Yes, I'm Ready

Even the most casual fan of singer Barbara Mason couldn't help but notice the change that took place between her late teens and late twenties. An impression of extreme innocence in her self-penned 1965 hit song "Yes, I'm Ready" gave little indication of the experienced attitude she would regularly convey in mid-'70s efforts like "From His Woman to You." The gradual move from one to the other kept her vital as an artist much longer than many of her contemporaries.

Prior to the initial breakthrough, Barbara spent her early- to mid-teens practicing her grandmother's piano while singing with friends and participating in schoolyard talent shows. By 1964 she felt ready for something bigger. Weldon McDougal III, a member of Philadelphia-based quintet The Larks, spotted Barbara at a local show and soon she was opening for the group in nearby clubs. Her recording career began that summer as she commemorated her 17th birthday with a single on Crusader Records, "Dedicated to You," a ballad penned by Mason and Larks guitarist Johnny Stiles. With the Larks on backing vocals the track, not surprisingly, sounded similar to the group's regional 1962 hit "It's Unbelievable." Barbara's B side, "Trouble Child," the first of many songs written solely by her, was backed by local girl group The Tiffanys.

Program director and afternoon "Go Show" deejay Jimmy Bishop of Philly soul station WDAS had just started his Arctic label (taking Atlantic Records as inspiration, he named it after an ocean tht hadn't yet been used as a record company name), christening the new venture with an uptempo tune by the Tiffanys, "Happiest Girl in the World." Another self-penned ballad by Barbara, "Girls Have Feelings Too," recorded at the nearby Virtue Studio owned by Frank Virtue (of "Guitar Boogie Shuffle" fame) was played by enough radio stations to make a decent showing on Billboard's R&B singles chart. Bishop signed her to a management contract and made arrangements with Jamie/Guyden Records to distribute his product on a national level.

Several up-and-coming Philadelphia-area musicians were involved in the recording of Barbara's next original song, including guitarists Bobby Eli and Roland Chambers, saxophonist Jack Faith and drummer Earl Young (later they would be involved in the formation of MFSB, the chart-topping mid-'70s "TSOP" band). Kenny Gamble, unsuccessful thus far as a singer, had arranged the Jerry Ross production of "Who Do You Love" by The Sapphires several months earlier and was one of Mason's male backing vocalists on her song. Her lyrics for "Yes, I'm Ready" (' learn...') spoke directly to the feelings of many teenage girls: 'I don't even know how to love you, just the way you want me to...I don't even know how to kiss your lips, at a moment like this.' Bishop played it on his show in early '65 and several of his friends in radio did likewise; by July 1965 it was in the pop top ten and went as high as number two R&B.

Barbara Mason

"Sad, Sad Girl" was an immediate top 40 follow-up as Barbara's yearning vocal delivery played well to the themes of young love contained in the songs she wrote; other original songs like "Is it Me?," "I Need Love" and "Oh, How it Hurts," the latter a fall '67 single that ranks among her best-selling R&B hits, retained that signature sound. Eventually, she and Bishop became romantically involved and had a child together. By 1970, with the Arctic releases becoming a harder sell, he folded the company but continued as her manager, even after they split as a couple. She signed with National General Records in 1970 and had a minor chart single with Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" (which had just been a number one smash for B.J. Thomas); it was a curious choice for someone who'd written most of her own material.

The second successful phase of Barbara's career began in 1972 as outside contributors offered songs with considerably more mature lyrical content. "Bed and Board" went far beyond the pre-adult desires of a high school girl as newer efforts placed her side-by-side with Laura Lee, Millie Jackson and Shirley Brown, singers whose main focus was on love affairs, cheating men and kept women. Though her main producer-arranger was Norman Harris, who'd played guitar on many of the earlier recordings, there was one project with Curtis Mayfield: "Give Me Your Love," a funky, enticing number on the Buddah label, returned her to the pop top 40 and soul (formerly R&B) top ten in the early weeks of 1973. She was nicknamed "Lady Love," establishing a clear divide between teenage Barbara and her twenties counterpart.

"Woman to Woman," Shirley Brown's number one soul hit from the fall of '74, opened with a phone call to someone named Barbara, as Shirley proceeded to mark her territory ('...the man you're in love with...he's mine!'). Mason answered quickly with the biggest of her 1970s hits, "From His Woman to You," told from the point of view of the "other woman" ('...I can give him what he needs when he needs it'). This set the tone for her career over the next several years. "Shackin' Up" (in '75), "I Am Your Woman, She is Your Wife" (in '78), "She's Got the Papers (But I Got the Man)" (in '81) and other similar offerings delivered her followers a steady diet of soap opera-style relationship narratives on Buddah and, later, the Prelude and WMOT (We Men of Talent) labels. She recorded a gay-themed breakup song, which was rare subject matter in those days; "Another Man," on West End Records, was her final chart single in 1984. Barbara Mason, whose artistic approach ran the gamut from delicate and somewhat fragile to worldly and experienced over the course of a long career, hasn't done much recording since the '80s but has continued performing regularly for live audiences.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Yes, I'm Ready