In 1968, Barbara Lynn was riding high. A gifted young blues guitarist and songwriter whose compositions had already been covered by Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones, the Beaumont, Tex., native had just signed with Atlantic Records to release her major-label debut, Here Is Barbara Lynn. Though it spawned the radio hit “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” and landed her an extended tour with B.B. King, it wasn’t the success Atlantic had hoped for. By the mid-1970s, a disillusioned Lynn had mostly withdrawn from the industry to raise her family—and Here was essentially lost to history.
Fast-forward four decades, and cue the entrance of Matt Sullivan. In 2002 the then-26-year-old founded Light in the Attic Records, a label whose raison d’être is resurrecting forgotten classics for a new generation of vinyl fetishists and crate diggers. “When they called, I was amazed,” says Lynn, now 72, via phone from her Beaumont home. “I feel so good about these songs. I didn’t think anybody was still thinking about me.”
Here Is Barbara Lynn is the latest in a series of some 150 eclectic reissues put out by the Seattle-bred boutique label.
Its 2014 slate also includes a standout collection of early-’70s gospel-choir Bob Dylan covers, a series of Sly Stone recordings from his pre-Family era, and a sparse private-press masterpiece cut by a mysterious artist named Lewis that won wide music-blog acclaim upon its rerelease. LITA is also responsible for rediscovering great, long-out-of-print productions by Nancy Sinatra collaborator Lee Hazlewood and excavating the two landmark studio albums recorded by psych-rock enigma Rodriguez, who went on to become the subject of the Oscar-winning 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
“What we try to do,” says Sullivan, “is give something a new life and help it reach a wider audience. For example, my mom got our newsletter and she was like, ‘Who’s Barbara Lynn?’ My mom would love Barbara Lynn if only somebody told her about her, and that’s so much the heart of what Light in the Attic is: finding things that really deserve to be heard and giving them some context.”
Lynn—whom he discovered after catching her at a show in Los Angeles a couple of years ago, and by watching “fantastic old videos of her from the ’60s, black-and-white footage of her playing on American and German TV”—was a relatively easy get, since LITA has a distribution relationship with Warner Bros., which happened to own the rights to the record. Plus, Lynn herself was enthusiastic about getting interviewed and providing photos for the deluxe packaging. “It tends to be that our introduction to it is how we all find records: a friend plays us something, or we stumble across something on a blog or in a record store, or reading a magazine or something,” says Sullivan.
But not all efforts run as smoothly. Sullivan prefers to have the full cooperation of the artist, which can prove elusive. “Most releases we’re doing were financial failures back in the day,” he says. “The artist put a lot of heart and soul into it, but it didn’t take off. So we’re coming forward 40 years later, and they often say, ‘Thanks for your enthusiasm, but we had a really bad experience, and do we really want to revisit this?’ It takes persistence, and as we do more records, it helps to show them the work we’ve done—they can look at it and understand we’ve put a lot of love and care into it.”
For the LITA team, patience isn’t just a virtue, it’s a job requirement. “I tried to get Lee Hazlewood for years when he was alive,” Sullivan says. “He was just your classic old-school curmudgeon. He just did not want to budge. It was one of maybe two times I made a physical sample of the CD to send him and his family. He turned us down and it was heartbreaking. Sadly, he passed away [in 2007], so we had to start explaining to the family that we could do a really special job with it. Fortunately, they came around. From the time I started working on it to the time that first one came out, it was seven years.”
Though LITA’s releases are rarely blockbusters, the label found its first real breakout with Wheedle’s Groove, a compilation of vintage Seattle-area soul and funk tracks that even locals were unaware of. “That was a really definitive one,” Sullivan says. “We were documenting something so off the radar. It’s material from the ’60s and ’70s, private-press and self-released 45s. These are people who went to the same high school as Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Seattle, and my knowledge of that scene was zero. That was one we were really proud of, and still are.”
Today, Light in the Attic has around 75 projects in various stages of completion. (“We don’t know when the licenses will come through,” he says. “It might be tomorrow, it might be 10 years, it might not [happen] at all.”) The label has also recently expanded its reach with the Modern Classic Recordings series, which focuses on vinyl pressings of releases from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, including Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs, D’Angelo’s Voodoo, and Morphine’s Cure for Pain. LITA aims to make a profit, of course, but it’s largely a labor of love—and maybe a little self-interest. “Not to be too negative, but there’s a lot of crap in the world,” Sullivan says. “I want to be able to put something more positive back out there. And if nothing else, I now have Cure for Pain on my record player.”