Betty Harris

TrackSingle
Cry To MeJubilee 5456
It’'s Dark OutsideJubilee 5465
Now Is The HourJubilee 5480
What A Sad FeelingSansu 450
12 Red RosesSansu 455
What’'d I Do WrongSansu 455 and 478
Nearer To YouSansu 466
I’'m Gonna Git YaSansu 471
Can’'t Last Much LongerSansu 471
Trouble With My LoverSansu 480

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Contributor: Cal Taylor

The above listing is in chronological order of release. All the above can be found on the 28-track Betty Harris Soul Perfection Plus CD (Westside WESA 807 released 1998).

Previous compilations include: 16-track Soul Perfection vinyl LP (UK Action ACLP 6007 released 1969), 16-track In The Saddle vinyl LP (UK Charly 1002 released 1980 – one track not by Betty Harris at all, but Zilla Mayes!) and the 21-track Lost Soul Queen CD (Aim – Australian import released 2005).

I think Betty Harris is one of the most, if not the most, soulful female singers ever.

Prior to the issue of Betty’s 1969 album she had had twelve different solo tracks released in the UK; four singles (one on London, two on Stateside and one on Action) plus four other tracks on the wonderful three volume Bell’s Cellar Of Soul compilations. Of those twelve tracks, seven appear in my Top 10, so I think that most of her best stuff was issued over here while it was contemporaneous.

To me, What’d I Do Wrong (1966) would possibly make my all-time Top 10 of any artist, it is so good – it is so emotive and has got so much attitude together with having an absolutely top class musical arrangement produced by Allen Toussaint. What A Sad Feeling (1965), Nearer To You and Can’t Last Much Longer (both 1967) are my next favourite Toussaint productions which were all issued on Sansu. They are slower, smouldering, excruciatingly plaintive and the deepest of deep soul, which is Betty’s forte.

Cry To Me (1963) was her biggest hit, reaching the Top 10 in the US R&B charts and number 23 in the Billboard pop top 100. It is a fantastic record. Generally, cover versions ‘lose a few points’ as far as I am concerned, mainly because the song has been written for someone else and cannot be original, but Betty’s version of Solomon Burke’s song (a hit for him in 1962) has a lot going for it. The tremendous Bert Berns wrote the song and produced it for both Solomon and Betty – so it was no cheap copy. Betty’s version – her first record for Jubilee – is much slower than Solomon’s, the musical arrangements are not the same and both are very soulful in their different ways. The flip-side was I’ll Be A Liar and the follow-up, His Kiss (1963), which charted – both just missed my 10 although the other side of her second Jubilee single, It’s Dark Outside is an excellent slow number and deservedly makes the ten. Not counting the reissue of Cry To Me six years later, her third and final Jubilee single included another slow, underrated masterpiece, Now Is The Hour (recorded 1963/released 1964) which I think is one of her best.

Betty joined Sansu in 1965 under Allen Toussaint’s guidance. Her third record there in 1966 was What’d I Do Wrong coupled with a more upbeat, driving 12 Red Roses. Her fifth Sansu 45 in 1967 was the aforementioned Can’t Last Much Longer with the very good I’m Gonna Git Ya on the flip-side, being another top tenner for me. What great value those two double-siders were! One side of Betty’s ninth and last solo single on Sansu in 1968 was Trouble With My Lover. It has a bouncy beat but is still very soulful and of the more up-tempo tracks I think this is her best. Other Sansu recordings that just missed my top 10 were I’m Evil Tonight (1965) and Bad Luck (1967) plus Mean Man (1968) which had the benefit of musical accompaniment by the funky Meters.

Betty was born in 1939 in Orlando, Florida but moved to Alabama when she was about three years old and grew up there. She left home and moved up to New York in the late 1950s to progress her singing career. She was first heard on record as a member of a girl group, The Hearts. She had the lead vocal on only one track, Like Later Baby (J&S 1626) released 1958.

Around that time in New York, Betty saw the famous, established R&B star Big Maybelle who was fifteen years her senior and somehow met her and came under her wing. Betty gave her mentor much credit for the tutelage she received and they ended up touring together, with Betty, who was only about 20, learning all the time.

