Thursday, October 25, 2007
THERE'S A BREAK IN THE ROAD
Outside of soul fans, or New Orleans aficionados, mentioning the name Betty Harris is likely only to draw blank stares. Yet in a seven year recording career that yielded 8 sides for Jubilee Records, 18 for Sansu and 2 for SSS, Betty Harris left a legacy of soul vocals that rival any of her contemporaries for complexity, imagination and pure soul.
She was born 1941 (or 1943 depending on the reference) in Florida to a Minister father and a missionary mother. As a teenager she went to work for R&B star Big Maybelle as a maid. Big Maybelle encouraged Harris’ talent, and in 1960 she recorded her first single, "Taking Care of Business" b/w "Yesterday's Kisses," for Douglas Records. Via her association with Big Maybelle, Harris met the mighty Solomon Burke, who recommended her to his producer Bert Berns. With Berns and Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller at the controls, she re-recorded Burke’s hit ‘Cry To Me’ for Jubilee Records in 1963. This went on to be her biggest hit, hitting #10 R&B and #29 pop. This was rereleased in 1970 and charted again.
Harris met up with the legendary Allen Toussaint while on tour in 1965. Their partnership began with the very first single on the legendary Sansu label. It would last four short years but resulted in some of the finest records to come out of New Orleans (or anywhere else for that matter) in the 60's. The Toussaint / Harris partnership mirrored that of Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick in many ways. Both Toussaint and Bacharach were prolific composers who specialized in following their songs from the first compositional idea all the way to the pressing plant. Unlike Bacharach, much of Toussaint's best work would elude the Top 40. Despite the fact that their five year association yielded only a single hit, the 20 sides they did between August of 1965 and March of 1969 were of a consistently high quality, acting as a showcase for Toussaint's prodigious compositional talents and Harris’s brilliant singing.
In a grand tradition, Harris and Toussaint saved the best for last. Betty Harris' last 45 (in March of 1969) was written and recorded by Toussaint, but leased to SSS International (home to another great New Orleans classic, Danny White's 'Natural Soul Brother'). 'There's A Break In The Road' is as powerful and imaginative funk record as you're ever likely to hear. Here the Meters' sound is clearly evident. The record opens with a throbbing George Porter bass line, followed by the howl of feedback (?!?!), the crack of Ziggy Modeliste's snare and a burst of horns, breaking down into a wild, off-kilter beat. Harris jumps into the mix at full-tilt and powers her way through the verses. Each chorus is marked by Modeliste's wild drumming, powerful and funky enough to rival even the mighty James Black. All throughout the song, Leo Nocentelli's guitar is feeding back. Everyone, especially Harris is operating at 150%, pulling out all the stops as if they realized that this was to be her last record and they needed to make it a landmark. The end result is a masterpiece, and a must have for any serious fan of funky New Orleans.