Scott Homewood Connects with the Soul of Betty Harris

betty-harris.jpgBetty Harris – Intuition

Great soul music is like tonic for what ails you, I find. Whenever I am in a depression about something in my life that’s been dragging me down I like to put on same great soul music and just about instantly I am joyful once again. I am not completely sure why my mood changes so suddenly but there has always been a great statement about blues music that may relate: that it’s great to listen to when your mood is sour because you listen to all of the bad things the singer is singing about and you feel a little better about yourself and your own life. Blues is not feel bad music, it’s feel better about your own situation music and since soul is just a generation removed from blues, it seems to have the same affect, at least on me.

The effect is a great juxtaposition about the lives of the very musicians and singers who create soul music. While many, if not most, of them have come from deep poverty and end up returning to it due to musical tastes changing, bad business deals, drug problems, what have you – the music which they’ve created makes me feel great though it may not always have served their lives well. Not that they may be sad, but there are so many sad soul stories it would make Badfinger’s story seem like a fairy tale.

Born in Orlando, Florida in 1941, Harris was raised in Alabama. A child of two preachers, Harris her desire to sing secular music didn’t mesh with her religious upbringing and gospel roots and at 17 she left home to pursue a career in music. She briefly apprenticed under R&B singer Big Maybelle and then moved to California, cutting a single in 1960 called “Taking Care of Business” for a small label. A record promoter recognized Harris’ talent and recommended Harris move to New York City and offered to set Harris up with an interview with Brill Building songwriter Bert Berns is she would move. Once in front of Berns, Harris performed a slow rendition of Bern’s song “Cry To Me” which had previously been a big hit for soul singer Solomon Burke. Once hearing this re-interpretation of his song, Berns rushed Harris into the studio to cut it as a single. The single ended up becoming a classic and did better on the charts than Burke’s. As fast as her fortunes rose, they fell, as Harris’ next two singles stiffed and Berns decided to cut his losses and cast Harris aside. It wasn’t until 1965 that Harris found her fortunes rising once again. During a tour Harris met producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint and formed a friendship that led to Harris being the first recording artist on Toussaint’s Sansu label. It took two years but in 1967 with the Toussaint-written song “Nearer To You” Harris was once again in the top 20 soul charts. Though there were no more hits, Harris continued to record singles with Toussaint for the next two years, cutting some supremely soulful, funky sides that rare groove collectors drool over. Parting with Toussaint in 1969, Harris abruptly quit the business and watched from the sidelines as her legend grew. Conflicting stories emerged as to what she was doing wafter she quit the business but the reality was she had settled down to raise her family and sing in her church choir, even offering singing lessons at one point. In 2001 Harris daughter was surfing on the Internet and discovered several Betty Harris fan sites and the singer joined a soul mailing list to announce her whereabouts and to see what the fuss was all about. Her re-emergence from the shadows sent waves through the deep soul circles and offers started pouring in from producers and labels while Harris started performing live again. Eventually she settled on a deal with Evidence Records and producer Jon Tiven and you are now reading about the results.

Amazingly, this release marks her first album. Ever.

Producer Jon Tiven (an artist in his own right and a songwriter/producer who has penned songs for and worked with artists from Alex Chilton to Don Covay) has duly recognized the massive talent he has on his hands for this CD and has After all, Harris’ brief flirtations with success mark her as possibly the greatest lost soul queen. Thankfully, her crown jewel of a voice is intact, if a little more hoarse and lived-in sounding than her vocals sounded on her great ’60’s singles it retains the power and flexibility it had, while life has awarded her instrument new shadings and levels of poignancy. Most important of all, however, is how excited and engaging Harris is on her new album. Let it be known this isn’t some lame laid-back ballad set. This is Harris, full of life and vitality, singing the hell out of a bunch of new soul classics written mostly by Tiven. In fact, this set epitomizes what classic soul used to sound like and provides a great roadmap for how it should sound today. Amazing, given the fact Harris has been out of the “game” for so long, not that she’s let it hamper her. She takes every single song on this disc and manages to inject them with more energy and life than anyone could have thought possible – hopefully the current crop of so-called neo-soul singers will learn a thing or two about real soul from what Harris does here. She may be a lost soul queen, but she doesn’t sound lost. She sounds fully confident and totally amazing.

Music fans who love female jazz and soul vocalists will love what Harris does on this CD. It’s a brilliant performance from an artist who should’ve gotten their due years ago. While it’s a crime that it has taken so long, Harris has come back on a very high note and I hope she gets the attention she so richly deserves. If nothing else, this album is the greatest release she has ever made so anyone who loves this type of music needs to pick it up pronto.

Scott Homewood

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the beautiful review, much appreciated.

    Wait till you hear my Howard Tate, Garnet Mimms, and
    Cropper/Cavaliere albums, all out this summer!


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