Sidney Barnes is a genial man, thoughtful and full of laughter. Yet even though everything coming out of his mouth when we talk is apparently true, his stories seem too fantastic to have ever possibly taken place.
“We got a call from these people in New York,” Barnes says, absentmindedly playing with his sunglasses, as we sit in a local cafe one recent day. “They asked us if we wanted to come out, because the thing was all over the TV and everyone was talking about it. We’d just gotten off the road playing with Jethro Tull and Jefferson Airplane, and we were tired. Minnie wanted to take a bath. So we said no.”
And that’s how Sidney Barnes and his band Rotary Connection turned down playing Woodstock.
It’s one of many similar regrets in a career spanning more than 40 years: Barnes also declined one of the co-lead vocalist roles in Earth, Wind and Fire, and passed on the chance to produce Muddy Waters for the album that would become Electric Mud.
So Sid Barnes never got famous. And since moving here a few years back, he’s worked as a doorman at the Renaissance Hotel.
Your average Ashevillean wouldn’t know him. Some music snobs, however, may be familiar with Rotary Connection, a Chess Records group that highlighted the vocal talents of Minnie Riperton. Never hitting it big, Rotary Connection nevertheless played with such hippie-era greats as Janis Joplin and The Rolling Stones.
But it’s the sound of the early ’60s to which Barnes remains true.
“The first time I heard doo-wop music on the radio, it was like I got religion,” he confesses. “I knew I had to be one of those people in that little box that made other people feel the way I felt. I started singing in a doo-wop group with some guys from my neighborhood — Marvin Gaye and Van McCoy. We called ourselves The Embracers.”
Though the band would soon split up, Barnes later landed a job at the New York City office of Motown Records. He found himself working elbow-to-elbow with bigwigs like Berry Gordy and The Temptations. Then he began to bring in his own friends, including a “weird kid” named George Clinton.
Barnes also started writing songs for other artists. (His published musical catalogue numbers around 300 songs, some recorded by B.B. King, The Jackson 5 and The Supremes, among others.)
But it wasn’t till years later, after decades spent trying to keep current by releasing disco, soul, funk — even an aborted country recording — that Barnes would see recognition for the true value of his work.
“Motown released a lot of their old demos overseas,” he explains. “I’ve only had a few singles, but in Europe people know all about these songs. I wrote a song called ‘Safety Zone,’ which was only released on acetate, but overseas it became a collector’s item.”
The passion of Europe’s music collectors has been Barnes’ musical rebirth. Last year, he was asked to play an eight-week tour in Austria and the U.K., where he was greeted by fans who frequently remembered his songs better than he did.
Newly inspired, he came home and founded Sidney Barnes and His Good Time Band, which plays both Barnes’ originals and a few choice covers from the ’60s and ’70s. Barnes hired local musicians — bassist Lomax, drummer Scott Glenn, guitarist Mark Burin, keyboardist Jeff Knorr — though his reasoning was more pragmatic than creative.
“I don’t have a lot of money, man!” he quips. “I can’t afford to pay to bring in some of the heavy guys I know. … I found the best guys I could in town.”
The singer goes on to tell more stories, about his still-in-progress book of memoirs, Opening Act, and about all the times he saw Little Richard deride a talented fledgling guitarist known as Jimmy James (later Jimi Hendrix). Then, suddenly tired from all the talk, Barnes gets ready to go.
He has to work in the morning.
Sidney Barnes and His Good Time Band play Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road; 225-9782) at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 3. Cover is $5. See www.sidneybarnes.net for more information.