Born 10 September 1949 (some sources state 1952), Ypsilanti, Michigan, Barbara Morrison was raised in a Detroit suburb where she first sang in church before winning a local talent contest. This proved to be a life-changing event as her prize was a scholarship to Eastern Michigan University where she combined her studies with singing.
In the early 1970s, she moved to Southern California and joined the band led by Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. During the next 15 years, she worked extensively, mostly locally but also touring Europe. She also made some records, notably singing R&B with Johnny Otis. In 1987, Morrison stepped into the solo spotlight, again working mostly in Los Angeles but also spending time in Europe where she recorded in Germany for Thilo Berg’s company.
For the next two decades, Morrison continued working in Los Angeles, making regular appearances at Pip’s on La Brea Avenue, and in Europe, where she appeared in a show headlined by Ray Charles. She also toured Australia and played festivals around the world, including the North Sea festival and those at Montreux and Monterey.
Stylistically, Morrison was in the tradition of many jazz singers from an earlier generation, bringing into her singing elements of R&B and the blues. She summarised her style in a 2000 interview with the LA Times: “I think I’m a hot blues diva, but I always mix in jazz with the blues.” Importantly, from early in her career, she developed her own distinctive style. In another LA Times interview, this one in 2011, she credited both Vinson and Otis with this: “Eddie used to tell me, ‘Get your own sound, girl!’” and “Johnny said, ‘Why are you singin’ like Barbra Streisand? You need to learn your own people’s music!’”
Listening to Morrison’s recordings, it is clear that she followed this advice, but it is also apparent that she seldom had personal hits, instead often covering song successes by others. It is also evident that she had the ability to make a powerful impact, but her apparent preference for playing clubs close to home imposed artificial limitations.
Unfortunately, poor health eventually took its toll and in 2011 Morrison had to undergo amputation due to diabetes. Even so, she continued to sing and teach. In the latter activity, she was always eager to give back to the world of music, opening the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in Leimert Park Village, where young singers were encouraged in their ambitions, and the California Jazz & Blues Museum, which aims to provide historical information about the state’s musical influence. She was also an adjunct associate professor of Global Jazz Studies at UCLA, where, in 2020, the Barbara Morrison Scholarship for Jazz was created.
Although her health was deteriorating through cardiovascular disease, she was scheduled to perform on the evening of 16 March at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, but she died that morning.