In the very early 1960s Betty cut a single record for an obscure Californian label. It was called Yesterday’s Kisses/Taking Care Of Business, issued on Douglas 104. But soon Betty’s life was going to change dramatically …

Solomon Burke’s manager was a dodgy individual called Marvin ‘Babe’ Chivian. There was some contact between Burke, Chivian and Harris and she was persuaded to return to New York where she was introduced to Bert Berns. It also resulted in Chivian becoming Betty’s manager; she also ended up in the Bell Sound Studios in New York in 1963 to record Cry To Me. It must have seemed a no expense spared operation to Betty and nothing like anything she had experienced before.

Berns had already made his name writing A Little Bit Of Soap for The Jarmels in 1961 and writing and producing the Isley Brothers’ Twist And Shout and Solomon Burke’s Cry To Me in 1962. He was later to be associated with The Drifters, Lulu, Them, Erma Franklin, Van Morrison and others. The female vocal backing group on Betty’s Cry To Me was the Sweet Inspirations, and what a line-up that was – Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mum), Dee Dee Warwick, Sylvia Shemwell (Judy Clay’s sister) and Estelle Brown. Wow!

From these, and a couple of other recording sessions, three 45s were released on the Jubilee label with some success but, for whatever reasons, within a year Betty did no more for this outfit and her manager was having problems with the law. In 1965, she joined up with Allen Toussaint at Sansu.

While with Toussaint in New Orleans for the four years 1965-1969, she recorded eighteen solo tracks all written and produced by him (to my knowledge, all originals for Betty except Ride Your Pony) plus two with Lee Dorsey. One of those, Take Care Of Our Love, was wonderfully soulful. All of them were released on Sansu apart from her final pairing, There’s A Break In The Road/All I Want Is You (1969) which was leased to the SSS International label. Why this was I do not know but there appears to have been some sort of problem at Sansu. Betty’s first single for them in 1965 was I’m Evil Tonight/What A Sad Feeling on Sansu 450 and it was the new label’s initial release. Her last release on that label in 1968 was Ride Your Pony/Trouble With My Lover on Sansu 480. Sansu 481 and 482 were both by Art Neville, also in 1968, and nothing more was released on that label for several years!

In the summer of 1967, during the time Betty was with Toussaint at Sansu, Nearer To You was in the R&B charts and the lower reaches of the pop Top 100. At the same time, she was also touring with soul legend, James Carr; a result of this liaison was that James Carr and Betty Harris recorded the duet, I’m A Fool For You (US Goldwax 328/UK Stateside 2052). Because Betty was contractually tied elsewhere she had no credit attributed to her and the 45 just credits Carr – but Betty was there in her magnificence and it’s a really excellent record.

Following the leasing out of Betty’s final two sides produced by Allen Toussaint in 1969 there were no more recordings and she dropped right out of the music industry. Many rumours abounded for over thirty years based on part-truths but there were no hard facts. She was a mystery woman in that period and no-one seemed to know for definite what had happened to her from 1969 onwards, when she was only 30 years old.

It appears that Betty, who already had a son, married (again?), studied at business school and helped run her husband’s trucking company. Around 1982 she gave birth to a daughter, Christina, who she devotedly brought up. It seems that it was her daughter, when she had grown up, who was the one to thank for Betty’s re-emergence. Christina apparently found her mother’s name on Betty Harris fan sites on the internet. They were inevitably speculating her whereabouts and daughter encouraged mother to make contact. It seems that the only singing she had done was in church and the local community. Since being ‘found’ she has done interviews, including one with David Cole in 2003 and one with Amy Gold in 2004, which have provided some of the facts for the missing years. Since then, Betty has become a grandmother. She has also done charity concerts including travelling to Australia, Italy, Spain and France. She recorded a new album Intuition on Evidence in 2007 and, now in her seventies, is gigging again locally.

