Betty Harris Understands

Soul singer finally gets her due

Blessed with a voice that both booms and aches, Florida native Betty Harris cracked the R&B Top 10 in 1963 with a slowed-n-throwed take on Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me.” Two years later, the soul diva began a prolific run with producer Allen Toussaint. The singer, who plays Antone’s Friday and Saturday, left music in 1969 and only stepped back onstage in 2005.

Austin Chronicle: How much are you performing these days?

Betty Harris: I do seven to eight shows per year, mostly overseas. That’s good for me now.

AC: Your parents were both ministers. Can I assume you grew up singing gospel music?

BH: Oh yeah, that’s where it all comes from. I started out at maybe 8 or 9 years old. When I was around 12, I performed with Brother Joe May, who was a recording artist at that time, a gospel singer, at the National Convention [of Gospel Choirs and Choruses]. We had about 125 in the choir and I would lead that choir. I just loved singing in the choir.

My dad was also a promoter. He booked gospel artists – Sam Cooke & the Soul Stirrers, Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Caravans – who would come every year almost and do shows. I watched them as a kid and finally made up my mind that that’s what I wanted to do.

AC: One of your first records was a cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” in 1963. How did you end up recording that particular song?

BH: Solomon Burke and I had the same managers, so I listened to his version of Bert Berns’ “Cry to Me” quite a bit. I felt differently about it. Fast wasn’t the way it should sound. It should be slow and understood. I met Bert and Solomon through my manager and told them I wanted to sing “Cry to Me,” but I didn’t want to sing it like that.

Bert was like, “How do you want to sing it?” I started singing and he stopped me when I got through the first verse. He called Gary Sherman, a piano player, and Gary listened and played that song and I’ve never stopped listening to it. We played in the office that day and the next week I was in Bell Sound recording it.

AC: Many assume you’re either from New Orleans, or at least lived there, but that’s not the case.

BH: Oh no. No, no, no. I met Allen Toussaint in New York. Allen Toussaint was apparently in business with Marshall Sehorn. When we left New York, I was to come to New Orleans to record. We left it at that and sometime later Marshall got in touch and told me he had bought my contract from Jubilee Records, and that I was to come to New Orleans to record. I was in New Orleans about a month, but that’s the longest I’ve ever been in New Orleans.

AC: What was it like to work with Allen Toussaint?

BH: My first session, he had the full band and that didn’t turn out too well. After that, he would lay down the rhythm section and I would record four or five songs at a time. They didn’t have a studio. They were just beginning to set up a studio. The building was dreary.

You know, your first experience is going into Bell Sound in New York and everything is tip-top first class. Then you get to New Orleans and here’s a barn with nothing in it. I understand what they were doing now, but back then I didn’t. So, it was kind of dreary.

AC: Fair to say you didn’t really enjoy the experience?

BH: I can’t really say that. I enjoyed the fact that Allen was at a point in his life that I feel he was most creative in recording other people. Some of the songs he wrote for me it was like, oh my god, he knew me in another life, lyric-wise. Allen was a no-nonsense person. He was young, I was young. I had a hit when I went there.

Maybe I didn’t have such a nice attitude, I don’t know. We clashed some, but I had a definite respect for his work. Some of things he thought I should already know, I didn’t know, and when he would try to tell me it would piss me off! So there was some childish stuff, but along with the Meters, we came out with some gorgeous songs.

AC: Absolutely some of your best! Sounds like Toussaint had a lot of those tracks laid down when you got there, so did you spend much time in the studio with those guys?

BH: No. After the first recording, I told them I wouldn’t be back. I didn’t know who Irma Thomas was at that time, but she had a lot of mouth. I’ll take a lot, but I got to the point where I said, “I’ve had enough of you. I’m out of here.” So that’s what actually started Allen to laying down his tracks and not having anybody in the studio but me.

I had to set my own moods and concepts of what I felt the songs should be about, and what they should sound like coming from me. I couldn’t do that with people talking. I needed that one-on-one. If I do something wrong, I didn’t want anyone else to have anything to say about it. It was allowing me the space I needed to be creative with what I was working with.

AC: When you went into record vocals for “There’s a Break in the Road,” for example, that whole track was already complete and you just –

BH: I couldn’t figure out if Allen had lost his mind or what! I was getting disgusted by the time we got to “There’s a Break in the Road.” I was totally shocked when I heard it for the first time. I’m not sure that the psychedelic music thing was out at the time and, if it was, I wasn’t very familiar with it. I couldn’t figure the drums out.

