Barbara Ann Harris, lead vocalist for the '60s pop group the Toys, was born in Elizabeth City, NC, on August 18, 1945. In an exclusive interview on December 6, 2000, for Boston's AM 1670 during the Pop Explosion radio show, Harris told listeners how she began her career: "My aunt is...I guess you would say a pastor, she used to be an evangelist but she kind of graduated and I think she's a pastor now. She owns a church out in Queens, NY, and she's always asking me to come and do concerts for her....I've been singing since I was a little girl, I grew up in North Carolina, we're from North Carolina, there was a church at the end of the block so I was down there all the time, anytime it was open. I was down there singing my little heart out. I think in those days when we were small that's what we had to hold onto (gospel music), singing and playing the tambourine, it was something to just hold on to and get involved in and work the voices out." Barbara Ann Harris' official biography notes: "By the age of eight she was a featured singer in many churches in hers and neighboring towns. She came to New York at the age of 11 and moved to St. Albans, Queens. This is where she learned her second great passion in life, dancing. She would lie about her age and get into the Terrace Ballroom to see some of the touring vocal acts, and leave with the first prize in the dance contest.
In high school Barbara met and was asked to be part of a group with two other young singers, Ms. Barbara Parritt Toomer(Born October 1, 1944, in Wilmington, North Carolina) and Ms. June Montiero (Born July 1, 1946, in Jamaica, New York)." In March of 2002, Barbara told the All Media Guide: "The girls were called the Charletts before I got there. It was the name before the Toys." They would sing on street corners coming home from school. Bobby Uri, a friend of theirs, took them up to the music building at 1650 Broadway in Manhattan, where they began doing background vocal work for several up-and-coming recording artists. Then, at a talent show in Brooklyn, NY, they met Eddie Chase. They were brought to the attention of their manager, Vince Marc (the former Vinny Marcaise) by Chase, as Harris told AMG in the radio interview: "His name was Eddy Chase. He was a guy who used to go around to shows checking young artists out. I think he worked for Vinny long before we came along. But he saw us at a talent show...in fact...I was helping (the girls in) the Charletts out in the talent show and he heard it and he liked the sound. I think that's how I stayed with the group. He brought us to Vinny."
On the December 2000 radio interview, Harris explained how she became the frontperson of the group: "I wasn't the lead singer at the time, it was the other Barbara (Parritt), one of the original Toys (Charletts). So they (producers Linzer and Randell) asked all three of us to sing, I went last, I had just joined the group, actually. When I sang they thought my voice was the most 'commercialized' voice, I guess that's what you would say. So they picked me to lead the song." The Barbara Harris official bio states: "(Eddie Chase) introduced the girls to several people who would be very instrumental in the launching of their career. Most notable was Mr. Bob Crewe of DynaVoice Records. Their Manager, Mr. Vince Marc, renamed the group the Toys and landed them their first recording contract. They were teamed up with writers Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. The writers took a classical finger exercise, Bach's 'Minuet in G,' and put a Motown bass line to it and 'A Lovers Concerto' was born." Indeed, the tune was not only refreshingly different, fusing classical music and pop two years before Procol Harum would borrow from Bach's "Sleepers Awake, it helped the voice of Barbara Harris to inspire a variety of artists. Harris said she heard that at Motown they were playing the song all through the halls and that the record label wanted to write a tune like "A Lover's Concerto." Thus came "I Hear a Symphony."
In Fred Bronson's Billboard Book of #1 Hits, "A Lover's Concerto" by the Toys is at number two beneath "Get Off of My Cloud" by the Rolling Stones. On the next page, "I Hear a Symphony" by the Supremes is at number one. "Symphony" was recorded on September 22, 1965, and rush released. In The Supremes box set, "A Lover's Concerto" is listed as the number one "tribute" to the Supremes; but it is clear that Holland/Dozier/Holland were copping the riffs from Four Seasons/Jay & the Techniques alum Linzer and Randell, to the point where they included a version of Barbara Harris' signature tune on the I Hear a Symphony album. One wonders why Harris wasn't considered to lead the Supremes after the departure of Diana Ross.