Betty Harris was an unbelievably good singer in the 1960s and it is hard to fathom how such a talent never had the success she deserved. There is absolutely no doubt that others less deserving achieved bigger accolades and rewards. I am sure that there are many facts I do not know that might have contributed and I can only have my own slant on the ‘known’ facts. Perhaps it was a mixture of bad luck, bad timing, bad decisions, fate, not quite enough attention/promotion at the most critical times – who knows?

Both Bert Berns and Allen Toussaint did a great job for her – but did they carry it right through or did they have other priorities/concerns which meant Betty was not given the right support when it mattered? Being mixed up with a crooked manager, too, could not have helped. How could Chivian look after her best interests while trying to avoid the long arm of the law?

Other things happened in Betty’s career that, although they cannot be the cause of her relative lack of success, would not have helped the situation and would have stopped the momentum. After her success with Cry To Me her follow-up had just got into the pop Top 100 when Billboard suspended their R&B chart (for 14 months) and maybe the oxygen of that publicity was lost. When she got back in the charts again in 1967 with Nearer To You she was scheduled to go on a big tour with Otis Redding, which would have undoubtedly furthered her career, and we all know what happened to Otis on that fateful tenth day of December that year. Maybe, too, towards the end of the 1960s, she was disillusioned; Otis, who she had got to know when she toured previously with him and with whom she was about to tour again, died tragically at the tender age of 26. Bert Berns, who had produced her first hits, died prematurely at only 38 at the end of 1967, less than three weeks after Otis died. Sansu, her record label, stopped trading and she must have realised ‘Babe’ Chivian (who himself was to die aged 46 in 1972) was not the best person to have as her manager, the one supposed to be looking after her best interests.

You might have heard Betty Harris songs before and maybe not realised it. In 1965, The Rolling Stones did Cry To Me and chose to do a version much closer to Betty Harris’s than Solomon Burke’s, and in 2006 Christina Aguilera completely ripped off Betty’s Nearer To You masquerading as Understand.

If you are listening to Betty Harris for the first time, your life will be enriched from here on in!

Finally, for a very good, informative article on Betty Harris you could do no better than read the one compiled by Pete Nickols on an excellent site called Sir Shambling’s Deep Soul Heaven.

Betty Harris biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #99

6 Comments

  1. Mat Baker
    Oct 18, 2013

    I have to confess I had never heard of Betty Harris, but having listened to the above track, I am going to do something about that.

    Thanks Cal for bringing her to my attention!

  2. Peter Viney
    Oct 19, 2013

    Betty Harris is a great article, and I knew so little about her. She’s one of those artists who really has “fallen between the cracks” in reissues. It set me rummaging through the soul compilations, of which I have too many.

    I’ll Be A Liar (b-side of Cry To Me) was one I could put my hand straight on … Ace’s Songwriter series, “The Bert Berns Story Vol. 1”. The Solomon Burke version of Cry To Me is on there, but they chose Betty Harris’s B-side and note that the matrix numbers suggest it was a “flipped” single, i.e. I’ll Be A Liar was the originally intended A side. It’s extremely good, so it figures. They quote Betty Harris on the string section who wore bow ties and black jackets for the session.

    Then 12 Red Roses and Show It are on the Soul Jazz compilation “New Orleans Funk Vol. 2” … both those Soul Jazz compilations were surprise hits around 2007, propelling Ernie K Doe’s Here Come The Girls back to attention. I know 12 Red Roses as flat-out classic Allen Toussaint, though Show It doesn’t stand out melodically.

    Allen Toussaint has her Nearer To You and I’m Evil Tonight on his Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky retrospective of his work. When that came out a couple of years ago, I’m Evil Tonight leapt out immediately as (a) I don’t think I’d heard it before and (b) it’s a gem.

    This is the kind of stuff that often sounds better on 45, and chatting over Betty Harris in my local secondhand store, we agreed that the only 45 you’re going to find easily is Ride Your Pony / Trouble With My Lover / Nearer To You, reissued in the Charly R&B series in 1980 as a 3 tracker. It’s the only 45 I’ve got by her, and it’s quite common … Charly must have moved a lot of the series to Northern Soul fans … hence the Ride Your Pony which is more frantic than the original. I wonder who the male voice is on the record. It was around the time she was working with Lee Dorsey, which makes me wonder if he sang backing on the cover of his own hit. It doesn’t sound like Art Neville who would be the most likely.

