A full-page ad in the Billboard magazine for the week ending May 7, 1977, carried the message in clear, declarative verbiage, a call to arms displayed above the vibrant, smiling face of a new voice in R&B.
“Keith Barrow is why you should pay attention to this debut album.”
This was a bold statement, especially when you consider the competition perched on record store shelves in those days. The Soul LPs survey for that week was quite the musical menagerie: “Marvin Gaye Live at the London Palladium” was at the top, “Teddy Pendergrass” and Natalie Cole’s “Unpredictable” were sitting in the Top 10, The Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and “The Jacksons” hovered in the middle and the eponymous debut album by a beautiful young soul-jazz singer named Phyllis Hyman made its first chart appearance. Indeed, it was a period when soul, disco and rock sang in unison, captivating listeners spanning all shades of the color spectrum.
And it was the perfect time for Chicago’s Keith Barrow to let his major-label career take flight.
Though he’s not talked about much today, Keith was a true talent of his era, a singer’s singer whose velvety falsetto was on par with the finesse of Eddie Kendricks and the fancy of Sylvester. The son of the Rev. Willie Barrow of Operation PUSH fame, he would record only four albums before dying at 29 in 1983 – a tragedy that fuels both a lack of knowledge of his talent and hasty, ill-conceived labels for his musical legacy. Often called a “disco singer” because of the legendary status of the dance classic “Turn Me Up,” it’s a categorization that, while hardly offensive, does not capture the spirit of his gifts. To listen to Keith’s three secular albums is to experience soulful diversity ground from the gospel that rang from his upbringing, a quality that gave everything he sang resonance. Though disco was certainly in the mix, it wasn’t the whole story.
Much like his musical output, Keith’s life was a well-rounded one. According to the obituary that ran in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 1983, he was class president at Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Academy, a graduate of Wartburg College and held a master’s degree in educational psychology from New York University. He also participated in the Chicago Passion Play and worked with the Kumba Players Theatrical Workshop. As multi-faceted as he was, however, music was his ultimate calling. “He had music in his bones and in his soul; he started writing music when he was eight,” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times back in 2004.
Though he began his recording career in the gospel tradition with the critically acclaimed Jewel Records LP “Keith Barrow” (some sources list the album as being titled “All Right Now”) in 1973, Keith would eventually find himself at Philly’s famed Sigma Sound Recording Studios working under the production aegis of legendary music man Bobby Eli for his self-titled Columbia Records debut. A collection of tightly constructed disco and lush ballads, the 1977 album was an all-star affair, as talents like Ron “Have Mersey” Kersey, Larry Washington and lauded backup singers Evette Benton, Barbara Ingram and Carla Benson all contributed to the recording. There are spots where the luminaries subsume the developing voice of the album’s central figure, but they are few and far between. Keith’s youth and charm are on full display on delightful cuts like the mild hit “Mr. Magic Man,” “Precious” and the spirited stepper “I Put the Twinkle in Your Eye,” a personal favorite of mine. The greatest moment here, however, was the self-penned “Teach Me (It’s Something About Love),” one of the most beautiful slow jams the singer ever recorded. It was a perfect fit for a young man at a stage in his life where most people are finding their own voice, a lovely portrait of innocence and melancholy. Popular Philly group Blue Magic scored a Top 50 R&B hit with a version of the song in 1976, proof of its reach and timelessness. When it was all said and done, “Keith Barrow” didn’t prove a huge hit, but it was a high quality effort that laid the groundwork for what would become his finest hour on record.
By the time Columbia issued the Michael Stokes-produced “Physical Attraction” in 1978, the sublime disco that underscored Keith’s debut for the label had morphed into a mainstream phenomenon championed by both urban dance club denizens and kids in the sticks. Right down to the arty, high-concept cover shot – which features Keith in a cold embrace with model, actress and former Robert De Niro flame Toukie Smith – the album did in fact boast a bit of the movement’s decadence, a setting the singer worked surprisingly well in. Most of the material was co-written by Stokes and ace songwriter and recording artist Ronn Matlock this time around, and they brought a series of fine selections to the table. Of the three disco songs on the LP, “Joyful Music” was probably the strongest, a short, to-the-point guilty pleasure of gospel-inflected tambourine and nimble guitar that finds Keith seemingly having a ball. But it was the seven-minute, propulsive dance floor sensation “Turn Me Up” that clicked with club goers and stands as one of the best-known nuggets in Keith’s catalog. To this day jocks, particularly on the international dance music scene, turn to this cut to set clubs on fire.
