Below is a partial transcript of a telephone interview from July 19, 2004 with highly acclaimed soul singer Betty Harris. Best known in the US for her 1963 hit, "Cry To Me" (#23/1963), Betty Harris has since then amassed a huge international following among fans of deep soul music, especially in England.
Surprisingly little information is available about this famous singer's career and life, however, and what little has been written about her over the years is mostly erroneous. While it is true that she was born in Orlando, Florida, her birth year was actually 1939, not 1941 or 1943, as is often reported.
Among Ms. Harris' most important artistic influences was Big Maybelle who was a vocal coach in her early years. It is widely believed that she was Big Maybelle's maid, which is completely false.
Around 1969-1970, Ms. Harris left the music business to raise a family, go back to school, and pursue a variety of other activities which, for the record, did not include her being a truck driver or acting as James Carr's road manager. It is actually Harris's husband who is in the trucking business, and her collaboration with friend James Carr included their touring together and recording the duet "I'm A Fool For You" (#97/1967).
She has two children, Selwyn (47) and Christina (22), and two grandchildren.
In this interview, Ms. Harris outlines her future plans, discusses her interpretation of "Cry To Me," and patiently and humorously sets the record straight regarding many aspects of her fascinating life. (Click here for a discography.)
Update: Betty Harris is co-producing a new CD slated to be released this December. This latest CD will include a recut of "Cry To Me" plus a new song she wrote, "Happiness Is Mine."
Update: Betty Harris has just put up a website. Click here for news, pictures, and performance schedule.
Update: Betty Harris has just recorded a new album, the highly acclaimed "Intuition," released on Nov. 6, 2007 on Evidence Music.
- Amy Gold: I can't believe it's you!
- Betty Harris: Yeah, it is.
- AG: Wow! What an honor to be able to talk to you.
- BH: Well thank you.
- AG: You were telling me in an earlier e-mail that a lot of what's written about you is not true. They can't even get your birthday right. According to what I've read, you were born in either '41 or '43, and ...
- BH: I wasn't born in the '40s at all. I was born in '39.
- AG: Really?
- BH: Um hm. They got the Florida part right, I was born in Orlando.
- AG: So, if you were born in '39 and you entered the music business around 1960, you would have been pretty young.
- BH: I was.
- AG: And very innocent.
- BH: True. (laughing) But it was a passion, it was something that I loved. I started singing from church. And by the time I was 9 or 10 years old, I had lead a 125 voice choir with Brother Joe Mays, so I knew all of the gospel singers and I knew how they lived, and I just really didn't want to ... I didn't see myself making money. And I went "secular." That's what it was called back then.
- AG: Secular?
- BH: Uh huh. You had gospel, and secular music was called R&B. (laughing)
- AG: And your father was a minister?
- BH: Right.
- AG: That's how you got into gospel in the first place?
- BH: Um hm. Both parents were ministers. My mother still is. She has like 4 churches in Dothan, Alabama, which she's the overseer over. And my mother's 92. And she does everything, she's ...
- AG: "Does"?
- BH: Yeah, she does anything she wants to, I mean, she's in excellent health.
- AG: Well, good for her!
(The discussion then turned to Ms. Harris' plans for the near future.)
- BH: Well, I've got some excellent friends in England and in different places. And everybody is helping as much as they can. I'll be recording in Boston, MA September 6. I'm working with Chris (Stovall) Brown and we are producing this session.
- AG: Are you using live musicians?
- BH: Yes, these are blues musicians. Some have been around since the '60s. All are well seasoned musicians.
- AG: You also wrote that the BBC is about to make a documentary of your life?
- BH: Yes.
- AG: Who is supposed to play you?
- BH: Me.
- AG: So how far along is this project?
- BH: We are collecting background material now and we will be filming the recording session in Boston.
- AG: Well, I look forward to seeing it come out. You know, here's one thing I found on your life which you may want to set straight for the record. I read somewhere that you were James Carr's road manager?
- BH: No.
- AG: I didn't think so. And then somebody wrote that you used to drive a tractor-trailer?
- BH: Yeah, I heard about that.
- AG: But that's your husband's business, right?
- BH: Right.
- AG: Okay, maybe that's how that got this rumor started. Was it around 1970 that you called it quits in the music business?
- BH: Give or take a year. I left and went down to Miami, and I worked in a few clubs, but I found that it wasn't going to be worth my time so I stopped and went back to school.
