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My Atlanta: Blues singer Lillie Barber awed crowds from Scottdale to Georgia Tech and beyond

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Retired bandleader and restaurant proprietor quit Emory University to follow music (and welding), before finding success on the Westside

Photos of Barber in her singing days (contributed) and Scottdale, where she grew up, today (Josh Green).
Barber in her singing days (contributed) and Scottdale, where she grew up, today (Josh Green).

At age 71, Decatur resident Lillie Barber may be retired from the music business (she pulled the plug after a nasty traffic accident), but there’s still an infectious musicality in the way she recalls her career, her roughly 19 grandchildren (give or take), and the nearly two decades she spent helming legendary Marietta Street music and food destination The Somber Reptile’s Cajun Kitchen.


Barber performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1989.
Contributed

Just the sound of my voice, everywhere I go, everywhere I have ever been, it was just a voice that stunned people, captured people. I’m just being myself. It was just a big old voice, I guess. I don’t know what it is; when I sing, I just sing.

I love to see people happy, love to see them have a good time. You know how people be scattered everywhere [at music festivals]? The second I started singing, it was like God said, “BOOM!” and it was just like people came from everywhere. The folks would stand in the rain like they didn’t care at all.

This went down to the little children, too. I was in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I did a festival for [diabetes and cancer foundations] up there. Children just crowded up on the stage, and security had to get all the little rascals back. From my waste down you couldn’t even see me but for all of those children.


I was born in New Orleans, but we moved when I was a baby, and I was raised in Georgia. I was just about two or three. My dad used to sing gospel. He [operated] RT Janitorial Service for years and years and years. If you’ve seen it on TV, that was my momma and daddy’s business! Shoot, they [handled jobs] every which way, all across town.

I’ve got a lot of white sisters and brothers that my momma and daddy raised. They ate with us, slept with us, boys in one room, girls in the other. So I don’t know about prejudice ... all I see is a person with feelings. That’s all I see. My grandma was white, and my daddy’s daddy was a thoroughbred Cherokee Indian. My [heritage] is all tangled up, man!

I went to Robert Shaw Elementary School [in Scottdale]; my daddy was the first janitor there. Then I went to Beacon Elementary School up in Decatur, and then I finished Trinity High School in 1964. All the schools were integrated then, but we just didn’t have white kids going to the school, because Decatur High was all white, and Trinity was all black. I think they made a police station out of it now.

I was voted Miss Glee Club, and I always sang the blues, even in high school. I don’t know, I just started singing it. And my music teacher, Mr. Alfred B. Johnson, tried to get me to go on the road with them and sing when school’s out. But I was too young. He gave me a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement though.

MARTA under construction through downtown Decatur in the late 1970s.
ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY.

I took pre-law at Emory University for about 22 months—I was two months from finishing! It was a very, very good experience. [But] I was already a licensed cosmetologist, a certified welder, and I sang professional blues. I had done all of that, honey. I can do any kind of welding—big freight car boxes. Mig welding and seam welding. I just wanted to do my own thing.

Bad Weather, that was the name of my band. That was my only band. Other than Blind Willies [in Virginia-Highland], I sung for them.


The Somber Reptile had the best cajun food there was here in Atlanta, Georgia! Not a restaurant that could touch it. Some of the recipes came out of my head. We put a bunch of names in a hat, a [former colleague] drew out “Somber Reptile,” so that’s what we named it.

Just west of Georgia Tech, the buildings where the Somber Reptile, Cajun Kitchen, and Lizard Lounge operated between 1987 and the early 2000s.
Google Maps

We had so many people there, child. We made beaucoup money. Elton John came with his entourage but didn’t perform; they just came and ate. They just had a ball. Cuba Gooding Jr. made a movie there—I don’t remember which one. Laurence Fishburne, I think he was in there to make a movie for Paramount.


It happened in the year 2000. I was driving one of my Chevrolet vans; the name of that van was “Jamaica.” I happened to have a Jamaican show, with about 19 bands, and made about $6,000 off the door that night, and so I just named the van that.

I was on my way home to change my clothes, and this girl came out of Georgia Tech. I had the green light, and I t-boned her. She didn’t stop. My knee was all busted up, shattered and broken. The girl was alright.

Since then, I did a party singing for some guys, and that was about it. It busted me up. They had to make my darn legs and knees out of titanium. With my walking stick, I still get about.


Scottdale used to be a real rough place. Where our home sold, they built a big old beautiful house right in the same spot. All the new homes they’re building down there are beautiful. All the riffraff and the drug trafficking and all that kind of stuff is gone. Everything down there is a great big new home; every time they build one it’s already sold. I’ll tell ya’, baby, if anybody needs a beautiful place to live, that would be the spot. Scottdale is going to be the place.

Joe Jordan’s store used to be down there in front of the Avondale High football field. A little convenience store, where you’d go buy snacks and things. It’s gone. Dorothy Gollette’s grocery store, it’s gone. Every day she served DeKalb County—all the maintenance guys, the garbage men, the sewer and water guys. At lunchtime you’d go there, you couldn’t even get in for all the dump trucks, garbage trucks, big trucks. So many people that owned the little businesses like that are gone.


I’ve sung for the Coca-Cola company. I’ve sung for CNN. We catered a party at the Ritz-Carlton. We catered for the Georgia Tech football team’s homecoming. I always will remember that. Beautiful, beautiful memories. I sang so many places, love. I praise God. People still call me to perform, but I just will not. I am retired.

What am I doing in retirement? Shoot, nothing but relaxing and having myself a good time!

“My Atlanta” is a first-person series that shares the experiences of Atlantans—of all ages and backgrounds—who have unique, compelling perspectives on the city. Email suggestions for future subjects to green@curbed.com. Please use the subject line “MY ATLANTA.”