Detroit-born saxophonist and flutist Allan Barnes, best known for his soulful contributions to the best-selling jazz-fusion band the Blackbyrds in the mid-1970s, died Monday. He was 66.
Barnes, who in recent decades had been a stalwart on the Detroit scene, suffered a heart attack at his home in Detroit, said his son Edward Barnes.
The Blackbyrds, one of the most popular crossover bands of its era, played a danceable fusion of R&B, soul, funk and jazz. The group came together under the direction of Detroit-born jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, who was teaching at Howard University in Washington D.C., when he corralled his best students, including Barnes, into his backup band and released the crossover record "Black Byrd" in 1973. The Blackbyrds then spun off into a separate group with Byrd acting as producer.
The Blackbyrds' self-titled 1974 LP on the Fantasy label included Barnes' composition “Summer Love” a breezy melody that showcased the allure of his fulsome soprano saxophone tone and improvised embellishments that snuggled inside the loping back beat and tranquil vocals. The band's hot-selling follow-up album, "Flying Start" (1975), included its biggest hit, “Walking in Rhythm” an upbeat anthem by guitarist Barney Perry that reached No. 6 on the Billboard pop chart and featured Barnes' easygoing flute solo over a bed of synthesized strings.
Though Barnes knew his way around the standard jazz repertoire — he once recorded a disco-like samba version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” — he wasn't a classic Detroit bebopper. His real forte was using his deep-voiced tenor, alto or soprano saxophone to wail over a groovy R&B beat or soar through a power ballad.
"He was a very passionate soloist," said drummer Gayelynn McKinney. "You could hear a lot of expression in his playing and a lot of soul. It really had a lot of funky soul in it that mixed in with more traditional stuff. He was also just a very nice, humble man."
Allan Curtis Barnes was born Sept. 27, 1949, He was introduced to music through two uncles who were musicians. Barnes started on clarinet when he was 8, and one of his uncles gave him a saxophone at age 14. After graduating from Mackenzie High School, he enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Vietnam in 1968, where he played in a service band that would often travel to remote bases to play for soldiers.
He returned to Detroit after being discharged in 1970. Donald Byrd learned about Barnes from his uncles and encouraged him to enroll at Howard, where he quickly was absorbed into the trumpeter's working band, which included another Howard student from Detroit, keyboardist Kevin Toney.
After leaving the Backbyrds in 1975, Barnes teamed with singer and songwriter John Malone to form the band Malone & Barnes and Spontaneous Simplicity. Its debut release, "Freedom Serenade" (Humpin' International), in 1977 was an energetic funky dance record. Barnes and Moore wrote “Disco Dancin’” for the 1978 LP debut of the group A Taste of Honey. Twenty years later, Barnes and Moore cowrote “Money Makes the World Go Round” with Nas and R. Kelly for the latter's hit album "R."
Barnes lived for a time in Los Angeles, and his other national recording credits ranged from Gil-Scott-Heron to Nina Simone. He also solos extensively on flute on the the posthumously released “Requiem” (2012) by the late Detroit-born hip-hop producer J Dilla. Barnes recorded "The Caretaker" under his own name for Riza Records in 1986.
The performer resettled in Detroit in the 1990s. In recent years, he played regularly at Baker's Keyboard Lounge and elsewhere and was involved in myriad projects ranging from fusion to swinging post-bop.
Barnes is survived by sons Edward Barnes, Joseph Barnes, Nelson McCoy and Norris Abraham; daughters Allana Phifer and Jasmine Orlandini; stepdaughter Charlotte Thomas and eight grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at noon Tuesday at the Muslim Center, 1605 Davison Freeway (at Woodrow Wilson), Detroit. The funeral will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday, First Baptist Institutional Church, 17101 W. Seven Mile. Benefit-tribute concerts are scheduled for 8 p.m. Aug. 5 at Bert's, 2727 Russell St., Detroit; and 7 p.m. Aug. 6 at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois (at Eight Mile), Detroit.