BETTY HARRIS-NEW ORLEANS’ LOST SOUL QUEEN.
Betty Harris-New Orleans’ Lost Soul Queen.
Not every artist is fortunate enough to enjoy a long and illustrious career where they enjoyed commercial success and critical acclaim. For many artists, it’s quite the opposite and their career is cut short, and is over before it has even began. That was the case with Florida born singer Betty Harris, whose career lasted just eight years.
It began in 1962 with the release of Taking Care of Business, and was over by 1970. By then, Bettye Harris had three minor hit singles to her name, and hadn’t enjoyed the success that her talent warranted. Many music industry insiders were surprised that Betty Harris hadn’t enjoyed more success during the past eight years. However, commercial success continued to elude Betty Harris, who given her talent had underachieved. It was a case of what might have been? Especially when out of the blue, Betty Harris announced that she was calling time on her musical career. The thirty-one year old had decided to retire and raise a family in her native Florida.
That was where the future Betty Harris was born, and where she still called home when she retired from music in 1970. Betty Crews was born in Orlando, Florida, in 1939. Both of her parents, Rufus C. Crews and Winifred Crews, were ministers in the Pentecostal Church. As a result, religion played an important part in the Crews’ home. It was also a house where music played an important part in everyday life.
The Rev. Rufus C. Crews was a multi-instrumentalist and singer, who sported a powerful tenor voice. He was also a part-time booking agent for a variety of gospel groups and artists. This was a role Rev. Rufus C. Crews would continue, when the family moved to Alabama.
When the Crews moved Alabama, Betty was just four. It would be her home for the next thirteen years, and where her father introduced Betty to Rosetta Sharp, Sam Cooke, The Soul Stirrers, Johnny Taylor and The Blind Boys Of Alabama. Soon, young Betty Crews would be following in their footsteps.
By the age of twelve, Betty Crews had already singing lead vocal in a choir which had supported Brother Joe May. Already, people were taking notice of Betty Crews.
Over the next few years, Betty Crews continued to sing gospel, and during that period, she spoke to and learnt from, all the gospel singers who stayed over in the Crews’ household. Despite meeting and learning from some of the biggest names in gospel music, Betty Crews soon came to realise that she didn’t want to make a career out of gospel music.
Realising that there was little money to be made in gospel music, Betty Crews wanted to crossover and sing secular music. She was listening to the music coming out of Nashville, Tennessee. This was when Betty Crews realised there was more to music than gospel. Around her seventeenth birthday, Betty Crews began plotting how she could escape from Alabama.
It was around this time that Betty Crews saw an advert in the local paper, advertising jobs for maids in a New Jersey hotel. Betty Crews packed her bags and headed to New Jersey. Once there, Betty Crews and her future colleagues decided to head out to a local nightclub. That was when Betty Crews made her debut as a singer, and was spotted by producer Zell Sanders.
He recruited Betty Harris to become the lead singer of The Hearts, who released their debut single Like Later Baby later in 1958. It failed commercially, and The Hearts’ recording career came to nothing. Betty Harris’ nascent musical career had hit the buffers.
In 1960, Betty Harris decided to move to New York, and before long, was singing in some of the Big Apple’s smaller clubs. When she was finished her set, Betty Harris would head to venues like the Apollo, where she would study the technique of some of the top singers. One night, when Betty Harris arrived at the Apollo, Mabel Louise Smith. a.k.a. the R&B singer Big Maybelle was about to go on stage. Betty watched and was captivated as Big Maybelle unleashed a vocal powerhouse on Candy. Betty Harris was so impressed that later, she headed backstage to introduce herself to Big Maybelle.
Having introduced herself to Big Maybelle, Betty Harris asked if she could study her technique. Big Maybelle agreed, and took Betty Harris out on the road where she became the young singer’s mentor. It wasn’t just technique and stagecraft that Big Maybelle taught Betty Harris, it was how to conduct herself.
