Benny Barnes, country singer, guitarist, and songwriter, was born Benjamin Milam Barnes, Jr., in Beaumont, Texas, on January 1, 1936. Most famous for his 1956 national hit recording of “Poor Man’s Riches” (which he co-wrote with Dee Marais), Barnes also owned various Southeast Texas nightclubs in the 1960s and 1970s and continued recording and performing into the 1980s.
After starting out playing a toy ukulele around age ten, the young Barnes eventually switched to guitar and appeared on various Beaumont-area amateur programs through his middle teen years. Following his first marriage at the age of seventeen and a subsequent series of jobs in the oilfield or related industries, Barnes was befriended and mentored by the budding country star George Jones, a hometown hero whose 1955 recording of “Why Baby Why” was a major hit for the Starday label. The two musicians began to perform together on Beaumont stages, with Barnes also playing rhythm guitar in Jones’s backing band.
In late 1955 Barnes first came to Houston’s Gold Star Studios as an instrumentalist accompanying Jones on new recordings, at which time Jones introduced him to Starday co-owner and session producer H. W. “Pappy” Daily and suggested that Barnes audition as a prospective featured singer for the label. In March 1956 Barnes returned to Gold Star to make his debut recordings for Starday, resulting in the release of “Once Again” backed with “No Fault of Mine” on 45 rpm disc. The limited but encouraging commercial success of that record led to other sessions that spawned three minor releases on the Dixie label, also owned by Daily. Barnes’s big break came in August 1956 when he recorded “Poor Man’s Riches.” First issued on Starday, the song promptly became a regional bestseller and was then leased to and reissued nationally by the Nashville-based Mercury label, whereby it later peaked at Number 2 on the Billboard country charts. By 1957 Barnes was appearing onstage at the famous Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport (and thus also on its widely broadcast radio programs) as well as at other major venues across the continent.
Barnes continued to make records with Daily at Gold Star Studios through 1959, which the producer issued on various labels, including Mercury, Starday, Dixie, and D. However, despite some modest sales and radio airplay, Barnes could never replicate the phenomenal commercial success of “Poor Man’s Riches.” That trend continued through the rest of Barnes’s career as he issued additional tracks on Mercury, the most noteworthy of which, “Yearning,” crested at Number 22 in the Billboard country rankings in 1961. Barnes subsequently recorded for a succession of other companies, including Hall-Way, Musicor, Kapp, RCA, Mega, Guyden, Playboy, Crazy Cajun, and Kik. His final recording session took place in 1986 at SugarHill Recording Studios in Houston, the renamed (formerly Gold Star) facility at which he had recorded his most famous song back in 1956.
Barnes was married three times—first to Barbara Joan Lacaze in 1953, then by 1960 to Jeannette Barron, and finally in 1985 to Debbie Trahan. He had five children. He died on August 15, 1987, in Beaumont. His compilation, Benny Barnes: Poor Man’s Riches—The Complete 1950s Recordings, was released on Bear Family Records in 2007. Barnes is honored as a music legend in the Gulf Coast Music Hall of Fame in the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.