Lewis was born in Salem, near Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was writing and recording by her teens with record producer Ollie McLaughlin, a black DJ at Ann Arbor radio station WHRV, now WAAM.
Lewis’ first single release in 1962, the uptempo “My Heart Went Do Dat Da,” did not chart nationally, but was a local hit in the Detroit, Michigan area. She wrote all of the songs on her debut LP, including the hit “Hello Stranger” which reached #3 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart, and featured extensive use of the Hammond organ. Lewis had moderate follow-up hits with “Straighten Up Your Heart” (#43) and her original “Puppy Love” (#38) before Bert Berns produced her million-seller “Baby I’m Yours” (U.S. #11), written by Van McCoy. Berns also produced the followup “Make Me Your Baby” (U.S. #11) which had originally been recorded by the Pixies Three, and Lewis’ final Top 40 hit “Make Me Belong to You” (#28 in 1966), written by Chip Taylor and Billy Vera.
At the end of the decade, she released a grittier-sounding album on Stax Records.
However, over the next decade, a number of other artists had success with Lewis’ songs. Her own composition “Hello Stranger”- which had been remade in 1966 by the Capitols – was a regional hit in 1973 as remade by Fire & Rain and in 1977 Yvonne Elliman’s version reached the US Top 20 and the UK Singles Chart Top 30: Elliman’s version also topped the US Easy Listening chart for four weeks. In 1985 Carrie Lucas’ remake of “Hello Stranger” was a Top 20 R&B hit and in 2004 Queen Latifah remade “Hello Stranger” for her The Dana Owens Album.
“Baby I’m Yours” charted in versions by country singer Jody Miller and Debby Boone (the B-side of her single “God Knows”). In Canada, Suzanne Stevens had a hit in 1975 with a disco version of “Make Me Your Baby.” Cover versions of Barbara Lewis’ tracks continue into the new millennium with the Arctic Monkeys, including a version of “Baby I’m Yours” as a B-side to their 2006 single, “Leave Before the Lights Come On.”
In 1995, Lewis’ “Baby I’m Yours” was featured on the soundtrack for the film, The Bridges of Madison County. She received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1999.