When career opportunities for black women began to increase on television and in the movies during the 1960s, beautiful singer/actress Barbara McNair, all but forgotten today, was one of the fastest rising young African-American talents. After getting a break appearing on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in the 1950s and working her way up through the show biz ranks, in 1962 McNair took over from Diahann Carroll, the original lead, in Richard Rodgers’ Broadway musical No Strings—an interracial love story set in Paris where a black fashion model falls in love with a white novelist. (During the show’s run, she endured obscene phone calls and hate mail.)
In 1965, a New York Times writer declared that the “strikingly beautiful” McNair “does not have to depend on looks alone. She is a highly knowledgeable performer who projects an aura of beauty, a warm personality and an appealing sense of fun.” She also possessed a phenomenal voice.
McNair—a serious babe as you can tell from the photos—recorded for Motown (who never seemed to know what to do with her) and other labels. She continued appearing on Broadway and in a number of television variety shows of the era like Hollywood Palace, The Dean Martin Show and Hullabaloo, plus acted in guest-starring roles in popular shows like I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hogan’s Heroes and Dr. Kildaire. Additionally she performed for the troops stationed in Vietnam with Bob Hope and had a role as a nun in the Elvis film Change of Habit which co-starred Mary Tyler Moore.
Mahalia Jackson. Elvis and McNair
In the cinema, the Elvis flick aside, McNair’s work was more varied. She was cast as Sidney Poitier’s wife in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs, its sequel The Organization and If He Hollers Let Him Go, a 1968 film about race very, very loosely based on the Chester Himes novel of the same title. In 1969 she became one of the first black women in the history of the medium to have their own television show. The Barbara McNair Show was produced in Toronto for first run syndication in America and lasted until 1972.
The thing that seems somewhat unclear to me researching McNair today is how she sort of had one foot in the world of very staid and family friendly show business, while on the other hand she was stripping down for Playboy (one of the first black women to do so), friends with Lenny Bruce, known to have attended at least one ceremony of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan in San Francisco and co-starred in Jess Franco’s avant garde exploitation film Venus in Furs. Additionally she was involved in a 1972 drug bust (holding half an ounce of heroin) with her husband/manager Rick Manzie, who had reputed mob connections and was murdered in their Las Vegas mansion in late 1976. Although the drugs charges were dropped, neither of these events would have had a positive effect on her career.
From the available evidence Barbara McNair wasn’t one thing or another but a force of nature with her own center of bohemian gravity. It’s interesting to remember this woman who could straddle the squeaky clean world of a Bob Hope USO show, while doing full frontal nudity in European art films that co-starred Klaus Kinski! She seems like she was a hip lady. McNair continued performing for some time and died of throat cancer in 2007 at the age of 72.
Somebody should really write her biography. She’s obviously a worthy—and fascinating—topic.
Below, McNair’s minor hit for Motown, “You’re Gonna Love My Baby.” Although long considered a Northern Soul classic that can instantly fill a UK dance floor, WHY isn’t this song as famous as anything anyone ever sang on Motown? This song is fucking incredible!
McNair in the NSFW trailer for Jess Franco’s Venus in Furs
A charming duet with Brook Benton
Barbara McNair’s “Irma La Douce” Scopitone
“The Other Side Of The Tracks” Scopitone
“The Best is Yet to Come” Scopitone