Barbara was a bright light in San Francisco Bay Area jazz during the 1980s. This page introduces the singer via her best but long out-of-print record album and recovered live performances.
These live sessions are not polished enough for commercial publication yet recall her love affair with song and celebrate the life and times of a gifted singer who departed too soon.
These sessions 1982-87 feature Ray Skjelbred, Bob Helm, Richard Hadlock, Leon Oakley, Bob Mielke, Steven Strauss and Peter Allen.
This photo appeared on the cover of Barbara's 1983 Shoestring album.
Richard Hadlock, Annals of Jazz radio series, KCSM-FM 1992
“It was always hard to believe, for most of us who worked with Barbara, that any jazz singer could be that sweet and that uncomplicated. She didn’t have a cynical or a snide molecule in her.”
At first Lashley sang primarily with piano player Ray Skjelbred, a skilled and sensitive accompanist who was most influenced by Joe Sullivan and Earl Hines. Barbara and Ray formed a tight partnership. Tracks from their two 1980s on Stomp Off Records duet albums can still be found online.
Lashley sang primarily with piano player Ray Skjelbred (d. 1940), a skilled accompanist most influenced by Joe Sullivan and Earl Hines. The love they shared for popular song of the 1930s and ‘40s was the foundation of their tight musical bond.
Skjelbred was well ensconced in Bay Area jazz. That brought her into the orbit of Bob Mielke (trombone), Richard Hadlock (reeds), Leon Oakley (cornet) and Bob Helm (reeds). All became her good friends and musical colleagues -- as heard below.
In a San Francisco Chronicle Datebook article profiling Lashley and Skjelbred’s partnership, Ray spoke out:
“I thought her voice was absolutely wonderful in a way like I had never heard in anyone in current times.
It was unpretentious and sweet in the true way of being sweet without being corny.”
Mid-life Career Change
Lashley had already had a career in media at Voice of America and news editing at ABC News, raised a family in Washington D.C. and divorced. Moving west in 1974 she worked as a freelance film editor while studying for a degree in African American Studies, exploring blues and jazz history at University of California, Berkeley.
Raised in New York City, Barbara grew up in a musical family, always loved music and started singing in her mid-forties. It was a short step around 1980 from the Berkeley Community Chorus to guesting with local jazz musicians. She found a mentor in local piano player Billy Cayou who gave her some pointers. Her natural talent blossomed and she became a local star. In interviews Barbara often regretted that she hadn’t become a professional singer sooner.
Blossoming Career, 1980s
As Barbara Lashley’s reputation and affiliations spread, bandleaders Jimmy Diamond, Rex Allen and Gene Gilbeaux hired her. In December 1981 Barbara organized a New Year Eve party for the Shattuck Hotel in Berkeley presenting Earl Hines’ last big band, with which she sang.
That led to her organizing the regular Friday night tea dances at the Shattuck Hotel, says Richard Hadlock, “which offered a lot of opportunity for Barbara to stage her ‘taxi dances.’ She . . . appeared in vintage costume and dress, and just had a good time with people dancing and sometimes with classes, learning to do Ballroom dancing.”
Lashley moved onto the international jazz touring circuit, singing in Breda, Holland with pianist Dick Hyman and toured Japan with Royal Street Jazz Band. She performed at a folk arts festival in Rimni, Italy as part of a group of Afro-American artists including a Bay Area gospel choir.
Bob Neighbor’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoons 7.26.82
This session is notable for Bob Helm on bass clarinet accompanying Barbara, a rare treat. No mere novelty, he crafted a delicate, sensitive counterpoint utilizing the bass clarinet’s velvet-throated basso. Helm was a force majeur of Frisco Traditional Jazz, vital to Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band and Turk Murphy’s Jazz Band.
The musical intelligence of Lashely, Helm and Skjelbred brought renewed charm to tunes that might have slipped into hackneyed banality. It was probably local jazz broadcaster Jim Watt who made this excellent recording, though the performance is a little disorganized in spots.
Bob Neighbor’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoons 7.26.82 Bob Neighbor (trumpet, vocals) Bob Helm (bass clarinet, alto sax, clarinet) Bob Mielke (trombone) Ray Skjelbred (piano) Dick Oxtot (tuba) Bob Ulsh (drums) Barbara Lashley, vocals
Bob Neighbor’s Jazz Band at Earthquake McGoon’s sans Lashley 1.83.