Over the next few weeks, Big Maybelle coached Betty Harris. She also had a powerful vocal, and Big Maybelle helped Betty Harris harness her powerful vocal, and improve her technique. This they continued to do on a two-week tour. It began in Chicago and headed to Tennessee, before ending in Chicago. That was where Betty Harris landed a job, and would record her debut single.
The time Betty Harris had spent with Big Maybelle had been time well spent. Big Maybelle made Betty promise that she would continue to sing each day. It was as if the older woman wanted her protegé to fulfil the potential she saw in her. Even in what was a relatively short space of time, Betty Harris had improved as a vocalist, and was ready to make the next step in her career
This included recording her debut single. Now living in Chicago, Betty Harris got her break when she recorded Taking Care Of Business for Douglas Records. Taking Care Of Business was released in 1962, and failed to make any impression commercially. Betty Harris’ time at Douglas Records was over after just one single.
Fortunately, Betty Harris met Solomon Burke’s manager, Marvin Leonard ‘Babe’ Chivian. He introduced Betty Harris to Bert Berns, who had produced Solomon Burke’s hit single Cry To Me.
Bert Berns was a songwriter and producer, who was housed within the famous Brill Building, and had already written a string of classic songs, including Under The Boardwalk and Piece Of My Heart. Among Bert Berns’ various songwriting partners, were none other than Leiber and Stoller. However, Bert Berns wasn’t just a songwriter; he was also a producer, who would transform Betty Harris’ fortunes.
For Betty Harris’ debut for Jubilee Records, Cry To Me was chosen. It gave Solomon Burke a hit single a year earlier. The man who had produced Solomon Burke hit single was none other than Bert Berns. He took a different approach to Cry To Me this time around. By dropping the tempo, Cry To Me became a heart wrenching ballad, which later, would become a deep soul classic. Before that, Cry To Me was released in 1963 on Jubilee Records.
Cry To Me reached twenty-three in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B charts. Considering this was merely Betty Harris’ sophomore single, this was a good start to her nascent recording career. For the followup, His Kiss was released on the 4th of January 1964. Although it was another deep soul ballad, His Kiss stalled at the lower reaches of the charts. This was a disappointment for Betty Harris.
Although His Kiss hadn’t come close to matching the success of Cry To Me, Betty Harris was a popular live draw, and even had topped the bill at Apollo Theatre, in New York. Betty who had shared the bill with Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin and James Brown seemed to be going up in the world.
For Betty Harris’ next single, the oft-covered Mojo Hannah was chosen and released later in 1964. It became Betty Harris’ third single for Jubilee Records and gave Betty Harris a minor hit single. Mojo Hannah proved to be Betty Harris’ swan-song for Jubilee Records. That was despite Betty Harris being still under contract to Jubilee Records.
After the release of Mojo Hannah, Betty Harris met New Orleans based singer, songwriter, arranger and producer Allen Toussaint. He was about to launch a new record label with his business partner Marshall Sehorn. This new label Sansu Records, was based in New Orleans, and Allen Toussaint wanted to Betty Harris to sign to the Sansu. So did Marshall Sehorn. There was only one problem, what was Betty Harris contractual status?
Later, allegations and counter allegations were made regarding Betty Harris’ contractual status. Jubilee Records believed that Betty Harris was still their artist. Betty Harris later alleged that Allen Toussaint told her that he had bought her out of her Jubilee Records’ contract. If that was the case, Betty Harris was free to sign to Jubilee Records, and record and release her debut single for Sansu Records. However, Betty Harris later stated that Allen Toussaint hadn’t bought her out of her Jubilee Records’ contract when he stated he had.This meant that she was still under contract to Jubilee Records when she recorded her Sansu Records’ debut.
To record her Sansu Records’ debut, Betty Harris flew from her home in Florida to New Orleans, where she spent a month living in the city’s Mason’s motel. Much of the time was spent recording with producer Allen Toussaint. He put together a band that featured some of the Big Easy’s top session musicians. The initial sessions didn’t go well. Betty Harris didn’t like recording the songs live, and preferred working with backing tapes. This was a lesson learnt for future sessions. Backing tracks would be recorded and then Betty Harris would add her vocals. However, during the first recording sessions the tracks were recorded live, including What A Sad Feeling which became Betty Harris’ debut single for Sansu Records.
