As Johnny Barnes turns 80, he still remembers his first paid singing gig at the legendary Apollo Theatre at the age of 9.
Seventy-one years later, Barnes, who also vividly recalls how he got his first big break and joined the Platters, will still burst into song, and maybe dance as well, if you ask him.
Barnes, a Bellingham resident since 1991, will celebrate his 80th birthday with a free public party and jam session beginning 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 4, at Coconut Grove, 710 N. Marine Drive. He says he doesn't want any presents, just people who love the kind of R&B music he still sings so well.
Barnes actually turns 80 on Friday. In his outgoing style, Barnes says, "I'm celebrating twice."
"Johnny's just a big, friendly ham," said a friend, Bellingham's Marilyn Parish, who joined him in talking about his long singing career.
Question: Johnny, did you really sing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem?
Barnes: I was living with my aunt in the Bronx and she got me an audition for a child's singing part. I won three auditions when I was 9, and then they paid me $75 a week for a four-week gig. For a long time, my aunt could get me anything I wanted after that.
Q: How did you join the Platters?
Barnes: It was 1956 and they needed a replacement for Tony Williams (lead tenor). Buck Ram (the manager) told me to go stand in the wings at the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn. I saw this whole slew of guys auditioning. Herb Reed (one of the Platters) told me I had to wait in line, but Paul Robi (another member) saw me and told me to go into the rehearsal.
Q: Did things go well?
Barnes: I did six bars of "Only You" and Paul yelled out, "We got him, we got our singer!" And I was with the original Platters from 1956 until 1975. I originally joined Paul, David Lynch, Zola Taylor and Herb Reed.
Then I joined the Ink Spots in 1975 and was with them until 1990.
Q: Did you feel fortunate to join the Platters?
Barnes: I sure did. You know, all these years, I've been so fortunate to get paid for what I love to do.
Q: How would you describe your range?
Barnes: I was a baritone with tenor range. I always had a high range.
Parish: Johnny is still great. Smooth, very smooth. He's still awesome, and very mellow. People are still in awe when they hear him sing. I've seen people get tears in their eyes. You can see Johnny's eyes light up when he's singing.
Q: What are your favorite songs?
Barnes: I guess I would say "If I Didn't Care" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The songs I'm asked to sing the most are "Only You," "Great Pretender" and "Smoke."
Q: Any other special memories?
Barnes: I remember when I married Doris Mae Clark in Honolulu in 1989. I sang "My Prayer" as she was walking up the aisle. She was born and raised in Bellingham and passed away in 2009.
JOHNNY BARNES SINGS "SMOKE GETS IN YOUR EYES"
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.