Original Pinettes Brass Band, Betty Harris

Even closing in on 80, Betty Harris retains a booming, emotive voice.

The Florida-born singer issued stellar soul sides throughout the Sixties, her molasses-slow cover of Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” cracking the Top 10 of the R&B charts in 1963. A prolific four-year run with producer Allen Toussaint and subsequent departure from music earned her the title “Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul” despite never living in the Big Easy. In fact, she didn’t like it there.

After a contentious 1965 session where she beefed with Irma Thomas (“I didn’t know who Irma was at that time, but she had a lot of mouth”), Harris worked one-on-one with Toussaint, flying in to lay vocals over tracks the late hitmaker pre-recorded with a rhythm section that became the Meters.

“Your first experience is going into Bell Sound Studios in New York and everything is tip-top, first class,” she recalled last Sunday from her home in Connecticut. “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. It was kind of dreary.”

The sound proved different as well, particularly the blistering funk of 1969’s “There’s a Break in the Road,” complete with screeching guitar feedback and fatback drums.

“I couldn’t figure out if Allen had lost his mind or what! I was totally shocked when I heard it the first time. I couldn’t figure the drums out. I thought, ‘What are they smoking?!’

“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.”

Thomas Fawcett
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