    I know only a fraction, and will order a compilation, but of the few I’ve got I’m Evil Tonight and Ride Your Pony are my favourites.

    • John Chamberlain
      Oct 20, 2013

      Another fine artiste that I have now discovered. What was the Billboard suspension of charts? Was that around the payola scandal time?

  3. Cal Taylor
    Oct 22, 2013

    Mat, I’m pleased that you liked Betty – glad to have been of service.

    Peter, thank you for your kind comment and I hope that you found the article informative. Regarding Lee Dorsey – I am as close to 100% sure as possible that it is not Lee Dorsey on Betty Harris’s Ride Your Pony. Not only does it not sound like Lee Dorsey to me but their duets together, Love Lots Of Lovin’/Take Care Of Our Love (recorded in October 1967), were eight months before Betty’s recording of Ride Your Pony in June 1968. I understand that the October 1967 recordings were the only things they did together. Separately, too, it would not have made commercial sense to get star name Lee Dorsey to help out as a backing singer and not credit him. The session details for Ride Your Pony only mention “mixed chorus”. To my mind the prominent male voice was almost certainly a session singer from that mixed chorus. And finally … I would make a little wager that I’m Evil Tonight and Ride Your Pony, which are both very good, will not be your favourite two once you’ve heard a little bit more of Betty!

    John, glad you’ve now discovered Betty. Regarding the Billboard suspension of their R&B charts between 30 November 1963 and 23 January 1965, I’ll quote from Joel Whitburn’s Top R&B singles 1942-1995: “It is our understanding that there was so much crossover of titles between the R&B and pop singles charts that Billboard considered the charts to be too similar”. Whether that was the real reason or not or whether there was something a bit more to it I do not know.

    To my mind Billboard did not cover themselves in glory with some items they allowed to be classed as R&B; The Andrew Sisters, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra got in the R&B charts in the 1940s together with a chunk of white rock ‘n’ roll/pop in the late 1950s but largely most of the stuff in the R&B charts up to about 1960 was R&B. However, in the year or so before Billboard suspended their R&B chart, entries included The Beach Boys, Lesley Gore, Paul & Paula and Bobby Vinton (and even Rolf Harris) – hardly R&B! So, perhaps the suspension of the charts was justified, but, did they correct it post-1965 when artists such as Herb Alpert, Madonna, The Osmonds and Milli Vanilli appeared with R&B hits?

    Defining what is R&B can be subjective in some cases but, whatever the rights and wrongs, the R&B charts have been very useful and I, for one, would not have wished to be without them.

  4. Peter Viney
    Oct 22, 2013

    The American charts are (even) less reliable than the British ones. While British charts made some effort to record retail sales, the American ones combined retail sales, radio play and records shipped (rather than records sold). Companies found it better to promote with free records than discounts. Discounted records had to be accounted for royalties; free ones didn’t.

    For much of the period, American charts separated pop, R&B and country (with even more sub-divisions appearing later) and pop was not necessarily the best-selling, though big hits in other charts were funneled into it. Or rather records that reported big sales in the specialist R&B and country retailers, were also selling in general retailers, and vice-versa. If an R&B station was playing a song, it counted. If a store in an African-American neighbourhood was selling it, it counted.

    Larry Harris of Casablanca Records (which featured heavily in pop and R&B charts) said:

    “A record company would tell the Billboard chart department, headed by Bill Wardlow, how many copies of an album it had sold and what level of airplay the album was getting; it would also inform Billboard about any special initiatives such as tours or advertising blitzes. Bill would somehow rate this information – I still firmly believe he used a Ouija board – and decide where to place the album. The singles charts were based on a combination of Top 40 airplay and sales, weighted more heavily towards airplay.”

  5. Andrew Shields
    May 25, 2018

    Cal, thanks for the introduction to such a fabulous singer. Some stunning stuff in here. Thanks again…

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