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Betty Harris: The Lost Soul Queen -Stomp #4 Artist FeatureThe Lost Soul Queen
After 35 years of silence, Hartford's Betty Harris returns to the stage.
by Noah Schaffer - April 7, 2005
When Betty Harris recorded the song that guaranteed her spot in soul music history, she was just a teenager. The tune was a slow tear-jerking ballad called "Cry to Me." Looking back, she laughs. "I didn't know what crying was ," she says.
By the end of the 1960s, she knew a lot more about it. Even though she had released dozens of first-rate R&B records, she had little to show for the effort both financially and emotionally, and decided to take a different direction in life. "I put Betty Harris in a book, closed it, and put it away," she says.
When Harris quit making R&B, she stopped listening to the radio. Busy raising a family, she was totally unaware of the following that had accumulated over the years, online and in books like Clive Anderson's 1975 overview Soul Music . Harris "has a good claim to soul supremacy ...," Anderson writes. "She is quite simply the best soul singer caught on wax today."
Now, 35 years after she quit the music business, Harris is singing soul music again -- on her own terms. With a new album in the can, she'll perform her first concert April 17 at Hartford's Weaver High School, where her daughter graduated. The proceeds will create a scholarship fund for local students.
Although the last time Harris gave an R & B concert was in 1969, she corrects a reporter who says she hasn't sung since then. "I've been singing in church all my life," she says, sitting at the dining table in her Hartford home with her son Selwyn and a family friend who are helping to plan the show.
The daughter of two preachers, Harris describes her Alabama childhood as "church, church, church." In an era in which there was a strict divide between gospel and secular music, her interest in singing meant leaving home at 17. She found herself in California, where record promoter Babe Chivian said he'd make her a star if she moved back east. Chivian had a staple of acts that included the former boy-preacher Solomon Burke, who had an upbeat hit on Atlantic Records called "Cry to Me."
"To this day, I don't really know why I loved that song so much," says Harris in her slow, thoughtful drawl. "I mean, I had never been in love. It was just one of those songs you could lose yourself in. But Solomon did it so fast. So Babe brought me over to Bert Berns' office."
Berns was a New York record mogul, remembered today for writing and/or producing hits like the McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy," Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart," the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk" and Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl." Harris still can't believe she burst into his office and started singing her slowed-down version of the tune he had written. "That's how dumb I was! I was just a country girl, I had no idea how powerful this guy was," she says. But Berns liked what he heard. Like most Brill Building operators, he had in-house arrangers and engineers, and sent her upstairs to make a record. It only took three takes.
After a New York DJ broke Harris' cover of "Cry to Me," it hit Billboard's R&B Top 10 and Billboard's Top 40. But its impact was even wider, according to local soul music collector and radio host Dean Farrell.
"By the early '60s, R&B had lost a lot of its original gospel rawness," says Farrell, who hosts the Saturday night Soul Express program on WHUS (91.7 FM). "A lot of the hits were uptown tunes with string arrangements, produced for white teenager audiences," says Farrell. "But in 1963, there were three hit records that came out that were aching, deep ballads. One of those records was 'Cry to Me.' Betty took that song and went to church on it. And it was an even bigger hit than the original version, and it crossed over."
Farrell says that "Cry to Me" helped announce the birth of deep soul -- the Southern gospel-drenched music that would go on to become the trademark of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. "So while she might not be a household name, and she only had one national hit, it was quite an important one in the story of African-American pop," he says.
Harris reaches over to a photo album and pulls out a dog-eared snapshot of her with Sam Cooke and Motown star Tammi Terrell. The success of the her first hit meant that she got to sing at the Apollo and tour across the country. But nothing else with Berns clicked, and Harris ended up at the New Orleans studio of Allen Toussaint, with whom she'd be associated for the rest of the decade.
Although the Toussaint-produced records were mostly regional hits, they marked another turning point in the music's history. The thick arrangements and call-and-response vocals of her early songs were replaced by hard, funky beats played by the musicians who became the Meters, with Harris' strong voice easily soaring over the music. Take a listen to 1969's "Break in the Road" and there's no doubt that the rhythms of hip-hop draw straight from the sound of the Crescent City.
