TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Southern Louisiana in the early 1960s was a hotbed of musical creativity for young people who'd been raised listening to French-language country music and Fats Domino. They combined those and other influences to make what's now called swamp pop. Rock historian Ed Ward has the story of Joe Barry, a pioneer of this sound. His music is on the new collection "Joe Barry: A Fool to Care."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
JOE BARRY: (Singing) You don't have to be a baby to cry. All you need is for love to go round...
ED WARD, BYLINE: Joseph Barrios, Jr., was born in the aptly named town of Cut Off, Louisiana, in 1939, and almost immediately started fooling around with a guitar that was in the house. At 15 he heard a Ray Charles song, "Come Back Baby," and decided he'd found his hero, so he formed a band, the Dukes, and started playing bars.
When local hero Joe Carl stole the band from under him in 1960, Barrios, who by now was using the name Joe Barry, just formed another one, the Del-Phis. And hearing that there was a studio in Ville Platte that would record you, they headed up there.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTBROKEN LOVE")
BARRY: (Singing) Heartbroken love, don't I cry every night? You're doing me wrong. Girl, you'd better treat me right. All my friends tell me...
WARD: Floyd Soileau, whose studio they'd used, had been recording Cajun and Cajun country records for a decade, but had a rock label, Jin, reserved for people like Joe. "Heartbroken Love" got a lot of airplay but didn't sell a lot of records, so Joe had to be very persuasive before Floyd agreed to let him make a second one.
For this they went to a bigger studio: Cosimo Matassa's in New Orleans. Joe had been perfecting a song he'd written - "I Got a Feeling," a kind of tribute to Ray Charles - and he put everything he had into it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I GOT A FEELING")
BARRY: (Singing) Well, I got a feeling down to my soul. Well, the way you treat me, baby, is so lonely and cold. Well, the way you treat me, babe, child, I understand. You're going to leave me, baby, I said leave me for some other man. Well, I woke up this morning...
WARD: They needed another side, though, so their bassist suggested an old Les Paul and Mary Ford song, which they banged out quickly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A FOOL TO CARE")
BARRY: (Singing) I'm a fool to care when you treat me this way. I know I love you but what can I do? I'm a fool to care. I'm a fool to cry.
WARD: Floyd Soileau knew he had a hit here, so he called on a friend of his, Huey Meaux, who lived in the East Texas rice-growing town of Winnie and had had some luck leasing records to national labels, notably Mercury. By early 1961, "I'm a Fool to Care" was working its way from a regional to a national phenomenon on Mercury's Smash subsidiary. And Joe Barry and the Vikings, his latest band, were on the road.
That summer he released a follow-up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARDROPS IN MY HEART")
BARRY: (singing) You never knew I cried when I found out you lied. For I've been hiding all those teardrops in my heart. My eyes, they're not...
WARD: "Teardrops in My Heart" didn't do as well, and the two that followed didn't even do that well. Joe didn't care. He was busy living his legend, destroying hotel rooms, shooting televisions or throwing them in the pool. By the end of 1961, Floyd Soileau wanted nothing to do with him.
Huey stuck with him. On one occasion, Huey released a Joe Barry record under the name "Roosevelt Jones," a common pseudonym for a white artist trying to sell to black audiences.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BARRY: (Singing) Early in the morning when there's no one around, you know there's no one, baby, to stop my (unintelligible) sound. I want to hold you and squeeze you as tight as I can. Child, baby, I love you so. I'll never let you go. I get a thrill, oh well. Tell me, mama, everything's all right. I want to hold your hand.
WARD: It was Joe's ultimate Ray Charles tribute, but it too went nowhere. By 1964, though, Huey had bailed Barry out of jail one time too many, and he also had a fight with Cosimo Matassa and stopped using his studio. Joe went back to Cut Off and worked in the oil fields, trying to lose his drug and alcohol problems. A couple of comeback tries failed, and eventually Joe found religion and became a preacher.
By 1977, music was the last thing on his mind, but a phone call from Huey Meaux changed that. Huey had had his own troubles, and had come back with a left-field hit written by an elderly friend of his and sung half in Spanish and half in English by Freddy Fender, another long-time veteran of the Texas-Louisiana bar scene.
The label, Dot Records, thought Huey was a genius and asked him if he knew any other artists like that. I always look for a voice, Huey told me at the time. If I can find the voice, the song's no problem. Dot eagerly signed Joe after Huey had twisted his arm some to get him into the studio, and the album that resulted is a forgotten gem.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BARRY: (Singing) I pray each night at close of day you'll change your mind, be sure to stay. Please don't go. I love you so. Oh, think it over. Oh, think it over. I proved my love...
WARD: Right as Joe Barry's comeback album was released, the record company went into turmoil and fell apart. Huey bought the tapes back from them and put it out himself, but he had no better luck. Joe went back to his ministry, and his health began to fail. He recorded a gospel album, and then a pop album for an independent label that finally came out in 2003, but by then he was far too sick to promote it and died in Cut Off, where his story began in August 2004.
GROSS: Ed Ward lives in France. He played music from the collection "Joe Barry: A Fool to Care, Classic Recordings 1960-1977" on Ace Records.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
BARRY: (Singing) Oh, I wish I'd someone to love me. Someone to call me their own...
GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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