Very little is known about Betty James. She was in her 40s, singing in Baltimore clubs with her husband as guitarist & musical director, when, in 1961, she was offered the chance to record by the New York based label Cee Jay.Her song was a hit in Pittsburgh & the track was picked up by Chess Records. 55 years later “I’m a Little Mixed Up” abides as a classic good enough to rank with all the other ones to emerge from 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
There’s both kinds of music here, the Rhythm & the Blues with little embellishment to a straight ahead 12 bar structure. Ms James’ vocal is urban & urbane, neither Blues shouting nor Gospel pleading. The guitar part, whether played by Mr James or by studio guy Tarheel Slim, is a loose, insistent, infectious delight. The record gained some attention in Modernist dance clubs with an ear for good American music. My knees & hips are no longer what they were but I’m still a cool jerk attempting an approximation of the Twist whenever I hear this tune. The following year Betty sang “I’m Not Mixed Up Anymore”. There was one more single for Chess, another released as Nadine Renaye & those 8 tracks are all we have. Listening to “I’m a Little Mixed Up” is a fine way to spend 3 minutes.
Betty Harris started in New York too. She was just in from Florida when she auditioned for producer Bert Berns with a measured, impassioned version of Bert’s hit for Solomon Burke “Cry To Me”. The subsequent release was a Top 30 national hit in 1963 and the following year there were 2 more 45s on the Jubilee label. The record buying public & American radio stations were pre-occupied with the British Invasion in 1964 & Betty was unable to catch that wave. She signed a new deal with Sansu Records in New Orleans.
Sansu was a new label started by partners Marshall Sehorn & Allen Toussaint. It was an opportunity for composer/arranger/producer Toussaint to run his own studio operation & Betty’s “What a Sad Feeling” was the first track to be released. It’s a perfect sweeping Pop-Soul ballad, an update of Toussaint’s earlier work with Irma Thomas. There were to be 10 singles by Betty Harris for Sansu, “Nearer to You” was an almost-hit. She came down to New Orleans to add her vocal to tracks created by the master & his house band who were to become the Meters. There’s a private number on a duet with the great James Carr & a shared credit with Lee Dorsey for the infectious floor-filler “Love Lots of Lovin'”. Toussaint produced over 30 singles for the label, taking the rhythms & melodies of the New Orleans tradition & moving them forward.
For Betty’s last single in 1969 everything the Sansu crew did was gonna be Funky. “There’s a Break in the Road” is a fantastic one-off. On his “Yes We Can” LP Lee Dorsey was given great songs with similar New Orleans funk pyrotechnics. It’s a pity that there was no LP made with Allen Toussaint but their collaboration makes Ms Harris a contender for the Soul Queen of New Orleans belt. I have it on good authority (the Internet, so it must be true) that the featured funky drummer here is James Black from Eddie Bo’s group. As James showed on “Hook & Sling (Part 2)” his groove was quite a show-stealer in 1969. Betty made little money from her records & in 1970 she retired from music for 25 years to be with her family. Her 28 track legacy is impressive.
With 3 being, as you know, the magic number there is room for only one more Betty today.In contention is Betty Everett who shoop-shooped to an international hit with “It’s in His Kiss”, recorded a sweet LP of duets with Jerry “the Iceman” Butler & hit the heights with the atmospheric “Getting Mighty Crowded”. If Betty Wright had only recorded “Clean Up Woman” & “Shoorah, Shoorah” (Toussaint again) her reputation would be high.It’s Bettye with an “e” who makes the cut. A recording artist for over 50 years, who only last year received a Grammy nomination for her latest LP.
In 1962, just 16 years old, Bettye Lavette’s first record, “My Man is a Loving Man” was a hit. She toured with the stars of the day, had a spell with the James Brown Revue & recorded for a couple of local Detroit labels. “Do Your Duty” a direct tasty plateful of Memphis Soul Stew was recorded with the Dixie Flyers & when she signed with Atlantic they sent her to make an LP in Alabama with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. Things must have been looking & sounding good for Ms Lavette when “Child of the Seventies” was completed but the major label disagreed & the LP was shelved. 2 singles from the sessions, a Soul take on Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” & an emotional version of Joe Simon’s “Your Turn to Cry” only added to the legend. It would be almost 30 years before we got to hear the whole shebang. Just one click will get you her cover of Free’s “The Stealer”, confirming that a cloth-eared someone at Atlantic made a big mistake.
While Bettye’s recording career became more sporadic her range & versatility led her to the touring company of the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar”. European interest in that lost album instigated a revival & she was ready for the 21st century. “A Woman Like Me” (2003), made with producer Dennis Walker (Ted Hawkins, Robert Cray, B.B. King), is a modern, mature Soul-Blues collection. As well as her fine voice, one of the keys to her new success was a shrewd choice of material. 2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” used songs written by female composers while “Interpretations” (2010) found nuance & depth in British Rock classics. The misty eyes of Roger Daltrey & Pete Townshend as Bettye performs a stunning “Love Reign O’er Me” in tribute to the Who is a lovely sight. Ms Lavette returned to Muscle Shoals for “The Scene of the Crime” (2007), more cool covers backed by the Drive-By Truckers. The original, autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette)” is co-written with Patterson Hood. She has quite a story to tell & it’s great that she has the opportunity to tell it while making new music & memories.