"Bessie Smith in Stereo" said jazz critic Leonard Feather in Playboy magazine when Barbara Dane burst onto the scene in the late '50s. Time magazine said of her: "The voice is pure, rich...rare as a 20 karat diamond." To Ebony magazine, she seemed "startlingly blonde, especially when that powerful dusky alto voice begins to moan of trouble, two-timing men and freedom... with stubborn determination, enthusiasm and a basic love for the underdog (she is) making a name for herself...aided and abetted by some of the oldest names in jazz who helped give birth to the blues..." The seven-page Ebony article—their first feature story about a white woman (Nov., l959)— was filled with photos of Dane working with Memphis Slim, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Clara Ward, Mama Yancey, Little Brother Montgomery and others.
But where had she come from? Barbara's young parents arrived in Detroit, Michigan from Arkansas in the mid '20s, raising their family amid the deepest depression—as well as some of the worst race riots—the country had ever seen. Right out of high school, Barbara began to raise her strong voice regularly at demonstrations for racial equality and economic justice. While still in her teens, she began to sit in with bands around town and won the interest of local music promoters. She even got an offer to tour with Alvino Rey's band, but she turned it down in favor of singing at factory gates and in union halls.
Moving to San Francisco in 1949, Barbara began raising her own family and singing her folk and topical songs around town as well as on radio and early TV. The traditional jazz revival was then shaking the town, and by the mid '50s she became a familiar figure at clubs along the city's Embarcadero with her own versions of the classic women's blues and hot jazz tunes. Visiting old-time New Orleans jazz greats like George Lewis and Kid Ory and locals like Turk Murphy, Burt Bales, Bob Mielke and others were inviting her onto the bandstand regularly. Her first professional jazz job was with Turk Murphy at the old Tin Angel in l956. By 1957 she had recorded her first album, "Trouble in Mind" was released by San Francisco Records.
By 1959, Louis Armstrong had told Time magazine readers: "Did you get that chick? She's a gasser!" and invited her to appear with him on national television. She recorded "Livin' with the Blues" with Earl Hines on Dot Records and "On My Way" with Kenny Whitson on Capitol Records. She toured the East Coast with Jack Teagarden, played Chicago with Art Hodes, Roosevelt Sykes, Little Brother Montgomery, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Willie Dixon and others, played New York with Wilbur De Paris and his band, and appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show as a solo guest artist. Other national TV work included The Steve Allen Show, Bobby Troop's Stars of Jazz, PM East/West as well as Checkmate and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. She was also featured on Playboy After Dark, receiving a special award from Hugh Hefner as one of the outstanding jazz artists of the year.