L to R: Bob Helm, John Gill, Dick Oxtot, Bob Neighbor, Bob Mielke, Ray Skjelbred.
A publicity flyer showing her busy mid-1985 performance schedule in Wine Country and the greater Bay Area.
Courtesy Richard Hadlock.
Barbara at the Necklace of Lights civic event (see below) with:
L to R: Bob Helm, Phil Howe, Jack Mangan, George Fleming, Oakland, CA 1987.
How Long Has This Been Going On? The Shoestring Album, 1983
Barbara’s warmth, charisma, confident style and superb musicality drew a Bay Area jazz family around her. That community coalesced to create her first and best album, How Long Has This Been Going On? issued by Bozy White’s independent Oakland-based Shoestring Records label -- both long departed.
Accompanied by her favorite musicians and close friends, Lashley was an exemplar of tasteful singing. Her personal style was in full flower, rooted in the melodic manner of singers from a half-century earlier -- Ivie Anderson, Maxine Sullivan and Ethel Waters.
Her sweet vocal duet with bassist Steven Strauss in “My Blue Heaven” reprises Jimmie Lunceford’s 1935 rendition. “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long” -- arranged by Skjelbred and containing smoldering solos by Leon Oakley (cornet) and Richard Hadlock (soprano sax) -- projecting passion and depth. The straightforward simplicity of “How Deep is the Ocean” sung in rapport with her piano accompanist brings us to the heart of the Lashley-Skjelbred pas de deux.
In the album liner notes writer and broadcaster Phil Elwood
pointed out that Ray and Barbara’s close partnership grew from their
mutual love of lyrical gems from 1930s popular music typified by George
and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” He notes that
“He’s Funny That Way” reflects the style of Billie Holiday and Lee
“This is a tough lyric nut to crack but Lashley handles
it cleanly – Skelbred’s in his Joe Sullivan mood here. . . [She] not
only uses her magnificent, rich contralto vocal instrument in
interpreting a song’s music, she has a remarkably fine sense of lyric
interpretation.” Photo: Lashely, Tiburon, CA 1985
How Long Has This Been Going On? The Shoestring Album, 1983
Barbara Lashley, accompanied variously by:
Ray Skjelbred (piano, arranger) Leon Oakley (cornet) Richard Hadlock (clarinet, soprano & alto saxes) Steven Strauss (bass, vocal) Tom Stamper (drums)
Barbara and Richard at a celebration of songwriter Jerome Kern at Old St. Hilary Church, Tiburon, CA, 1985.
Courtesy Richard Hadlock.
Lashley and Richard Hadlock
Richard Hadlock (b. 1927) was among Lashley’s outstanding associates and a close friend. Hadlock is a superb reed player (clarinet, soprano, tenor and baritone saxophone) active in Bay Area Jazz from the late 1950s until recently. He studied with reed masters Sidney Bechet, Garvin Bushell and Lee Konitz.
Hadlock wrote Jazz Masters of the Twenties (1965, Da Capo 1988) and has written extensively for a wide range of jazz publications, newspapers and liner notes. His ongoing Annals of Jazz radio series has on Bay Area radio since 1959.
Richard chose Barbara as vocalist for his “20th Century Masters” performance series in the mid-1980s. Both informative and tuneful, the concerts were presented at Fisherman’s Cottage in North Beach San Francisco and historic Old St. Hilary Church in Tiburon to the north.
Steven Strauss and Richard Hadlock "20th Century Masters" Tiburon, CA 1985
Concept Arts School, Berkeley, CA Oct, 1982
Jim Goodwin (cornet) Richard Hadlock (soprano, tenor and baritone sax) Bill Bardin (trombone) Ray Landsberg (violin) Ray Skjelbred (piano) Tom Keats (guitar)
Barbara Lashley (vocal)
This concert offered a sophisticated program to a rather well-behaved audience of young people aged kindergarten to 5th grade at a Berkeley arts magnet school.
