A few years ago, Dan Snaith was deep in a YouTube wormhole when he came across a vintage soul track called "Home." It was a song by Gloria Barnes, a little-known R&B singer who had released just one album, 1971's Uptown, before disappearing from music forever. Snaith was particularly hypnotized by the opening moments, in which Barnes sings the titular word, then declares "Baby, I'm home, I'm home!" in a throaty, expressive wail.
"The minute I heard it, I had to download it from YouTube and looped it up and put a beat under it," Snaith, the Canadian electronic musician better known as Caribou, told VICE. "I didn't really think I was making anything that would end up on a Caribou album—I just wanted to hear that part repeating and going on forever." The sample sat dormant on his hard drive for more than a year; he wasn't sure how to finish it. Now it's the secret ingredient of "Home," the thumping, kaleidoscope-soul centerpiece (and first single) of Caribou's excellent new album, Suddenly.
Snaith has a knack for chopping up fragments of old soul vocals and looping them into unexpected new hooks. His dreamy 2014 track "Can't Do Without You"—Caribou's most popular single ever—was built around a brief, pitch-shifted sample of a Marvin Gaye vocal. His 2012 song "Yes, I Know," released under the moniker Daphni, took its name from a rousing sample of a Buddy Miles refrain.
But this was different. Gloria Barnes was never famous. Although her album has been embraced by soul fanatics—Aquarium Drunkard calls it a "super rare gem of killer '70s funk and soul" and notes that original pressings have fetched up to $3,000 on Discogs—her name is largely unknown and her story an enigma. Who is this singer with the smoldering wail? "I don't know much about her life or where she ended up, unfortunately, or even whether she's still alive or not," Snaith said.
Snaith didn't want to manipulate the sample beyond recognition. "There's so much emotion packed into her vocal even when she's just singing a couple words, and the playing on the record is so great," Snaith said. "When I heard it, I immediately thought of people like Madlib, The RZA, Just Blaze, early Kanye—people who made amazing hip-hop beats out of looping up soul records. Sometimes those beats are amazing flips and chops of the original sample material, but I knew that in this case the original loop was so good that what I had to do was just not mess with it."
The resulting song pairs Barnes' voice with Snaith's warm, honeyed falsetto. On a recent episode of the podcast Song Exploder, Snaith explained how he flipped the meaning: Barnes' vocals are about coming home to a lover; Snaith's words were inspired by a friend's experience of finding home within herself after a breakup. He describes the resulting song as "a hip-hop-influenced track that's like a duet with a '70s soul singer."
The song evokes a golden-age hip-hop cadence more than Caribou's usual house rhythms, which is not a coincidence. The main beat is either sampled from or closely modeled after one of hip-hop's most legendary breakbeats: Melvin Bliss's "Synthetic Substitution," a once-obscure 1973 soul B-side that has since become a rap landmark, having been sampled more than 700 times since the 1980s. Thus the magic trick of Caribou: pairing one of the most familiar samples ever with one that nobody knows.
Those who sample "Synthetic Substitution" typically lunge straight for the opening drums—supposedly played by the great session drummer Bernard Purdie—which anticipate hip-hop with their crisp, hard-hitting groove. Wu-Tang Clan milked its aggression on "Bring Da Ruckus." Kanye West flipped it on 2012's "New God Flow." Ghostface Killah used it on 2000's "Mighty Healthy" and again on 2006's "The Champ." Even Hanson (or the Dust Brothers, more accurately) diced up the familiar beat for 1997's sugary smash "MMMBop."
The beat's dizzying popularity is generally traced back to Ultramagnetic MCs' exhilarating single "Ego Trippin,'" from 1986. Yet Supreme La Rock, a veteran Seattle DJ, told me he was sampling "Synthetic Substitution" even earlier, after he stumbled upon it on an Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilation in the mid-80s.
"The second I heard the drums at the beginning, I lost my mind!" La Rock said. "They just had that sound to 'em. The sound and the way it hits and bounces, it screams hip-hop."
Dan Snaith answered most of my questions about the simmering soul sample at the heart of his album. But there was one he could not answer: What happened to Gloria Barnes? Why did she only make one full-length album?
"I looked around a lot on the internet trying to find out more about her, and there isn't much there," Snaith said. "I did find out that she originally released records as Towanda Barnes and that her records were a hit in the Northern Soul scene in the U.K." That's according to Discogs, which calls her "an obscure soul sister [about] whom little is known except what can be gleaned from the notes on the back of her album."
The album was released by the long-forgotten Maple Records, which was distributed by All Platinum, in 1971; its cover reveals Barnes to be a young black woman half-smiling in a red sweater. The liner notes say that Barnes hailed from "the street of Harlem"—hence the title Uptown—and that Lee Moses and the Disciples accompanied her on some tunes and Ohio Players on others. "Old Before my Time," the slow-burning opener, is singled out as a song "that says she's got what it takes to… become a big success."
That didn't happen. Barnes faded into obscurity. She never made another album. "It's almost as if she just disappeared," said Wes Berwise, a radio presenter and soul aficionado.
By the 2000s, however, Barnes' LP had become sought after by collectors and soul obsessives. "this is one album i would LOVE to own !" raved a user on the Soul Source music forum in 2014. "A copy on eBay went for over £900.00 today !" another poster responded. In 2017, the Ohio-based label Colemine Records finally reissued Uptown, heralding it as "insanely raw soul."
The rights to the songs are owned by a record label called Essential Media Group (EMG), which is how Snaith said he cleared the sample. "Often in the 1960s and 1970s musicians (and probably disproportionately musicians of color or musicians from working-class backgrounds) sold the rights to their music outright when they recorded them," Snaith said. "So unfortunately this isn't a case where I was able to trace the rights back to Gloria Barnes herself." (EMG told VICE: "Sadly we have no current information on Ms. Barnes.")
Barnes’ disappearance may remind some fans of the unusual story of Jackie Shane, the singer and transgender pioneer who became a soul sensation in 1960s Toronto before vanishing around 1971. Shane was finally located in time for her music to enjoy a renaissance during the 2010s, and in 2017, Numero Group released an acclaimed box set of Shane’s music that had been put together with the singer’s active involvement. Barnes, however, has not been involved in the reissues or rediscovery of her work.
When I began writing this piece, I was hopeful that Barnes might still be alive. I became desperate to find her. I scoured Facebook. I called every Gloria Barnes I could find in New York (no luck). I even found a blog post about her music from 2007, which had prompted Barnes' stepchild to leave this reader comment:
Towanda aka Gloria Barnes is my stepmother! I cannot believe you have this here! I've always known how outasight T was/is as a singer, but to see it here on the Net like this just blows my mind.
The author of that blog post, Colin Dilnot, publicly responded to the comment and expressed interest in interviewing Barnes, but the stepchild never replied again, Dilnot said.
Now, sadly, it's too late. When I finally managed to locate and call Barnes' son, Bentley Lashley, he said his mother died in 2013. Lashley declined to talk about Barnes' music career and said he didn't know much about it. He was two when Uptown was released. Asked why she left the music industry, he said, "Pretty much because of me." She did, however, continue singing on occasion, he said. "She would do clubs and stuff like that from time to time."
Did Barnes know before she died that her music had found a more recent following? "Yes. That she did," Lashley says. As for the Caribou song, he has heard it and thought it was well-done.
Barnes isn't here to hear it, but her voice—that astonishing wail—could be heard by more listeners this year than ever before, thanks to Caribou's excavation. Snaith, for one, seems glad he went down that YouTube wormhole.