The president’s office at the Blues Foundation, despite coming under new stewardship only a few months ago, already displays a passion for music and the blues. With big shoes to fill following last year’s departure of Jay Sieleman, Barbara Newman has stepped into her new role with aplomb. The organization, responsible for crafting an extensive Hall of Fame with some of the most talented blues performers in history, is recognized as the world’s leading international blues organization with over 200 affiliates worldwide. Located on South Main Street, and with a recent renovation under its belt, the Blues Foundation is poised to continue its excellent work.
When she speaks on the organization, Newman is energetic and enthusiastic about her work, recalling recent names and performances that have left an impression. Quite a catalogue of notable artists is listed, and it’s clear she holds a deep appreciation for the blues.
Newman’s career, however, did not start in music. She earned a B.A. in political science from Brown University before adding advanced training in accounting, banking, and corporate finance to her repertoire while working at the New York-based National Westminster Bank. That job ended up creating her first professional music connection. “I had my first music industry client which I brought in, it was the Power Station, a very well-renowned recording studio back in the Eighties,” she says. “That was fun, I got to meet David Bowie and watch some recording sessions.”
As a native Memphian, she returned home and joined the nonprofit sector, serving on the Bornblum Solomon Schechter School board of directors as treasurer, vice president of administration and fundraising, and president. From 2007 onward, she served as executive director of Beth Sholom Synagogue, taking charge of financial administration, communications, human resources, and facility management. More recently, Newman has become engaged with board development, fundraising, and strategic planning for Planned Parenthood, Greater Memphis Region.
Despite a heavy workload, she has been able to keep up with her interest in music. “On the side, we have for about 15 years now produced concerts and fundraising events for nonprofits around the city,” she says. The financial and musical aspects of both sides of work prepared her to step into her role at the Blues Foundation.
Newman’s love for music, indicated by the possessions hanging around her office, stretches back to her childhood. As a 7th grader, she was treated to a performance by Blues Hall of Famer Furry Lewis and knew she’d witnessed something unique. “I was probably 11,” she says. “He came to my school with some other blues musicians and performed and explained to us the structure of blues music. We got to say hello, and you knew he was somebody special. The name meant something, the history was important, and he was pretty amazing, just sitting with his guitar and singing for us.”
The experience seems to have had a profound effect. Complementing her role as the Foundation’s president are memberships in both the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, and Folk Alliance International. It’s safe to say the organization is in a good set of musical hands.