Died: 5 November 2005
Barbara Pittman was born and raised in Memphis, Tennesee. She became interested in music in part because her uncle owned a pawn shop, and she got to meet the musicians who came through to buy or sell instruments. She grew up near Elvis Presley, and the two were childhood acquaintances. Her first professional gig was touring with singing cowboy movie star Lash LaRue.
Pittman recorded for Sun and Phillips International, releasing four singles between 1956 and 1960 and recording several more sides that Sam Phillips never issued. Phillips signed Pittman in 1956 when she turned eighteen, personally overseeing her first sessions. “I Need a Man” backed with “No Matter Who’s to Blame” flopped, and Pittman felt it was her worst record—although it is popular today with rockabilly record collectors and aficionados for its raucous sound. Her second record, “Two Young Fools in Love” backed with “I’m Getting Better All the Time” did better. Billboard noted upon its release that “Miss Pittman is one of the strongest new c&w talents to hit the scene recently. She has a way with a lyric and presents a highly attractive vocal.” Pittman’s last release for Phillips International, “Handsome Man,” came out of what she believes was one of the most expensive sessions ever produced by the label. Producer Charlie Rich and engineer Charlie Underwood included strings, a rhythm section, and background singers and recorded them all simultaneously—unbeknownst to Phillips who as at home sick in bed.
Pittman felt that she did not receive the same marketing efforts from her labels that her male contemporaries received. In an oral history recorded by Experience Music Project in Seattle, Pittman recalled: “When I first started going down to Sun Studio, I was completely ignored by everybody there. I was more or less the little girl that went after the cokes and the coffee and the hamburgers next door… I was treated like I wasn’t even supposed to be there because they didn’t recognize girls doing that music at all.” She also did not like the repertoire she was offered by the label, which to her often seemed like inferior hand-me-downs that no one wanted to record, or pop material she didn’t like. “Sam wanted me to do Connie Francis stuff—little girlie tunes,” she told Hank Davis. “Cutesy, petite and pretty, and I just wasn’t there. I came from North Memphis. I was beating up the boys by the time I was three. I just refused to sing that stuff.”
Although it appears Pittman never made it back into the recording studio after 1960, she did not stop performing. She could regularly be heard both in clubs in the Memphis area and on touring rock and roll revues around the world until her death in 2005.
“I Need a Man” / “No Matter Who’s to Blame.” Sun 253 (1956).
“Two Young Fools in Love” / “I’m Getting Better All the Time.” Phillips 3518 (1957).
“Everlasting Love” / “Cold Cold Heart.” Phillips 3527 (1957).
“Handsome Man” / “The Eleventh Commandment.” Phillips 3553 (1960).
“Country & Western Records: Review Spotlight On…,” Billboard, 11 November 1957.
Barbara Pittman, Oral History, Experience Music Project, recorded 10 May 2001.
Hank Davis, “Barbara Pittman: Sun’s Biggest Female Star and Friend to Elvis Presley,” Goldmine 29. 9 (May 2003), 36, 38.
Hank Davis, Memphis Belles: The Women of Sun Records (Hambergen, Germany: Bear Family Records, 2002).
Spencer Leigh, “Obituaries: Barbara Pittman, Rock’n’roll Singer Who Dated Elvis Presley,” The Independent (UK), 7 November 2005.