By Kathleen Knowles
Many cities in America proudly claim themselves as the hometowns of successful people, especially in the entertainment business. Everyone of those people has a story, and someone willing to tell it, especially when this writer has known the subject almost her entire life.
On Aug 15, 1963 a future Port Huron star was born; her name… Barbara Payton. It was never inconceivable Miss Payton would follow a career path in music. In retrospect, it seems she was destined to travel down the musical path as she reached that fork in the road. After all, she comes from a musical family.
Her father, Eric Payton, spent a lifetime in the music field, first as an Intermediate School band director, and then later the band director at Port Huron High School. Barbara’s mother, Margaret “Peggy” Payton, a prolific drummer, has played in The Salvation Army Band most of her life. She was also an intermediate school band director and the music director at Woodland Developmental Center for special needs students. Barbara’s brothers, Richard & Jeffrey Payton both played trumpet in the Salvation Army Band and throughout school. Constantly being exposed to music, Barbara’s interest in the field began at a very early age during her childhood.
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When she was eight-years old, her parents sent her to the Echo Grove Music Camp in Leonard, Michigan where Barbara learned music theory, sang in the choir and played in the brass band. She attended the camp every year for about six-years, and during her first few days at camp she became homesick. Knowing that despite her young age, both Eric and Peggy Payton believed the benefits of the camp and the experiences were far too important to let her come home. However, they did send her money. After all, nothing beats curing homesickness like being able to buy and eat endless candy!
Barbara probably got her first taste of what would become the passion of her life. She sang in the Singing Company for the Salvation Army. By the age of ten, Miss Payton began playing the alto horn. Never the type to do anything half-way, she set her sights on competition. Over the years she entered several solo competitions in voice and horn, where her hard work paid off as she received a bronze and a silver medal for her efforts.
Although she enjoyed playing an instrument, Barbara harbored a love of another part of the business… singing and acting. She could not deny it; she simply loved music and the stage! They were a great escape. While attending Roosevelt Elementary School, she started performing in musicals and entertained her friends at Echo Grove as well as at church with self-produced comedy skits. “Apologies to my parents for the unauthorized church performances!” Payton laughed.
As Barbara entered Washington Intermediate School, they did not have alto horns, so she had to learn to play a new instrument. She decided on the French horn. Her skills quickly developed, having already learned to play the alto horn, which is similar to the French horn. Moving on, Barbara went to Port Huron High School where her new band director was none other than her father! She, of course continued to play the French horn throughout her four-years at the high school level, and during her brief period at St. Clair County Community College where she majored in music and drama.
She admits that she never really cared for school, likely due to her undiagnosed attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. The one aspect she did continue to enjoy was music. As a member of the Big Red Marching Machine, she attended all the activities that came with being in the band: half-time football performances, pep rallies, basketball pep bands, parades, as well as playing in the Honors concert band. Barbara was one of the few women to ever audition for, and step into the drum major role.
The Big Red Band, under her father’s direction was known for its travel around the country. She performed with the band at Disney World, marching with the Big Reds in the Electric parade. Later, when the Marching Machine traveled to New York, Barbara was able to see PT Barnum. It only served to fan a flame within her, which had been burning since she was a child.
If you are reading this article, and you have teenagers, you know their love of music stars. Barbara was impressed with one in particular. At that time, the favorite place in Port Huron to purchase the works of singing artists was at Full Moon Records. She purchased Bette Midler’s “Live at Last.” Barbara said, “I would hide in my room listening and consuming everything I could about her.” So impressed with Midler was Payton, she unknowingly modeled herself after her. Yet, others also had an influence on her. She admired torch singers such as Rosemary Clooney, Peggy Lee, Keely Smith, and Nancy Wilson.
Her mother, Peggy Payton, instilled in her a love of Karen Carpenter’s style and music. Barbara would put on the head phones, listening and studying her voice. She admitted she was in awe of the Carpenters and what they were capable of vocally.
Video credit the “bluzdudemi” YouTube channel
Despite all those she admired in the music business, none of them had the influence on her Bette Midler did as far as stage persona. To Barbara Payton, no one could convey to their audience the way Midler could. She brought out something in Barbara that made her feel alive, and she wanted to do the same for others. She wanted to have that impact, and shift people’s moods. Barbara truly believes music heals the soul. No other profession could make her happy or make her feel alive the way music could.
