 Smith, Jessie Carney (1996).Notable Black Women Volume 2 (p.463). Thomson Gale; annotated edition
3 http://www.soulmusic.com/index.asp?S=1&T=38&ART=114
4 Smith, Jessie Carney (1996).Notable Black Women Volume 2 (p.464). Thomson Gale; annotated edition
5 Smith, Jessie Carney (1996).Notable Black Women Volume 2 (p.462). Thomson Gale; annotated edition
6 http://www.barbaramcnair.com/farewell.htm

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