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  • Bob Arnold

Singer-pianist still performs locally

By Bob Arnold

Singer-pianist still performs locally

Back in the 1960s when Babs Wood packed her bags and guitar and headed off to New Orleans at 18 years old to find a job in the French Quarter, she never dreamed her journey would start her in a multi-decade career as a musical entertainer.

Wood learned music from her grandmother, whom she visited in western Copiah County as a child during the summer months. Wood accompanied her as a singer at Brandywine Methodist Church in Claiborne County where she played the piano, learned to play the piano herself and took up the guitar as well, but never had any formal musical training.

Sonny Oschner, assistant manager at Pat Obrien's in New Orleans, however, saw something in the young girl seated in the garden at the famed French Quarter restaurant-bar, where she was thinking through her job search. Oschner engaged her in a casual conversation that turned out to be a job interview. "Do you sing?" he asked. "Yes," Wood said. "Do you play the piano?" Oschner inquired again. "Yes," Wood affirmed. "Why don't you come to work for us?" Ocshner invited.

"It was a God-send," Wood recalls. Oschner's father, who managed Pat Obrien's and later bought the establishment, directed her to a Quarter clothier who helped outfit Wood to appropriately dress her to begin her career as a singer-pianist at the Quarter landmark. Wood started performing for $300 per week and continued her work there on and off until 2013.

A Baton Rouge native, Wood traveled with her family from Pascagoula, Mississippi, to Long Island, New York, and places in between where her father worked in construction and repair as a contract electrician. "I was always the new girl in school," Wood says. Twice because of her father's work and her grandparents' home in Copiah Country, school brought her to Wesson -- for fifth grade at the Wesson Old School just before it closed and then to high school based at Co-Lin, where she graduated after starting in the tenth grade just before it, too, closed

Before going to New Orleans, Wood attended college classes at Co-Lin briefly, but she explains that "at that time, my two sisters and me were expected to marry and do housework."

In the 1970s, after six years entertaining daily at Pat Obrien's from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., Wood moved to California where she hired an agent who booked her at bars, clubs, and hotels. She performed throughout Southern California and then Las Vegas. "I hated working Las Vegas," she recounts. "At one casino, my pit boss -- a scary dude -- told me to take a break when the audience was too big, and taking the patrons away from slot machines and gambling tables." During a performance there, she recognized a familiar face in the crowd. Unbelievably, it was Sonny Oschner. "Are you ready to come home," he asked her. "I am under contracts here," she told him. Oschner said he would get her out of them. Soon, Wood was back on stage at Pat Obrien's singing and playing the piano.

In the 1980s, another break from Pat Obrien's took Wood to Nashville, where she recorded her own CD, and worked with George Jones, Jim Nabors, Slim Pickens and Rex Allen. Helen Reddy and Rufus Thomas also recorded some songs she wrote.

Wood also took time off from her musical career for other work. "As a legal secretary, I was terrible," she recalls and jokes: "There may be some couples in Copiah County who are not legally divorced now because of my legal work." For 11 years, Wood also was a florist with a store in Hazlehurst.

Wood now lives in Crystal Springs, and since 1985, has been married to Bubba Wood, whom she met at the Old Depot in Hazlehurst. She has three grown children by a previous marriage, whom her husband is now adopting as they approach 50 years old -- Chris Viramontez, the owner of a business; Dona Wood Pell, a nurse at Brookhaven Pain Clinic; and Brandy Gremillion, an elementary school teacher at Wesson Attendance Center. Wood also has eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren. Her family lives in the Wesson area.

Today, Wood also continues to perform regularly at Le Soul restaurant in Hazlehurst and venues in the Jackson area.

"At Wesson High School, I had no plan, and I never thought I would have been in the places or met the people I have," Wood concludes.

What are your hobbies? I love traveling. Anywhere. Nashville, however, is a favorite place, where I have a lot of friends.

Are you a reader?

I enjoy John Grisham's novels, particularly The Testament.

How about music -- beyond your own?

I like Linda Ronstadt and Chris Stapleton.

Do you enjoy movies or theater?

I watch the old episodes of NCIS New Orleans on television, mainly because I know the spots where it was made. My favorite movie is Blazing Saddles and I like Chicago, the play. I am very much into little theater, particularly Brookhaven Little Theater, in which I performed in Annie -- my only acting credit.

What would you do with lottery winnings if you were so lucky?

I would invest the money & set up trust funds for my children, grand children & great grandchildren. And I would eat out for the rest of my life.

How would you change the world? Only God can change the world. I’m only human and look what a mess humans have made so far. Nope, not my job. I’m leaving that up to the only One who is qualified.

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