Born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Racine, Wisconsin, McNair studied music at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her big break came with a win on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which led to bookings at The Purple Onion and the Cocoanut Grove.
She soon became one of the country's most popular headliners and a guest on such television variety shows as The Steve Allen Show, Hullabaloo, The Bell Telephone Hour, and The Hollywood Palace, while recording for the Coral, Signature, and Motown labels. Among her hits were You're Gonna Love My Baby and Bobby. In the early 60s, Barbara made several musical shorts for Scopitone, a franchise of coin-operated machines that showed what were then the forerunners of today's music videos.
McNair's acting career began on television, guesting on series such as Dr. Kildare, I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Hogan's Heroes and McMillan and Wife. She caught the attention of the movie-going public with her much-publicized nude sequences in the gritty crime drama If He Hollers Let Him Go (1968) opposite Raymond St. Jacques, then donned a nun's habit alongside Mary Tyler Moore for Change of Habit (1969), Elvis Presley's last feature film. She portrayed Sidney Poitier's wife in They Call Me MISTER Tibbs! (1970) and its sequel, The Organization (1971).
McNair starred in her own 1969 television variety series, but it lasted only one season, despite the wattage provided by A-list guests like Tony Bennett and Sonny and Cher, and offers began to dwindle. In 1976, her husband, Rick Manzi, was murdered, and Mafia boss-turned-FBI-informant Jimmy "The Weasel" Frattiano later claimed in his book The Last Mafioso that Manzi had been a Mafia associate who tried to put a contract on the life of a mob-associated tax attorney with whom he had a legal dispute. The ensuing publicity did little to help McNair's floundering career.
Her recordings include Livin' End, I Enjoy Being a Girl, and The Ultimate Motown Collection, a 2-CD set with 48 tracks that include her two albums for the label plus a non-album single and B-side and an entire LP that never was released. Into her seventies, McNair resided in the Los Angeles area, playing tennis and skiing to keep in shape on a regular basis and touring on occasion. She died on February 4, 2007 of throat cancer.
Barbara McNair, pioneering singer-actress who hosted TV show, starred with Poitier ; March 4, 1934 -- Feb. 4, 2007
Feb 06, 2007; Barbara McNair, the pioneering black singer-actress who hosted her own television variety show and starred with Sidney Poitier in...