The singer and her group performed in American International Picture's 1967 beach party/surf movie It's a Bikini World, along with appearances on Hullabaloo, Shindig, American Bandstand, and many other television and radio programs. Barbara Harris also did session work for Bob Crewe's label, singing on at least one hit by Diane Renay. Kenneth Wiltshire, Barbara's husband, believes that Harris may be singing on "Navy Blue"; mastering engineer/disc jockey Little Walter DeVenne is sure that Harris appears on "Kiss Me Sailor," at the very least. There may be other songs recorded during that time with Barbara Harris on backing vocals. The official bio states that they signed with Philips Records and producer Alan Lorber. Then, in 1968, they signed with Art Talmadge and Musicor Records, which led to their national R&B Top 50 hit "Sealed With a Kiss," a cover of the Brian Hyland song and a smash in New York City. After a number of years, Barbara left to raise her family, Charlotte Dillon's original AMG bio noting: "Harris married a musician and raised seven children. She never left her musical aspiration completely behind though, and performed in clubs off and on, offering new and old fans a taste of blues, R&B, rock & roll, jazz, and even gospel."
In 1988, the original Toys re-formed and for two years did concerts, night clubs, and oldies shows. Although they no longer work together, they have maintained their friendship over the years. Harris resides in Staten Island, calling her most recent band Rhythm & Babs, and has been working throughout New Jersey since 1995, finding a considerable following. She still does oldies shows for Richard Nader, Dick Fox, and Herby Cox as "Barbara Harris of the Toys." On April 18, 1998, she performed on the From the Heart show at the Nassau Coliseum, a benefit for needy musicians, and the new group toured Florida for promoter Nader in the winter of 2000. Harris told AMG "(her friend) 'Cissy' (aka Denise Fitz-Johnson) was in when I first put the group together again, along with Dee Dee Reeves, in 1998. Cissy was replaced by Robin Trawick, then Dee Dee was replaced by Cissy." Cissy and Robin hail from Plainfield, NJ, and along with Harris are the 2002 lineup of the Toys. Harris was also singing with Mr. Joe Rivers as "Johnny" of Johnny & Joe. Johnny & Joe was a very successful '50s duet, their biggest single being "Over the Mountain." In what is an interesting turn of events, Barbara Harris was replaced in Johnny & Joe by one of the original Toys: Barbara Toomer (née Parritt) joined Rivers around 1999/2000. "She filled in for me once when I had a conflict and did so well that Joe Rivers and I decided to let her keep the gig," Barbara Harris told the All Media Guide in April of 2002.
In 1998, Barbara Harris released a wonderful debut solo album, Barbara Now, on her own Baheeja Records. She co-produced the CD along with her friend Jerome Mitchell and her spouse Ken Wiltshire. Barbara wrote all but two of the songs; one, which Mitchell composed with Shahidah Wiltshire, is the beautiful "I Can't Wait to See You." Of co-writer Shahidah Wiltshire, Barbara Harris informed AMG: "She's my daughter, she's writing, and did a little bit of background vocals. She works in the bank! She's an athlete, you know, she plays tennis, softball, so she's into that. But she writes beautiful songs, in fact, we've given her some more music and told her 'go ahead, girl!' She's trying to come up with some more for us." Harris considers the new album to be the pinnacle of her musical life's journey thus far, and elaborates on her website, www.barbarastoys.net: "The album is very contemporary -- a surprising and pleasing expansion of what audiences heard from the days of the Chiffons and the Shangri-Las, and this was intentional: 'We tried to make it sound that way. We're trying to show all the avenues I've taken in my life as far as music is concerned.'" Bassist/bandleader/husband Kenneth Wiltshire built a home studio where Barbara crafts her new sounds: "(it's) digital...I don't understand all that stuff. (Kenneth) does all of that. He has a little 16-track studio. He was the bass player and my musical director for years. We got into different bands together."
The follow-up to Barbara Now is being recorded in 2002. Harris told AMG, "the latest stuff we co-wrote with a young composer in France, Philippe Arcostanzo." Ken Wiltshire and Barbara Harris met their new collaborator on the Internet and send their music back and forth via the new technologies, while refining it for commercial release. With her memorabilia showing up often online, and Goldmine's Price Guide to Collectible Record Albums having the stereo version of A Lover's Concerto/Attack priced at 40 dollars in near-mint condition, there's clearly still a market for Harris' voice and musical ideas; ideas which are in a constant state of evolution, simultaneous with her keeping the Toys on-stage for those who love her original sound.