Saturday 9 January 2010

Betty Harris - Soul Perfection (1969) Action ACLP 6007

"Did you dig deep into your feminine side to write all those great songs for Betty Harris, like Mean Man and Trouble With My Lover?" 

"She had enough feminine side. I didn't have to look for any other one" - Allen Toussaint, in an interview with Mike Butler, May 2007. 

Every generation must have a Betty Harris collection. In 1980, Charly issued In The Saddle, and made rather a poor fist of it: the LP contains All I Want Is You by Zilla Mayes, rather than All I Want Is You by Betty Harris! Soul Perfection Plus, a CD issued on Westside in 1998 - with all the Jubilee and Sansu 45s, plus outtakes and studio chat - offers the most complete overview yet of the great soul singer. However, vinyl addicts (like me), will be sentimentally attached to the original Soul Perfection, a 1969 LP on Action, which gathers all the Sansu 45s bar two duets with Lee Dorsey. Here, the clicks and scratches (because every copy, especially mine, is much-loved and well-hammered) serve only to enhance the New Orleans grooves cooked up by the Meters. 

I would guess that the model is Tamla Motown. When producer/composer Allen Toussaint and his business partner Marshall Seahorn started their own label, Sansu, and signed Harris as their first artiste, they were clearly aspiring to emulate the success of Hitsville USA. So tambourine appears prominently in the foreground of 12 Red Roses, and I'm Evil Tonight has a clipped offbeat and sweetener strings (™ Tamla Motown). But Toussaint, a true citizen of the Crescent City, was steeped in New Orleans' musical heritage. 

The most arresting part of Toussaint's work as a musician is his melding of New Orleans jazz and New Orleans R'n'B, as embodied in the horn arrangements. Lonely Hearts and I'm Gonna Git Ya transpose the rhythm of New Orleans funeral parades to deep soul ballads, and, like New Orleans funeral parades, treat pain and jubilation as the same damned thing. There's clarity and buoyancy about the horns, which knit together with Toussaint's Professor Longhair piano. The great Ziggy Modeliste has a way of swinging that sounds like a development of the marching bands and funeral parades. Hear how he underscores Betty on the climactic passages of Nearer To You. At such moments - the monumental There's A Break In The Road from Plus is another example - all the other instruments fade away, leaving only Betty and Ziggy to rage together.  

And Betty is remarkable! So appealingly multi-faced: simmering with restrained passion on Nearer To You or emoting ferociously on I Don't Wanna Hear It. All woman on Trouble With My Lover; deploying womanly powers of clairvoyance on Bad Luck and 12 Red Roses; much tougher than the song Mean Man allows (a stomping little number with Betty stomping all over her faithless man); suddenly vulnerable and heartbreaking on Nearer To You, as flirtatious as only free spirits can be on I'm Evil Tonight. 

Every soul singer must have a touch of Betty about her. If Beverley Knight has a problem, it's because she's more of a Beverley than a Betty. 

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