And a "Break in the Road" is exactly where Betty Harris found herself. Each Toussaint session involved weeks of waiting in a New Orleans hotel room until Toussaint decided he was ready to cut her vocals. None of her labels paid royalties. A plan to tour Europe with Otis Redding and come under his manager's umbrella was scrapped when Redding was killed in a plane crash in 1967.
"Otis had passed. Bert had passed. Babe had passed. I looked at this business and said maybe this isn't what God wanted me to do," Harris says. "I came out of high school with such high hopes, and as much as I loved singing, I just did not find things in the world the way I thought it was. I had to find me."
Harris concerned herself with raising her two children. She went by her married name and dropped completely out of music. Living in Florida, she kept her vocal chords in shape in church and at community functions. She moved to Hartford eight years ago, seeking better educational opportunities for her daughter Christina. She started giving vocal lessons at the Artists Collective.
Right around that time, Nashville entertainment attorney Fred Wilhelms negotiated a settlement with one of Harris' old labels. The artists would finally see some of the royalties they were owed. But when he tried to find Harris, he came up empty.
Four years ago, Christina moved away to college, and Harris got her a computer. One day, Christina called: "Mom, you're famous."
Her daughter had found several of the Betty Harris tribute websites created by soul fans. Then Harris looked at eBay, and found her old 45s going for up to $50 a pop. She shelled out $20 for a CD compilation of her own music, the UK-released Soul Perfection Plus . ("One dealer in Georgia, after I sent him my picture with my order, never cashed the check," she laughs.)
Realizing she still had a fan base, Harris went on a Southern soul e-mail list and announced her whereabouts. She also cleared up some false Internet rumors. Some sites said she had started as a maid for Big Maybelle, roadied for James Carr, and was now a truck driver. In reality, Harris had gotten some early vocal tips from Maybelle, recorded a duet with Carr, and had been married to a trucker.
After she found his soulexpressradio.com site, WHUS host Farrell was stunned to find one of his favorite singers had been living right in town. He invited her on his show -- and played her some cuts, including the Carr duet, that she hadn't heard since the day she recorded them. ("They never gave me a copy of the records I made, and since I already knew it, I didn't think I should buy it," she quips.)
Another e-mail came from a Boston guitarist and producer named Chris Stovall Brown. The two decided to do a quick recording session together. "When we did that, I got that same feeling I had when I did 'Cry to Me.' I never thought I'd get that feeling again," says Harris. They've since collaborated on writing original tunes and spent last fall in the studio, with a horn-driven band of A-list blues players, cutting a CD now being shopped to labels. Harris says for the first time she's been an active part of the creative process, not just a cog in a record factory. "This is the real Betty Harris," she says.
At the end of this month, Brown and Harris will perform in New Orleans at the Ponderosa Stomp, an annual event devoted to showcasing the surviving heroes of American roots music. They'll join key figures like Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore, and Robert Johnson running mate Robert "Junior" Lockwood. The organizer was surprised to learn that the lady billed as "The True Soul Queen of New Orleans" had never lived in the city.
The rediscovery of Betty Harris will be an unexpected thrill for many soul fans. Wilhelms works with Howard , a '60s soul great who has recently become an international blues-circuit star after an absence so lengthy he was presumed dead. He thinks Harris can be assured of a similar response. "Not only has her voice held up, but there's now a seasoning in it that comes from real life," Wilhelms says.
As pleased as she is to return to soul music, Harris doesn't regret the time she spent away from it. She's aware that many deep soul acts struggled in the wake of disco and hip-hop. "By the time I started listening to music again, it had changed so much," she says. "We are very inventive people. When one thing don't work, we are bound to find something else. And these kids found it! ... And if I had gotten all that fame and money, I wouldn't be thinking about how to help people and give back to the community."
Harris describes soul music as "being able to reach inside, inside yourself, and tell a story." As she starts a new chapter in her life at the age when most people retire, she has a whole life worth of stories to reach inside and sing about.