Sat., Jan. 7, Trinity-on-Main, 69 Main St., New Britain, trinityonmain.org
She's often called the Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul, and she's living in Middletown. It turns out she never actually lived in New Orleans for more than a month, but that's a separate story. Betty Harris vanished from the music scene for about 35 years. Then producers and hip-hop artists began sampling her classic soul tracks, funk aficionados coveted her cuts, and other record labels started reissuing her records. But Harris wasn't getting properly paid. So she figured she'd remind the world she existed. And now, at 72, with her own backing band — a first in her career — she's ready to give everyone a refresher course. Harris and her Breaking News band perform on Jan. 7 at Trinity-on-Main in New Britain.
In those intervening years, Harris, who got her start singing in church — both of her parents were Pentecostal preachers in Florida and Alabama — hadn't let her pipes go idle. "I always kept my voice, singing in the choir," she told me recently when we met to talk at a Middletown cafe. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, people took a renewed interest in the music of New Orleans. In the late 1960s Harris had recorded 11 singles with the producer and songwriter Allen Toussaint, backed by sidemen who went on to form the mighty Crescent City funk band the Meters. By the early '70s she had a young son to raise and she was disillusioned with the music industry. So she disappeared for a while.
"I love singing, and I do today, but I've found out one thing: if something doesn't make money for you, you need to make some changes," says Harris now about her initial decision to stop performing.
While a student in college, Harris's daughter Christina, from a later marriage, started finding fan sites and message boards devoted to her mother's music. (Christina now sings back-up in Harris's new band.) And with the help of fans, musicians, lawyers and others, Harris has been able to regain control over her original master recordings (a rarity). ("I have five boxes of tapes," she says with evident pride. And she recently had the old analog material re-transferred to digital, so she can help oversee any re-issues, samples or licensing of her original recordings.)
Harris's legacy is more than those funk cuts she did with Allen Toussaint. She toured with Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and others. In the early '60s, Harris had her initial success working with the legendary songwriter and producer Bert Berns in New York. (Her first big hit was "Cry to Me.") Berns is often compared to such giants of '60s pop and rock as Phil Spector and the Lieber and Stoller songwriting team. Her recordings have spanned a kind of girl-group grit, a Brill Building polish, and a deep-cut funk rawness that's astonishing in its variety.
Of all the giants that Betty Harris knew and worked with — as a kid her father booked gospel acts, introducing her to people like Sam Cooke and the Blind Boys of Alabama — she credits Berns with a profound musical and professional influence on her. "He gave me my start," says Harris. He also encouraged her talent for song readings. (Berns wrote "Twist and Shout" and produced such landmark recordings as the Drifters' "Under the Boardwalk.")
Though Harris's voice glows with a husky warmth, and she's an assassin with her shiver-inducing shout, her focus is on interpretation and narrative, despite all of the soul pyrotechnics. "Most of my emphasis is on lyrics," she says. "Given the right lyrics and groove, I can tell any story." For listeners who prize lyrical clarity, Harris achieves a maximum expressiveness without ever obscuring a song's words.
Harris's first hit, "Cry to Me," involved an act of interpretation, slowing the tempo considerably. She took the song, which had already been recorded by Solomon Burke, and changed it up. "I took 'Cry to Me,' which was sung fast, and I said, I like the song, but I'm not gonna sing it like that."
Harris's style draws on the idea of the voice being infused with spirit. It's central to gospel, and it's central to the secular music that derives much of its punch from gospel's fervor. "To me Soul is defined in the expression of word," she wrote to me in an e-mail after our conversation.
As a kid, hanging out with all of those gospel and soul legends her father booked, Harris heard the giants sing and decided she wanted to do it too. "I knew all those people," she says. "Rosetta Tharpe was the first person that asked me what I wanted to do in life. I said 'I wanna sing like you,' and I couldn't have been no more than 12 or 13."
She left her parents' home in Alabama at the age of 17 and headed for New York. Her first single was a hit. Success didn't necessarily lessen the concerns of her religious parents. "I really don't think my parents had a clue of what was in my head," Harris says. "The first time I left, it was like 'She's gone crazy.'"
Harris soon had a career singing songs from the perspective of a woman who's learned to deal with life's hardships, particularly with unfaithful and mean men. Over the years Harris lived in Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago and California, following work. Though much of her music is closely associated with New Orleans, she says she never lived there for more than a few weeks at a time. When she teamed up with Toussaint, Harris put her stamp on songs sung from the perspective of a woman who's "not gonna take any mess." Many have compared Toussaint's songwriting relationship with Betty Harris to that of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick. She was his muse.
Songwriters sometimes create "a kind of brand" for a singer, writing songs that depict an imagined version of the performer. "In this particular case, most of [Toussaint's] songs for me were man-bashing," she says. Harris says she imagines that Toussaint saw a certain fierce independence in her.
Toussaint's sense of her as a take-no-mess kind of lady was probably right, if Harris's return to performing is any indication. Since re-emerging, she's performed in Australia, France, Italy, New Orleans, New York City, Atlanta and elsewhere. "The past four years have been absolutely astounding, believe me," she says.
Harris has only recently returned to Connecticut after several years tending to her sick mother in Atlanta. Now with her own backing band, led by musical director Tony Cafiero, she says she thinks she's got another good record in her.
"I worked with every band you can name — good and bad — and I've found out there is nothing like working with your own group," she says. "This is the first time I've had my own group. We're at the point now where there is a gel."
With the exception of a few trial gigs, this will be the inaugural show with her new band. And despite her struggles with getting her due from music business insiders, Harris is writing some of her own material, helping to shape the band's sound and eager to take another stab at the business she abandoned for 35 years. Any young producer looking to make a name for themselves by reviving the career of a glorious but under-appreciated soul legend should give Harris a call.
"I need to record again," she says. "At this point I think I have another session in me."
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