- AG: Oh really. What did you study?
- BH: Business.
- AG: Have you ever lived overseas?
- BH: No. I was scheduled to go with Otis Redding before he crashed. So, after that happened, that was another good reason to get out of the business.
- AG: Did you ever think about living abroad?
- BH: Not really, no. I would love to go over.
(Ms. Harris was then asked more questions about her work with James Carr.)
- BH: James Carr was a friend of mine. We came off tour together. He was rehearsing songs from his session, and in the process, "Fool For You" was written. He was on his way home to do a session. So I went with him and we wrote this tune on the way there and we were in the studio singing it, and the next thing I know it's out. It's got James Carr listed, but they couldn't put my name on it at the time. And there's been kind of a debate as to whether it was me or not, but I did a radio interview last month with Dean Farrell. He has Soul Express on the Internet. And Dean played it for me, so I have it because it was taped; the whole show was taped. And that's how I got it.
(Ms. Harris was then asked about her connections with New Orleans.)
- BH: I recorded a total of 28 songs, 8 of which were for Jubilee Records, produced by Bert Russell Burns (Sloopy Music, now located in Nashville, TN). 20 were recorded in New Orleans on Sansu Records. All 20 were written for me (as far as I know) and produced by Allen Toussaint and released by him and Sansu Records. My understanding was that they were partners. So those who label me "The True Soul Queen Of New Orleans," you are well within your rights. And New Orleans' history, as rich and talented as it may seem, remains (today) incomplete.
- AG: Did you receive royalties from either Jubilee or Sansu?
- BH: No, not even a statement which the contract said I would be receiving every 6 months.
- AG: But you never actually lived in New Orleans?
- BH: No more than to record. I would fly in, record and leave. Most of the stuff would already be done when I got there.
(Ms. Harris was then asked about what life was like after show business.)
- BH: I said I'd rather be broke and be happy, than to have money and be miserable. And with that in mind, I went back home to Alabama, and I knew that it was going to be hard because I had lived an upscale life. For 3-4 years I'd gotten used to that style of living. And it was hard, but I guess God put my child in my life. My daughter Christina, I just did everything for her. I put her in pageants and parades. My daughter became the focus of my life.
- AG: Wow. What a life. Sounds like you saved yourself from certain misery.
- BH: I think so. I really think so. And I think now I would handle things differently.
- AG: You know, I ran into something very strange on a music website. Did you ever appear in the 1986 movie "The Housekeeper"?
- BH: No. I keep getting something too, that this Betty Harris was in this movie and I'm going like, "what the heck is this?" That's not me, that's somebody else.
- AG: I kind of figured it was but I just wanted to double check. Have you ever made any TV or movie appearances, like a cameo appearance?
- BH: No.
- AG: I didn't think so. I was kind of surprised to see this entry, but ...
- BH: I'm not surprised at anything I see.
- AG: I think that one of the first big people in your life, music-wise, must have been Big Maybelle, right?
- BH: Oh, there's another story that ...
- AG: They wrote that you were her maid and now I'm beginning to wonder, was that really true, were you her maid, or did you meet in some other way?
- BH: No.
- AG: I didn't think so.
- BH: If you listen to Big Maybelle's voice, you get the idea that this is a big woman. When you listen to mine, you would think I was a big woman and I'm not. Never have been. And when I realized that that voice was about the closest thing to me that I had heard, I began to seek her out. That was when I was around, oh I guess, maybe 19. I went to see her at the Apollo and I sat through 3 or 4 shows. And the way she handled the audience, the way she sang, how she told jokes, the whole persona on stage fascinated me. So after the show I went back and I met her and her mate.
- AG: Oh gosh.
- BH: I left home at a very early age. I had a voice and some control, but I realized I needed more. I told her what I needed, and she allowed me to go on tour with her. I watched her night after night, and days she kept me in a mirror singing. She worked very hard with me until the time she felt I was ready to go on stage. Please let me say this. People pay a lot of money and spend years trying to get what I got from this woman. Everyone in this business had an example. She was mine (regardless of any imperfections she may or may not have had). Today I look back and see the injustices of this business. I want to thank Big Maybelle for her contributions to my career. I was not, repeat: not, her maid. She was my teacher, my instructor, and my coach. She was an entertainer that I really, really appreciated, because she helped me when no one else would. I knew all about gospel. I knew what gospel singing was about, but when it came to R&B, I really didn't know the ropes.