AC: Yeah, they’re heavy! Was that was Zigaboo Modeliste?

BH: Most people think he did that. Most people. James Black did that. That’s who Allen called in. Zigaboo played on the rest of those recordings, but not on “Breakin the Road.” He’s dead now, but James Black is the guy that laid the drums for “Break in the Road.” That whole song is a drum solo!

AC: When you first heard the track, was that weird distortion and guitar feedback already on there?

BH: Yeah. I thought, “My God, what is that?!” It was really crazy. I thought, “What are they smoking?!” I didn’t like the screeching. But the song carries itself and still does today. If you slow it way down, that’s the most funkiest song you’d ever want to hear.

AC: So you started in New York on Bell Sound, which has a nice clean polished sound, and then your stuff in New Orleans had dirt rubbed all over it.

BH: There you go! That’s about how it was! That’s what Allen heard. The only thing I knew about from New Orleans was Lee Dorsey and Lee’s stuff was funky. I liked most of the stuff he did. Even the tune that we did together we weren’t in the studio at the same time. It was all separate. The music was funky and that’s a part of what New Orleans was all about. Back then, that’s what was going on.

AC: You also toured briefly with Otis Redding.

BH: That was my first tour out of New York, a three-month tour. I think we had three days off the whole time. That’s when I found out I didn’t like touring that much.

AC: Who else was on that bill?

BH: Everybody that had a hit record! Johnny Taylor, Percy Sledge, Bettye Swann, the Five Stairsteps, James Carr. I think there were like 20 acts, and we went from one end of this country to the other.

AC: Did you know Otis well?

BH: Yeah. At the end of the tour, Otis took the whole convention to his ranch outside of Atlanta. Otis was quiet. He was easy to get along with, easy to work for. We were scheduled to go overseas when the accident happened. That was a really weird time in my life.

AC: You stepped away from music in 1969 or 1970. Did what happened to Otis factor into your decision?

BH: To tell you the truth, it was when they told me that I had to make my money on the road. I didn’t have any money coming from “Cry to Me.” That made up my mind to go back to school, because I had a kid to take care of. That was my turning point. I didn’t know that you didn’t make any money. I didn’t know that everybody had three percent contracts that didn’t pay anything.

AC: Did you miss the music once you stepped away from it?

BH: I didn’t give myself a chance to miss it. The fact that you were known all over the world and sold records in every state, and you don’t make a dime off of that? That stuck in my brain and it’s one of those things that I didn’t get over. It took a toll, but I had something else that was even more important, and that was my child.

When Christina Aguilera did “Nearer to You,” I was shocked. [Aguilera samples the 1967 Betty Harris single on 2006’s “Understand.”] When I heard it, I’m saying, “My God, these records are old and people are still playing them, and artists are still using them.” That’s when I realized a lawyer was the best friend I could have. I’m grateful today that I own “Nearer” and all the stuff I did with Allen Toussaint.

They lied. They said they bought my contract from Jubilee Records, which they didn’t. That was just a lie that Marshall told. I had a lawyer call me and say, “I’ve got money that belongs to you. Do you want me to help you get it?” Well, yes! All those years I came out with nothing and I was able to get the rights to all of the stuff that I did in New Orleans.

AC: So you finally saw some dividends from that?

BH: Yeah. What’s-her-name sold over five million, Christina Aguilera. Beyoncé used it too. It took me years to fight for that and I’m still gonna fight. I’m still in court. But let’s just say I’m winning!

AC: You reemerged around 2005 and starting playing shows again.

BH: I came back in 2005 because of the Christina Aguilera thing. I met a lawyer who was trying to find all of these artists that SoundExchange [which collects digital royalties for artists] didn’t have addresses for. He was already working on figuring out how Marshall Sehorn had obtained the music and why he felt it was his, because they never paid me a dime. They paid for plane tickets to New Orleans, but that was it.

So 2005 is when Christina Aguilera did her tune that just had me singing in the background. It sounded like an old, scratched-up record and I was pissed! I was mad. My lawyer made a deal with them because we knew they were coming out with it before the song came out.

Then somebody that Marshall was doing business with put in a claim also. He never gave evidence for his claim, so the court awarded the money to me. I’m still in court with him because he still owes me something like $180,000.

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