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November 17, 2018

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Soul star at home in Vegas

Sidney Barnes is here to open an office downtown to help keep Motown alive

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Leila Navidi

Sidney Barnes, a major figure in soul music, moved to Las Vegas a few months ago. He plans to work to preserve Motown music with shows by original artists.

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Sidney Barnes, right, performs alongside George Clinton Oct. 10 at the Loki Music festival at Mill River, N.C. Barnes met Clinton in the 1950s and helped launch his career with Motown Records.

Beyond the Sun

Sidney Barnes has been flying under the radar for years.

The singer, songwriter and producer worked with Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan and George Clinton. Barnes is a big star in Europe. But few people in his new hometown even know he’s here.

He moved to Las Vegas this year with his wife, the Rev. Clella-Ann Zavada, leaving behind verdant North Carolina for the brown desert where entertainment blooms.

“This is one of the last chapters of my life,” Barnes says with a quick smile and easy sincerity. “I’m 67 years old. This is the show business capital of the world and it’s where I want to be because that’s what I’m all about.”

He sits in the living room of his Summerlin home, dressed with a casual elegance and wearing a Panama hat as he sips water and talks about his storied career and the future.

You’d never mistake him for his good friend Clinton, the funk legend with wild hair, clothes and demeanor. Barnes sports a shaved head, relatively conservative attire, and a personality that is open and friendly.

He performed with Clinton at the Loki Music Festival at Mills River, N.C. It was like going home for the two. Barnes still keeps a home in nearby Asheville and Clinton was born in Kannapolis, about 140 miles away. Loki is one of the biggest funk festivals in the country, and the list of performers included Clinton’s Big Ol’ Nasty Get Down, the Roots, Cake and Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra.

But Barnes isn’t strictly funk — his metier includes jazz and rhythm and blues.

In August he was named executive director of the Las Vegas satellite office of the Motown Alumni Association. “We’re looking for an office downtown,” he says. “The association, what it’s for, is to develop programs to help the community, to raise money for scholarships, to carry on the legacy of Motown, to keep that music alive.

“We need a building, a showcase room, a nice place where groups can come and have meetings. So we’re working with the mayor’s office to help find us a place, part of the redevelopment of downtown.”

He says his connections with the alumni association will help him in his goal of putting together a Las Vegas Motown Revue, using original artists instead of performers doing tributes.

“Everybody knows Motown, and so many of the artists are dying,” he says. “We want to keep the music alive.”

Barnes’ association with Motown — and to Clinton — goes back to the beginning of his own career, which he believes has been a gift from God.

“I look for signs,” he says. “The first time it happened I was 19 years old and we were living in Washington, D.C. I went out in the front yard and said, ‘OK, I want to be in the business. Whatever it takes — it’s not for the money or the girls, just for the love of it.’ And I had this feeling inside that said, ‘OK, we’re going to let you be in this business, but you gotta promise you’re going to love it, to do it basically for the love of it. We’ll take care of you, all the doors will open to you, but you have to share it.’

“And it’s happened. Every door I knock on, it opens. I’ve never done it for the money.”

He moved to New Jersey to pursue his music career in the 1950s. That’s where he met Clinton.

“He had a barbershop in Plainfield and we became friends,” Barnes says. “When Motown opened its New York office I auditioned for Berry Gordy, who signed me on the spot. He put me and my partner in charge of running the New York office, and George was one of people we went and got. We were just kids at the time. George and I clicked, more than my partner.”

Gordy wasn’t high on Clinton.

“George was a little ahead of his time, a little progressive, and Gordy didn’t want to work with him, but he said if I wanted to work with him, that was OK,” Barnes says.

For a time Clinton and Barnes had a production company in Detroit called Geo-Si-Mik with Mike Terry, the Motown sax player. The team co-produced records for several acts, including J.J. Barnes, Edwin Starr, Darrell Banks, the Holidays, Pat Lewis, Theresa Lindsay and Parliament.

Clinton and Barnes parted ways in 1966.

“In 1966 the music was going someplace else and he decided he was going to go crazy and I decided I was going to go crazy and we went our separate ways,” Barnes says. “When we met back up both of us was crazy, but successful.”

Barnes knew when he was young that he wanted to be an entertainer. He was born in Welch, W.Va., but his father moved often and he grew up in several places, including Virginia and Washington, D.C. He was influenced by gospel, country and western, and rock ’n’ roll before turning to funk, R&B and jazz.

“When I was growing up my mother was a church choir director and she was always putting shows together and I was with her, always involved,” Barnes says. “I watched her develop kids through music. They wound up being proud of themselves, finding self-esteem.”

Barnes often put together his own groups.

“When I was young I made up my mind this was what I was going to do,” he says. “I love singing and writing and producing.”

When he was in high school he and Marvin Gaye were in a band together. He worked with Chaka Khan when she was a teenager.

“We were all the same, but I was always a little more ahead of everything and I just ended up sharing,” Barnes says. “I never worried about making a lot of money, though I did make money. It was about developing something — music, talent. That’s why George and I clicked. That’s what he was into. We have the same kind of energy.”

He eventually hooked up with J.J. Jackson, known for his 1966 hit “But It’s All Right!” Barnes recorded a song for Red Bird, which he co-wrote with Jackson, titled “I Hurt On The Other Side.” The pair followed that with others including “You’ll Always Be In Style” and “I Don’t Know Why.”

“We wrote a bunch of pop stuff,” Barnes says. “We went on the road with Little Richard and went to Chess Records and worked with Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and a bunch of others — it goes on and on and on.”

For years he was with Minnie Riperton and the Rotary Connection and they toured with such artists as Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones.

“I remember I performed at the Riviera in Las Vegas with Minnie” in the late ’70s, Barnes says. “We opened for the Smothers Brothers. Minnie was going solo at the time. She and I kind of started together. I helped her get her act together.”

Barnes has performed around the world.

“My first love is soul music, but a lot of jazz is soul,” he says. “They’re all intertwined. I have no limits. I like everything. I like anything that’s music. I like jazz a lot now that I’m older and appreciate it more. But I’m lucky I can do all different kinds.”

Talking effusively about his own life, he takes time to introduce a guest in his home, 26-year-old rapper Alex J. Jones.

“I could tell when I met him and heard his music that he was in it for the art of it,” Barnes says. “I recognized that same talent in Marvin Gaye.”

Barnes knows he’s not as famous as Clinton and the others with whom he’s worked. One reason, he says, is he doesn’t much care to travel, although his European fans persuaded him to tour overseas in 2001.

“I realized that over there I’m a living legend,” Barnes says. “Fans knew everything I had done — even knew all my girlfriends. They know the color and the serial number of my records.”

He says he could move to England and live like a king, but he prefers the United States.

“I’m an American,” he says. “Besides, I rely on my inner spirit to guide me. Everywhere I’ve gone in life it was because the spirit told me to go there — and for now the spirit tells me to be in Las Vegas.”

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