Barbara Payton graduated from Port Huron High School in June 1981. Not all seventeen-year-olds, fresh out of high school, know what they want to do with their lives. One thing was certain for this seventeen-year old; she was not interested in sitting behind a desk eight-hours a day, five-days a week. She knew what made her feel alive; what made her happy. There was no doubt what she wanted to do for a living. Music was going to be her life’s occupation. Nothing else would suffice.
It wasn’t long before she was listening to Pat Benatar and Heart. She began her journey into her real discovery of Rock and Roll. She was influenced by local, Kathy Cole, who was in the band, Jump Street. Barbara went to see her sing at the Colony Bar. She became her greatest influence on a personal level. That is when she knew she wanted to be in a rock band.
In 1987, Barbara answered an ad in Royal Oak, Michigan which was looking for a lead singer. She won the spot in the band which was called the Pop 5, and their first show was at Mr. Santos in Brownstown, Michigan. Barbara admitted being a wreck. Her nerves got the better of her. Ironically, it was a waitress who came to her rescue. She followed her into the bathroom and gave her advice on her attire. We won’t go further into that attire, since I suspect that her parents will read this. The new lead singer’s nerves seem to settle after the talk. She was able to go out, forgetting her nervousness and perform. Matt Walsh was head of the band and played bass. The other members were Tom Jackson on keyboards, Bobby Rolfs on lead guitar and Joe on drums. Matt and Barbara developed a deep and lasting bond. Years later, Payton would hire him into her band on bass.
Next Barbara joined the Reflections Band. They played lounges and weddings for many years. Although she enjoyed her time with the band while honing in on her skills, she wanted to move on.
While singing in the bar, Rainbow Room on 8 Mile, her sound man, Glenn Preston was also working for Bob Seger. Glenn talked to Punch Andrews, Seger’s longtime manager. Preston suggested Andrews come hear Barbara sing. Punch and his wife, Colleen showed up at the Rainbow Room. They were impressed by her powerful voice and stage presence. Punch happened to love Bette Midler and was approached by her decades ago to manage her. He respectfully turned her down to focus on Seger’s career.
Many years later, Punch called Payton and told her to show up at Bob Seger’s home studio. Barbara remembers him calling her “kid” on the phone. She wasn’t sure why she was going there. Once she arrived and calmed her nerves after meeting Bob, he had her sing on an album track along with longtime Seger background singer, Laura Creamer and local talent Thornetta Davis. Weeks later, they then asked her to start rehearsing with Seger and his Silver Bullet Band, while arranging for Laura Creamer to return from her Los Angeles, California home. Longtime Seger background singer, Shaun Murphy joined them from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. Payton admits to being just as awestruck and nervous about singing with Creamer and Murphy as she was singing with the musical legend. In their own right, Creamer and Murphy’s blend was undeniable.
Video credit the “Bobby Murray” YouTube channel
Barbara waited to find out what her fate with the Silver Bullet Band would be. Punch came in and said, “Congratulations, kid, you got the gig.” It would be the first time in ten-years Bob Seger had toured, and Barbara Payton was going to be touring with him!
Miss Payton remembers one of the early highlights while singing back-up for Seger, was performing on many of the late-night shows, especially the Tonight Show. They also appeared on The View and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. These appearances were followed by The Face the Promise Tour, which lasted nearly six-months and covered almost all fifty states as well as numerous cities in Canada. Over the years, the biggest highlights have been meeting some of her musical heroes. Bruce Springsteen sat in with them at Madison Square Garden, Joe Walsh opened for them on one of the tours and Nancy Wilson (of Heart) opened for them on the last tour. The most recent, and upcoming talents to open for them have been Larkin Poe and Michigan’s own Greta Van Fleet, whom Payton is a fan. Last and certainly not least, Punch arranged for Payton to meet Bette Midler backstage in Vegas after her “The Showgirl Must Go On” performance in Vegas. The memory that perhaps has had the most impact on her is singing “Night Moves” with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band every night they take the stage. Barbara remarked, “That song is a masterpiece, timeless and just as inspiring to me now as when I first heard it on CKLW radio decades ago.”
Barbara quickly found herself in awe of Bob Seger. She was singing background for one of her musical heroes! She was thrilled to be in musical company with him every night. It was an honor to sing background for him alongside Creamer & Murphy. When asked of her impression of Bob Seger, Payton said, “He loves music, and I love that about him. He continues to digest new music and be inspired by it. The level of continued excitement that he exudes when he writes a new song and shares it is infectious. He is still dedicated to his craft and it shows. On a personal note, Bob is kind, loves his family deeply, has a wicked sense of humor and is engaged in life. Books, movies and his fascination of astronomy make for a very interesting person. I guess you could say its great to work for someone that you enjoy and are inspired by.”
