He first recorded in 1960. His early releases including "Just One More Time" and "Please Let Me In", on the record labels Mickay and Ric-Tic, had relatively little success, but were subsequently picked up as Northern soul favorites. He also covered The Beatles' "Day Tripper"”, before moving for a short period to Motown.
His biggest hit single came in 1967 with "Baby Please Come Back Home", which, like many of his records, he co-wrote. The song reached #9 on the US Billboard R&B chart. However, subsequent singles on a variety of labels, including covers of "Black Ivory" at Today/Perception Records, failed to repeat the success.
On the recommendation of his friend, Edwin Starr, Barnes moved to England in the 1970s becoming very popular. Starr had arranged for Barnes to appear on a series of shows which led to him signing a deal with Contempo. He became a favorite artist of the UK Northern soul scene, and performed frequently in the UK. Early recordings from Barnes, such as "Please Let Me In" and "Real Humdinger", were re-released in the UK on the Tamla Motown label to cater for the buyers of Northern soul records. In the 1970s Contempo records released seven singles and an album, Sara Smile, from Barnes, all without chart success. In the 1980s he released five more records including a version of the Northern soul favorite by Frank Wilson, "Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)".