Brenda Holloway had one genuine rival in the Motown glamour stakes. The delectable Barbara McNair from Racine, Wisconsin, even went into the annals as the first Motown artiste to pose for Playboy, in October 1968.
In truth, McNair wasn’t in Holloway’s class as an outright soul singer, but that wasn’t why Berry Gordy signed her up in 1965 anyway.
Craving success in the lucrative MOR field, selling records to older, predominantly white middle-class audiences, McNair seemed to fit in with a strategy which included signing up “classy” vocalists like Billy Eckstine and the dubious idea of getting Smokey Robinson and The Miracles to cover chestnuts such as George and Ira Gershwin’s Embraceable You.
McNair was one of the few singers on Motown who could actually deliver that sort of material (What Now My Love?, The Shadow Of Your Smile) with total conviction.
But she also managed to cut a couple of tracks that became everlasting Northern Soul classics.
The best known is You’re Gonna Love My Baby, a 1966 single that stiffed at the time of release. Yet this delicious slice of drama overload has the listener hooked right from the heavily echoed opening bars on the piano.
It ostensibly sounds like a foray into Ronettes-style girl group territory but somehow has more punch because McNair didn’t sound like a girl, her impassioned throaty timbre riding clear of the female backing vocals.
Baby A Go-Go – or Countin’ On You Babe – was another corker which didn’t even get released. Sometimes you have to wonder just how they got it so wrong in the Artist Development office at Motown in the 60s.
In October 1972, McNair was arrested for possession of heroin at the Playboy Club in New Jersey. The charges stemmed from her signing for a package containing drugs that was delivered to her home. McNair stated she had no knowledge of the contents of the package or who sent it.
McNair’s then-husband, Chicago businessman Rick Manzie, was later charged with the crime and charges against McNair were dropped in April 1973.
On 15 December 1976, Manzie was murdered in their Las Vegas mansion. Mafia boss-turned-FBI-informant Jimmy Fratianno later claimed that Manzie had been a Mafia associate who tried to put a contract on the life of a mob-associated tax attorney with whom he had a legal dispute.
Barbara McNair died on 4 February 2007 in Los Angeles, after a seven-year battle with throat cancer.