What A Sad Feeling, a soul-baring ballad would be the first of just ten singles Betty Harris released on Sansu Records. On the B-Side I’m Evil Tonight, which features a vocal powerhouse from Betty Harris. Alas, when What A Sad Feeling was released in 1965, it failed commercially. While the single found an audience within New Orleans, elsewhere it was a different story. . Sansu Records was just a small independent label, with neither the financial muscle nor marketing expertise to give Betty Harris another hit single. This would be a familiar story.
It wasn’t until 1966, that I Don’t Wanna Hear It was released as Betty Harris’ second single for Sansu Records. Tucked away on the B-Side was the ballad Sometime, where Betty Harris’ vocal veers between tender to hurt filled and powerful. Just like What A Sad Feeling, I Don’t Wanna Hear It failed to find an audience outside of the Big Easy. Later, I Don’t Wanna Hear It became a favourite with the UK’s Northern Soul scene.
Later in 1966, Betty Harris returned with the Allen Toussaint penned 12 Red Roses. On the flip side was another Allen Toussaint composition, What’d I Do Wrong. This future deep soul classic, was, without doubt, a much stronger track. and maybe if Sansu Records had released it as a single, it would’ve given Betty Harris that elusive hit single? 12 Red Roses certainly didn’t, and it was now two years since a Betty Harris single had even troubled the lower reaches of the chart. Betty Harris’ career had stalled.
During 1967, Allen Toussaint saw Art Neville and The Neville Sounds playing on Basin Street. Straight away, he realised that here was the band he wanted to play on the Sansu Records’ releases. By then, Sansu Records were recording at Cosimo Matassa’s state of the art eight-track studio. This was where the Neville Sound was born, and soon, Betty Harris would be accompanied by Art Neville and The Neville Sounds.
It wasn’t until later in 1967 that Betty Harris released her fourth single for Sansu Records. The song chosen was the ballad Lonely Hearts, which could only have been recorded in New Orleans. Horns and harmonies accompany Betty, as she delivers an impassioned, heartfelt vocal. On the flip side was Bad Luck, a mid tempo slice of R&B. Just like her previous singles, Lonely Hearts made no impression on the charts. However, Betty Harris’ luck was about to change.
For her second single of 1967, the ballad Nearer To You was chosen. It features an atmospheric, Southern Soul arrangement. It’s one of Betty Harris’ finest moments, is helped no end by Allen Toussaint’s arrangement. On the flip side, I’m Evil Tonight made a reappearance. When Nearer To You was released, it entered the US Billboard 100 but stalled at a lowly eighty-five. Nearer To You deserved to fare better, and was a case of what might have been?
After Nearer To You had given Betty Harris a minor hit single, Sansu Records was keen to build on the relative success of the single. By then, Betty Harris had embarked upon a gruelling tour of America, which lasted much of 1967. The tour it was hoped, would raise Betty Harris’ profile and introduce her to a much wider audience. This Betty Harris and everyone at Sansu Records hoped would translate into an increase in record sales. Sansu Records tested the market by releasing Can’t Last Much Longer as a single, with I’m Gonna Git Ya on the B-Side. When the single was released later in 1967, it never even came close to troubling the US Billboard 100. This was another blow for Betty Harris.
During 1967, Betty Harris had toured with Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Bettye Swann. They played tour fifty-three dates, before Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash. For Betty Harris this was a tragedy for several reasons.
She had become friendly with many of the artists on the tour, including Otis Redding. He had recently cofounded a new management company with Phil Walden, Redwal Enterprises. The new company was going to manage some of the biggest names in soul, including Percy Sledge, Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett. Betty Harris who was about to embark upon a European tour with Otis Redding, had also signed a management contract with Redwal Enterprises. After the death of Otis Redding, this came to nothing.
