Saturday, September 03, 2011

Swann Song

Some days ago I posted the 1967 NATRA award winners list. One name on the list was that of Bettye Swann. Hers is not a household name today and, alas, not many remember her. In 1967, at any rate, she was judged »Most Promising Female Vocalist«. What really happened was that in 1967 her career had already peaked. We can see this easily when looking back; it was not obvious at the time. In Feb- ruary 1965, her first single (Money # 108) entered the charts when her self-penned »Don't Wait Too Long« made it into the r&b Top 30. Roughly two years later, she contributed one of the summer hits of '67 with the song »Make Me Yours«, recorded in February 1967 and released on Money in May. The single reached r&b # 1 (pop # 21) and was later listed as the 4th top r&b single of 1967, only topped by »Respect«, »Soul Man« and »I Never Loved A Man«. Calling »Make Me Yours« a »minor hit« is thus definitely a crude understate- ment. What is true, though, is that the tune has a Motowny sound, and indeed Motown wooed her in 1968 before she opted for Capitol.

The Louisiana-born singer (real name Betty Jean Champion) had recorded for Money Records since 1964 (see also here). Her Money sides are, to this day, the best-loved recordings of Bettye Swann (buy them here) and those most appreciated by later critics; in fact, it's only her Money recordings that receive substantial treatment in the AMG to Soul or in Pruter's Blackwell Guide to Soul Recordings. However, in 1968 she got a contract with Capitol, thus switching from a small label to one of the giants of the music industry. As for her career, it did her no good, and she never charted again in the top 10 of either r&b or pop charts. But Capitol did try to develop her career; Bettye had two albums and 11 singles out on Capitol. What is more, she was teamed up with experienced producer Wayne Shuler who was to be the true mastermind behind Bettye's first LP for Capitol, »The Soul View Now!« (LP # ST 190), recorded in October '68 and released in early '69.

The first song on this LP, »Don't Touch Me«, was Bettye's greatest success for Capitol; the song was also released on Capitol # 2382 (Jan. 1969) and reached r&b 14 in March. And this tune is not the only country song on the LP, albeit arranged, by Tank Jernigan, in a somewhat soulful mood. Wayne Shuler, likewise from Louisiana, »says he was the only one at Capitol who understood R&B. ... He longed to have Swann sing tunes like Stand By Your Man ... Shuler wanted to make Swann a crossover artist, bridging the gap between country and soul« (read more here). It is noteworthy that Bettye, as a black female singer, broke some ground here, though she is reported to have been reluctant at first to tackle material with country flavor (see here). But she did (after all, she had already recorded tunes such as »I Can't Stop Loving You« while at Moneys Records!), and others would follow her: Carla Thomas, in her later albums, would include many country songs, and so did Maxine Weldon, Denise LaSalle or Ann Peebles. (And not to mention Esther Phillips in this context who always had country tunes in her repertoire!) Thus this LP is an impor- tant step in the delevopment of Southern Soul inasmuch this style is, among other things, characterized by its great affinity to Country harmonies.

Apart from »Don't Touch Me«, the second song of this LP which is still cherished by many today is »I'm Lonely For You«, one of Bettye's original compositions. Both these tunes are familiar, I guess. So I thought you might like to hear two other songs from the album. The first of these, another of Betty's originals, is the self-penned »No Faith, No Love«, also released as B-side on Capitol # 2515 in May 1969. It's a mid-tempo ballad with a strong horn section and beautiful background vocals (don't know who the singers were, unfortunately). The second song, J. Loudermilk's »Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye«, is on the country-ish side. It is, to my mind, the highlight of the album, with Bettye giving a lushous performance of soft and tender, yet also furtively determined vocal longing. It's probably the tune where you can hear best what the beauty of Bettye Swann's art is all about. What a song, what a singer!

She didn't have the success she deserved. Her name loomed large in 1967, but it lost currency afterwards. Her 1969 LP reached # 48 on the r&b album charts, but in some sense it went nowhere. »Bettye Swann is one of the great underrated talents of our time. Her contribution to country-soul should be duly noted greatly and appreciated not only by underground soul fans only but by music fans in general.« (Mike Boone)

Bettye Swann: »No Faith, No Love« / »Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye« from the Capitol LP # ST 190 (1969):

In 2005, Bettye Swann (by then living in Las Vegas) granted an interview to Jarret Keene; you can read it here.
     Here are some passages from this remarkable interview:
Growing Up in Shreveport, La. »I remember being with my mother at times as a young person singing at church ... I remember the work that we did - the sharecropping, working for the landowners in the cotton field - I remember singing anything by Sam Cooke, Booker T. and the MG's. And I remember my sisters listening to Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I remember going to see my first movie in Arcadia. My brothers dropped me off at the movie theater so that I could watch Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender. I went up to the bal- cony; you couldn't go downstairs if you were black. It didn't bother me; I was just a little kid. I sat there all day long. I saw that movie over and over and over again.«
Her Stage Name. She chose the stage name Bettye Swann, because she always thought swans were »lovely.« Later on, it would cause tension among her family. »I had a fight with someone in the family over the name Swann. 'What are you trying to do, disown the family?' they said. 'Well,' I said, 'I never thought about it until you said something. Does it bother you?'«
Music Business. »So why did you quit the music industry anyway?« Swann sighs, then looks out the window. »I love music and I love people,« she says, finally. »But I hate show and I hate business. I couldn't feel it, the show or the business.«
Hmm ... what exactly of Booker T. & the MG's might she have been singing ... ?

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