- AG: And she trained you first hand.
- BH: Right. As far as I'm concerned, Maybelle was the entertainer for me. Everybody loved Aretha, Gladys Knight, and Mary Wells. Gladys Knight and I came along at the same time. All of us were out there and ... I think what hurt me was the fact that the Beatles came in and all the air time went to them. I think a few more of my records would have made it if they had had the air time.
- AG: Yeah, and that's what ultimately will make it into a hit.
- BH: Um hm. But when the Beatles came along they kind of put the breaks on everybody.
- AG: I can imagine.
- BH: Yeah, and you know it was funny. I was reading something Clive Anderson wrote about me in his book, The Soul Book. He said that if he was going to stake his money on a cliché, that Betty Harris is the raw soul singer, and I kind of liked it the way he put that. He also said "[Betty Harris] has a good claim to soul supremacy. Superlatives are dangerous and silly but for my money, if risks are to be taken, she is quite simply the best soul singer caught on wax today." And Barney Hoskyns also discussed my singing style in his book, Say It One More Time For The Brokenhearted. He described me as being a singer of incredibly raw intensity. I think basically soul music that you can convey that really comes from the soul, it touches, it ... I can hear some singers and get chill bumps, and I'm going like "wow!" And I think that was most of what I was trying to do.
- AG: Yeah, you have that quality, too.
- BH: That basically is what I tried to capture, and to see it in writing really made me feel good, because at least I know I was able to do that.
- AG: You definitely succeeded there in that. So that's what you were trying to go for in your "Cry To Me"?
- BH: I never considered myself the best singer in the world, but I knew that I had something that you call "it." Whatever soul was I had it. I knew that. But I also knew that Aretha was out there and Aretha was my singer as well as anybody else's singer. So it was one of those things. You did what you do, that's life.
- AG: When you did "Cry To Me," yours was a slowed-down version of the ...
- BH: Solomon Burke's.
- AG: Was it your idea to record it more slowly so that you could bring out that feel?
- BH: Right. That was my idea. My manager, Marvin ("Babe") Chivian, introduced me to Bert Burns. When I heard Solomon's version of "Cry To Me," I said "yeah, I don't mind singing it, but that's not the way I feel it." And I went in and I started singing it acappella, and Bert said "wait a minute, wait a minute!" And he sent someone upstairs to get Gary Sherman. Gary came down and played what I sang on piano. He wrote an arrangement of "Cry To Me" that really captured the feel of what I was trying to portray in my interpretation of this song. I sang this song and then I was able to get into it real good. And a week later we were in the studio and we did exactly 3 takes on it. And by the time we finished with that song everybody was crying.
- AG: Wow!
- BH: It was awesome. The music, the arrangement, it was fantastic!
- AG: Yes, yes it was.
- BH: And I really want that type of feeling in the studio again, that's really what I'm looking for now.
- AG: Once you cut another album?
- BH: Right, right.
- AG: Well, since you officially got out of the music business, you mentioned earlier that you made some club appearances and stuff like that. Have you been keeping up with your singing in other ways?
- BH: I sing in church. And I took some voice lessons. And I have the same range, maybe a half an octave lower, but I have the same range that I've had all along. I'm able to sing everything that I originally sang.
- AG: That's great.
- BH: So voice-wise, I haven't lost it.
- AG: Yeah, it's one of those things you have to keep up, though, I imagine.
- BH: Oh yeah.
- AG: Like if you just stopped cold for 20, 30 years, I imagine it would be very difficult to start up again?
- BH: Right. I had to just start back from the beginning almost. I did voice lessons, and I was able to build my vocal chords back up to almost where they were. My father was one of the highest tenors I believe I've ever heard, and my music comes from my father who is deceased now. But I've always had this big voice. That's the only way I can describe it, I've got a big mouth.
- AG: Did you have any brothers and sisters while you were growing up?
- BH: Yes, I had a brother, Donnell.
- AG: Was he also musical like you?
- BH: No. I was the only one at that time (when I was growing up) who went into music. You have to understand that my household was Protestant, my parents were preachers but they were gospel preachers. I mean, my house was strict, very strict. They were holiness preachers, so you didn't play Rhythm and Blues in the house. They did not believe in that.
- AG: Because it was sort of ...