Despite this, Betty Harris’ recording career continued, and she released Love Lots Of Lovin’, a duet with Lee Dorsey in 1968. Just like previous singles, it failed to make any impression on the charts.
Neither did the former B-Side What’d I Do Wrong, which was belatedly released as a single with later in 1968. This time around, the B-Side was Mean Man, another Allen Toussaint composition. Just like his other songs, Betty Harris brought the lyrics to life. The singer and songwriter had formed a formidable partnership. There was only one thing missing…commercial success which continued to elude Betty Harris.
Despite this, Betty Harris released the ballad Hook, Line ’N’ Sinker as a single later in 1969. On the B-Side was the uptempo dancer Show It, which later, found favour with DJs and dancers on the UK Northern Soul scene. However, when Line ’N’ Sinker was released it sunk without trace. This was another disappointment for Betty Harris, whose time at Sansu Records was almost at an end.
In 1969, Betty Harris released Ride Your Pony as a single. It sounded like novelty dance track and wasn’t Betty Harris’ finest hour. Ironically, the B-Side Trouble With My Lover was a slightly stronger track. When Betty Harris release Ride Your Pony it never came close to troubling the charts. Ride Your Pony was the tenth and final single Betty Harris released on Sansu Records.
Only one of the ten singles had charted, and even then, Nearer To You struggled into the lower reaches of the US Billboard 100. The Sansu Records’ years hadn’t been the most successful period of Betty Harris’ career. Maybe Sansu Records’ was the wrong label for Betty Harris, and she might have enjoyed more success if she had signed to a bigger label? Allen Toussaint belatedly came to the same conclusion, after he convinced Betty Harris to record one more single, There’s A Break in The Road.
It was their last roll of the dice for Betty Harris and Allen Toussaint. When it came time to record There’s A Break in The Road, Allen Toussaint brought onboard The Meters. They unleashed their trademark heavy-duty funk which was the perfect backdrop for Betty Harris as she delivered a vocal that was a mixture of power, frustration and sass. When Allen Toussaint listened to the song, he realised that it had the potential to transform Betty Harris’ ailing career.
Originally here’s A Break in The Road meant to be released on Sansu Records, but after some thought, Allen Toussaint decided to license the single to Shelby Singleton’s SSS International label. It was a larger label, and it might result in a change of fortune for Betty Harris.
There’s A Break in The Road was released in 1969. It was without doubt, one of the best singles of Betty Harris’ career. Despite the undoubted quality, and the decision to release There’s A Break in The Road on SSS International, the single failed to find an audience. It was all too familiar a story for Betty Harris, and marked the end of her recording career for thirty-six years.
In 1970, Betty Harris decided to retire from music, and concentrate on bringing up her family. By then, she was thirty-one, had been making music since the late-fifties. Apart from four minor hit singles, Betty Harris’ career had been a case of what might have been?
Through no fault of her own, Betty Harris had underachieved. Sansu Records was just a small independent label, with neither the financial muscle nor marketing expertise to promote Betty Harris singles. While each of the ten singles Betty Harris released for Sansu Records sold reasonably well within New Orleans, they never found an audience further afield. That was the case between 1965 and 1969, when Betty Harris released ten singles on Sansu Records. Only Nearer To You charted, but only reached a lowly eighty-five in the US Billboard 100. This must have been hugely frustrating for Betty Harris.Maybe it was no surprise when Betty Harris decided to turn her back on music in 1970?
That was the last that was heard of this Betty Harris until 2005, when she decided to hit the comeback trail. By then, several of Betty Harris’ singles had found a new audience. I Don’t Want to Hear It and I’m Evil Tonight were favourites within the UK Northern Soul circles, while ballads like What’d I Do Wrong and Can’t Last Much Longer were favourites within the Deep Soul community. Somewhat belatedly, Betty Harris whose a talented and versatile vocalist, and one of New Orleans’ soul music’s best kept secrets, was receiving the recognition her music deserved, and enjoying the success that had eluded her for so long.
Betty Harris-New Orleans’ Soul’s Best Kept Secrets.