The beauty of his voice, however, came out when he opted to slow things down rather than disco down. His biggest hit, the mellow steppers’ favorite “You Know You Want to Be Loved” (No. 26 R&B) is a masterwork, one of those Quiet Storm rarities that makes you tingle inside each time it surfaces. Unlike the dense arrangements that characterized many of the slow songs on the previous album, the approach employed by Stokes is simple and sparse, replete with subtle horns and haunting backing vocals akin to the work he was doing at the time with popular quintet Enchantment. The other ballads on the album follow suit, as the lovely opening track “If It’s Love That You’re Looking For,” “Garden of Love” and “Overnight Success” convey the quiet longing in Keith’s voice with chilling focus. The album’s closer, the beautiful “Free to Be Me” seems almost autobiographical – Keith, who was gay, sings with an eerie sincerity, relaying a sentiment any and all people can relate to in a world that often celebrates conservative conformity over liberating individuality. The song rounded out what was a fantastic album, the last recorded before things began to change drastically in the singer’s life.
“One night, in 1979, he called me from Paris and said ‘Momma, I don’t think I’ll be able to go on stage tonight. I really feel sick,’” Willie Barrow told the Windy City Times. “I said, ‘Oh, you’ll be alright.’ I prayed for him and then he called again a couple of hours later and he said: ‘Momma, I can’t perform. I have to go; they have to take me to the hospital.’ That’s when he found out that he had [what was later determined to be] HIV.”
Despite this major setback, Keith soldiered on, recording one final album in his lifetime. “Just As I Am,” recorded for Capitol in 1980, is easily the singer’s most ambitious work, marrying the new wave sounds taking over the airwaves in the post-disco era to his R&B foundation. It’s far from terrible but it is not on the level of his previous efforts, a condition likely connected to the rigors of his personal life. Produced by Ralph Affoumado, the record often fails to connect with the listener, as “Running on Empty (Well Travelled Man)” and “Why Love Half the World (When You Can Love the Whole World)” feel like unfinished ideas rather than completed compositions. There are some noteworthy moments: The title track is funky and forward thinking, while “Tell Me This Ain’t Heaven” is a solid slow groove in the vein of other “Capitol Rare” offerings. The elastic “In the Light (Do It Better)” finds the singer giving up a little ‘tude and good humor. Toward the end of song he shouts, “Uh uh! Naw … you made a mistake! Uh uh! Don’t turn those lights off … I don’t wanna hear nothin’ about no candles! I’m not into candles!” Still, much like the singer’s hollow gaze on the album’s cover shots, there’s a dark, finite texture to the material that makes it hard to focus on any potential for progression that was there.
After the album ran its course, an ill Keith would eventually return to Chicago from New York. One of R&B’s first victims of AIDS, he drew his last breath on Saturday, Oct. 22, 1983. He was just 29 years old.
In the years since, Keith’s small but meaningful body of work has gotten very little attention, which is something that bothers me immensely. Though his first two albums are in limited circulation as imports and a few of his songs appear on various compilations, none of his full-length albums are available on CD domestically. There have also been reports that an album was completed not long before his death, but it has never seen the light of day. Historians relegate him to footnote status in the annals of R&B, as he rarely appears in the content of reference books or Web sites about black male singers. Hardly the blip on the disco radar writers make him out be when they do mention him, he was an artist in every sense of the word – and he deserves better.
I guess that’s why whenever I hear his voice part of me wants to cry for him. His pining falsetto does something to me that I can’t explain; it stirs reflection in me like few other voices do. Whether he’s singing about the “Garden of Love” or the randy delights of “Physical Attraction,” Keith’s a singer who should be heard in all his glory. I can only hope that one day his Columbia and Capitol recordings will find a home on CD and digital formats, as they are among some of the best modern soul records of the last three decades.
More than anything, I want people to appreciate and respect the life and the voice that was Keith Barrow, a man who was a treasure just as he was.
Check out “You Know You Want to Be Loved” below.