Interview with Barbara Harris, Lead Singer of The Toys
by Eric J Baker
A distinct pleasure of being obsessed with music: Falling in love with an album that should be considered a classic but has been overlooked. You get to feel superior because you are a finder of lost treasure… and outraged at everyone else’s foolishness and bad taste. We can admit that righteous indignation is kinda fun, can’t we? And if you want to see enough indignation to clear a room, ask me about The Toys’ one and only album from 1966.
For lack of a more enlightened term, The Toys were a mid-1960s “girl group” comprised of June Montiero, Barbara Parritt, and lead vocalist Barbara Harris and are best known for the 1965 smash hit single, “A Lover’s Concerto.” The accompanying album is the Magical Mystery Tour of girl-group records, but more on that in a minute. First, we must discuss The Song.
The clever conceit of “A Lover’s Concerto” is its marriage of poetic, almost spiritual lyrics to a baroque compositional framework. In fact, it’s based on a J.S. Bach minuet, with the lead vocal taking the main melody and the back-ups working the counter melody. Each stanza climbs a half step (from G to A-flat to A and so on), and, if you’re a mediocre singer like me, you know how hard it is to adjust from a major to a flat key on the fly. To make it exponentially more difficult, add in three-part harmonies. Here are The Toys, barely out of high school, nailing it on live TV. By the way, if you have never heard it, give up the next two and a half minutes of your life for one of the sweetest, most lyrical pop songs ever recorded:
Like many music lovers, I have adored this song for years but mistakenly thought it was all they they’d ever done. Then I discovered the album. The Toy’s sing “A Lover’s Concerto” is a delicious smoothie of pop, soul, rock, blues, swing, and classical music… with no artificial ingredients. No two songs are alike, yet lead vocalist Barbara Harris deftly displays a new side at each turn.
When I realized I had to know more about this talented trio, I went to the source. And despite my threat to build a time machine so I can travel back to 1965 and steal her before she can meet her husband,* Ms. Harris was willing to sit down with me to chat about the record and about her time in the spotlight.
PFC: How did you get involved in music?
Barbara Harris: When I was a little girl in North Carolina – I guess I was about seven years old – I used to go down to the local church to sing and dance. It was the thing I most loved to do. Later, we moved to Queens, NY, and I became friends with Barbara (Parritt) and June (Montiero) in high school. They were a singing duo and asked me to join. Beyond that, I never had formal training.
PFC: How did you go from being three high-school friends to being The Toys, the artist behind the biggest hit in the country who appeared all over TV and radio?
Harris: We were performing a lot of talent shows and met our manager Vince Marc, who introduced us to Bob Crewe, the owner of DynoVoice Records. In the beginning, we did backup vocals for Diane Renay, and then we signed our own deal. At first we recorded four songs, one of which was “A Lover’s Concerto.” We were getting home from high-school and then heading straight for the studio.
PFC: So you’re doing algebra in the afternoon and recording pop songs at night? What was it like trying to sing a Bach minuet?
Harris: We didn’t think much of it. It was easy to sing…
PFC: Wait a minute. Aren’t there three key changes?
Harris: There are actually five modulations. I think we rehearsed it twice and recorded it once. Within like, four or five weeks, it was the number one song in America and certified gold. This is off point, but Armed Forces Radio use to play that song, and many Vietnam vets have come up to me over the years to say that song helped them survive the war.
PFC: If you were the third member to join, how did you become the lead singer?
Harris: Oooh… Denny [Randell, co-producer] said “Come on around the piano, girls” and asked us to take turns singing the lead part. When they told me I was the new lead singer, I did not like being chosen at all! Barbara [Parritt] walked out, but the producers got us back together and helped us realize it was for the good of the group.
PFC: Describe the sessions for the full album.
Harris: We were nervous. We were just three kids in a room with some of the top-notch musicians in the business. Luckily, once the music tracks were done, [the producers] closed the studio and we came back to do the vocals alone. We arranged all the harmonies ourselves.
In the middle of all that, we did a nightclub tour of Europe. The record company and song writers were angry at us because we had an album to finish, but our manager was making so much money from the tour! It was all glitter and glamour to us, but we knew nothing about the business.
PFC: These songs are quite diverse and complex. On “Deserted,” a rock and roll song that sounds like something from The Doors’ first album, you are a woman scorned, yet there’s a lot of sexuality in your voice. The next track, “See How They Run,” is pure soul, and you tear it up like Patti LaBelle. Then, you’re all blues and sass in “I Got a Man.” How can that be the same sweet girl who sang “A Lover’s Concerto”?
Harris: Growing up, I used to imitate Dinah Washington, Diana Ross, and other great singers. Even today, I like to try men’s vocal parts so I can push myself. I often sing Doobie Brothers and Rolling Stones songs [breaks into an impromptu Doobie Brothers vocal riff]. I just sing whatever style the music calls for. Plus, I had Sandy Linzer, the producer, waving his arms and shouting, “Come on, Barbara, give it all you’ve got!”
“Attack,” the other hit, is definitely the hardest one to sing. People want me to sing it today and I’m like, ‘I need to work on that one a bit’ [laughs].
PFC: That’s my favorite song on the record. It’s a bit of a stalker anthem, though, isn’t it, since it’s about a girl who really won’t take rejection for an answer?
Harris [laughing]: I suppose it is. You know, the melodies and horns in that song are taken from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. The first time the writers played it for me, I was like, “What the…?”
(Here is a clip of The Toys performing “Attack” in the film It’s a Bikini World. Unfortunately, the middle of the song, with the sexiest verse, was chopped out for running time. If I ever build my time machine, the first thing I’m going to do is punch that film editor:)
PFC: The Toys recorded quite a few songs after this album came out, which are obtainable on the gray market but not legally available. What happened to them? Some of them sound like show tunes.
Harris: We signed a deal with a different record label, and they brought in a full orchestra, with timpani drums and everything. It was a major production, and we even performed the single, “My Love Sonata,” on Merv Griffin. Then we did some work with [producer] Helen Miller.
PFC: That was the real funky, energetic material?
Harris: Yeah, we did a cover of “Sealed with a Kiss” as a single in 1968, but Gary Lewis and the Playboys put out the same song at the same time. His label had a huge promotional budget and ours didn’t, so our version got buried.
PFC: That’s a crime, because you sing that song like a hot knife, and the other version is lame.
Harris [laughing]: Thanks, I’ve never heard it put that way! I think Warner Brothers bought the record label and put all those master recordings in a vault somewhere without ever releasing an album. Afterward, I decided to start a family with my husband and that was that.
PFC: What are you up to these days?
Harris: Well, I reformed the Toys a few years ago with two other girlfriends of mine, and we tour around. I also play gigs as the solo artist Barbara Harris, and I do an ongoing tribute show to Gladys Knight, who I loved so much. I’m almost done recording an oldies tribute album, and I’m writing songs for a solo blues album I’m going to record. I’m also the booking agent for a band called The Cookies, who had a couple of hits back in the day.
PFC: So you play in three bands, manage another one, and are recording two albums. Sounds like you’re really slowing down.
Harris [laughs]: I’m having the best time of my life!
Barbara’s various tour dates can be found here, and, for God’s sake, go buy The Toy’s album on Amazon or wherever. Don’t make me get all indignant on your ass.
*If anyone has a Flux Capacitor for sale, e-mail me. It has to fit a 2005 Chevy Malibu.