All the hard work and challenges have paid off for Barbara. She described it as, “I had many rewarding experiences along the way, but when I reached that level, I was exposed to experiences and people that I never could have imagined. The level of musicianship was inspiring and raised my game.”
Seger was not the only star Barbara has worked with. In 2007, she was approached by Kid Rock to join his “Rock and Roll Jesus Tour” and sing on his biggest hit, “All Summer Long.” She remained on tour with him for several months as a back-up singer. Another highlight of her career was singing with him on the roof of a building in Times Square on New Years Eve. Barbara said, “It’s hard to top that!”
Not all of Barbara’s life has been glamorous, though. In 2009, Payton was diagnosed with stage four thyroid cancer, a condition which is not uncommon to have an impact on the voice. As anyone would be, Barbara was scared and apprehensive. For the first time, she seriously wondered what she would do if she lost her voice. If a vocal nerve was cut, it could end her career. Fortunately, the surgery was successful. They tested the vocal nerve; it was still in tack. In six-months, she was able to go back to singing. During that time, Payton took up cycling to help her heal spiritually as well as improve upon her overall health. She is now an avid and accomplished cyclist. She stated if she had discovered her natural ability for the sport as well as her deep passion for it much earlier, she may have pursued it professionally as well. Barbara also took an interest in massage therapy long before her diagnosis and she became a therapist twenty-six years ago. It has helped to balance her life during difficult times due to the instant gratification for both client and therapist. She has set up a practice in Port Huron as well as doing traveling corporate massage. “It is a wonderful way to engage with people,” Payton said. She now understands surviving a possible life threatening illness, so she is grateful that she can help others currently faced with it.
When reflecting on that time, she worried about her voice, and yet came to a place of peace regardless of what the future held for her. When given the green light, she was determined to go back to what she loved doing. Being away from it for six-months only brought more appreciation of the happiness being able to sing brought her. Raw determination and excellent medical care at the Cleveland Clinic helped make it possible.
Barbara now divides her time between touring with Bob Seger and her current band, Barbara Payton & The Instigators. The Band includes Nolan Mendenhall on bass, Dale Grisa on keyboards, Ron Pangborn on drums, Kris Kurzawa on lead guitar and Bobby Murray also on lead guitar. She finds both to be equally gratifying. Payton loves touring with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. It has instilled a wanderlust in her. She has a deeper appreciation for artists at Seger’s level, his longevity and the respect he has established. Payton said its effect has made her a better singer, more disciplined. Barbara is grateful for every musical gift she has been given because she knows how fleeting it can be.
Despite the thrill of working with music stars and legends, some of the most joyous times are when she is in the bars with her band, learning musical skills, honing in on her craft and enjoying the camaraderie with her band members.
What’s in her future? “To finally put out the record that I have been talking about for decades,” she laughed. It is thanks in no small part to her friend Nolan, who is at the helm of production. He has a music resume that is staggering. They have been writing together for years, and have laid down the first rough tracks in the studio of the engineer and guitar player extraordinaire, Roscoe. In addition, she wants to continue singing and performing with her band, as well as tour with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. Barbara has also been asked to be a part of a former project that is being revived, which is near and dear to her heart, called “The Big Boss Trio.” The band consists of Robert Tye on guitar, Ron Pangborn on drums and Dale Grisa on keyboard. In addition, Bobby Murray, (fellow Instigator) who was the late great Etta James’ guitar player for twenty-three years, has asked her to join his all-star band for several tribute shows to Etta, coming up this summer.
Barbara wants to be remembered as someone who has a deep appreciation for the power of music, and hopefully remind people of how it can lift us all during difficult times. She wants to be remembered as someone, through her music, took people to a better place, if only for the moment.
Who is Barbara Payton? When asked that question, she said “Singing is not who I am, it is what I do and what I love. I am still discovering who I am.”
Barbara Payton has not only followed her dream; she is living it. She is an inspiration for those who doubt their dreams can come true. Hard work and a determination to succeed works; you have to be willing to pursue it. Port Huron can be proud to claim Barbara Payton as one of its own!
Check out Barbara’s website at:
Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.