Butch Thompson and his Berkeley Gang Shattuck Hotel, May 1985
This live recording session was a sincere effort to fuse pianist Butch Thompson with Bay Area jazz musicians including Lashley. It coincided with a San Francisco broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion on which pianist Thompson was a regular feature, Richard Hadlock a guest and drummer Hal Smith a frequent substitute.
Despite high production values the album was ultimately unsuccessful, coming off like an average jam session albeit with superlative players. Only two of Barbara’s vocals made it to the finished LP. I’ve added recovered outtakes and a couple of Hadlock’s featured instrumentals.
Butch Thompson and his Berkeley Gang Stomp Off Records Album SOS 1122 and Outtakes
Leon Oakley (cornet) Richard Hadlock (alto, soprano sax) Bob Mielke (trombone) Butch Thompson (piano) Ray Skjelbred (piano, duet only) Mike Duffy (string bass) Hal Smith (drums)
Barbara sang but the mainstream septet took center stage in what must have been a collective effort. There might have been only a handful of gigs and meaning of the name “Casa Verde” has been lost. These 1985 cassettes are from the personal library of Bill Bardin -- recorded by his wife, Mili Roseblatt-Bardin -- documenting three performances in Berkeley.
Tape notations make it clear that trumpet player Jack Minger was “arranger, conductor” and pianist Alan Hall “arranger.” Bass player Pete Allen is listed as “leader.”
Jack Minger (trumpet, arranger and conductor) Richard Hadlock (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones) Bill Bardin (trombone) Allan Hall (piano, aranger) Hal Smith (drums, F & S 8.85) Tom Stamper (drums, Shattuck Hotel 9.85) Steven Strauss (4 string tenor guitar) Pete Allen (leader, bass, arranger)
L to R: Helm, Howe, Lashley, Fleming, Oxtot, Oakley, Allen, Mielke and Bardin.
Bob Mielke’s Necklace of Lights All Star Jazz Band Lake Merritt Lighting Celebration, Oakland, CA 7.13.87
There was only ONE performance by the remarkable Necklace of Lights All Star Jazz Band. This spectacular 10-piece orchestra was assembled for a one-time Oakland event re-commissioning the string of lights surrounding Lake Merritt, Oakland’s central civic attraction. The band romped through charts by music director Bob Mielke as fireworks celebrated the rekindling of Oakland’s bejeweled nighttime garland.
Besides singing, Lashley acted as master of ceremonies. I suspect her noted organizing skills might have been requested, volunteered or hired for the event. Reveling in her natural element Barbara never sounded happier than fronting the Necklace of Lights All Stars.
Clearly, these barely salvageable audio clips transmit only an echo of that rollicking evening beside the lake.
Bob Mielke’s Necklace of Lights All Star Jazz Band Oakland, CA 7.13.87
Leon Oakley and George Fleming (horns) Bob Helm and Phil Howe (reeds) Bob Mielke and Bill Bardin (trombones) Jeff Hamilton (piano) Dick Oxtot (banjo) Pete Allen (string bass) Jack Mangan (drums)
Barbara Lashley (singing and master of ceremonies)
Fireworks 1936 (Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room)
Barbara Lashley electrified Bay Area Jazz for a decade. But her song was cut short. She died in her late fifties of complications from sarcoidosis, a rare lung disease. Her beauty, charisma and will-to-sing are sorely missed. Yet her pure spirit still inhabits these simple songs.
"I feel like I’m in love, that I’d rather be here than anyplace else.”
Drummer John Markham, left.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 1984.
Richard Hadlock offered this note of farewell on his Annals of Jazz radio program in November 1992: “We all loved her so much that when I went to a memorial for her yesterday everyone I spoke to thought that they had the most special relationship to Barbara. That she was so special to them no one else could possibly understand the closeness.
We all felt that way, and that’s the effect she had on people. This is one of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever known. And she sang that way – gently and lovely.”
Thanks to Abe Galvan, Richard Hadlock, Hal Smith and Steven Strauss for their memories and assistance. Music and images are from the personal collections of Richard Hadlock and Bob Mielke.
L to R: Bob Mielke, George Fleming, Leon Oakley, Vince Cattolica, Steven Strauss and Barbara Lashley, June 1990.