- BH: Yeah, the devil's music.
- AG: Back in the 1960s, did you do a lot of touring?
- BH: Um hm.
- AG: Where did it take you?
- BH: Well, from California to New York and even all the way down to South America. I've worked from the cornfields in North Carolina, I worked Tupelo, Mississippi when it wasn't real cool to be black. Oh man, that was really a joke!
- BH: I toured with Otis Redding. We did 53 one-nighters. That was really a gas. We ran into many problems. We stopped in Mississippi to get some gas and the station owner pulled a shotgun on us and called us Freedom Riders. Maybe because Pop Walden (one of Otis Redding's managers) and Joe Simon were wearing black Nehru jackets that made them look like preachers.
- AG: Oh! That's terrible!
- BH: It was awesome! When you are young you don't realize how bad things really are, you are just happy to be in show business. Moms Mabley would not play dates that meant going though Mississippi. (laughing)
- AG: I don't blame her.
- BH: It was really funny. And you went through all of this stuff and ...
- AG: And you faced danger.
- BH: Yes, all kinds.
(The discussion then turned to Ms. Harris' up-and-coming recording session in Boston.)
- BH: I met Chris (Stovell) Brown who is a music collector. He's also a musician, teacher, guitarist, bassist, and harmonica player. We were introduced by Fred Wilhelms whom I met through Dean Farrell. I want to thank all the wonderful people who believed in me and did reviews on me and my recordings, to name just a few: Yoni Neeman (Israel), Larry Grogan (Funky 16 Corners, USA), David Cole (editor of "In The Basement" magazine, UK), Nicci Talbot (music collector, historian, and researcher, UK), Clive Anderson, Barney Hoskyns, Dean Farrell (host of "Soul Express" on WHUS-FM, Storrs, CT), Laura Martin Robertson (writer at the BBC, UK), Fred Wilhelms (attorney, researcher, collector, and a champion for artists of the 1960s).
- AG: It has really been fun talking to you.
- BH: It's been fun talking to you too. And keep in touch.
- AG: I will, and take care.
- BH: You, too.
- AG: Bye-bye.
- Clive Anderson, The Soul Book, E. Methuen, 1975 (ISBN: 0-413-32150-9).
- Barney Hoskyns, Say It One Time for the Brokenhearted: The Countryside of Southern Soul, HarperCollins Publishers, 1987 (ISBN: 0-00-637219-8).
- In 1961, a brave group of men and women known as the Freedom Riders boarded buses, trains and planes and headed for the deep South to challenge that region's outdated Jim Crow laws and non-compliance with a US Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation in all interstate public facilities. The Freedom Riders were met with much violence along the way, and many were arrested and killed. Click here for a fascinating account of the Freedom Riders and the lasting contributions they made to the Civil Rights Movement.
- Pop Walden was the father of Phil and Alan ("Red") Walden of Redwal Music fame in Macon, GA. The older brother, Phil, attended high school with Otis Redding, and both brothers were friends of Redding and served as his manager and business partner at various stages in his career. Phil and Alan started out as Phil Walden Artists & Promotions and went on to represent 45 black recording artists, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge, Clarence Carter, Al Green, Joe Tex, Candi Staton, William Bell, and Etta James, becoming one of the largest black artist management companies, second, if any, to Motown. In 1965, Redwal Music was incorporated with Otis Redding, Phil and Alan as the officers. Redwal published numerous hits including "Respect," "Sweet Soul Music," "When a Man Loves a Woman," and "Dock of the Bay." After Redding 's untimely death in 1967, Alan helped Phil found Capricorn Records and he later formed his own company and published such Southern Rock classics as Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird," and " Sweet Home Alabama ," as well as the Outlaws' "Green Grass and High Tides," and "There Goes Another Love Song."
|*||Like Later Baby/I Want Your Love Tonight||J&S 1626/27||1958|
|(The Hearts with Betty Harris singing the lead, A-side only.)|
|*||Taking Care Of Business/Yesterday's Kisses||Douglas 104||1962|
|*||Cry To Me/I'll Be A Liar||Jubilee 5456||1963|
|(BB Pop/Rock #23, BB R&B #10)|
|*||His Kiss/It's Dark Outside||Jubilee 5465||1964|
|(BB Pop/Rock #89; BB R&B #89)|
|*||Mojo Hannah/Now Is The Hour||Jubilee 5480||1964|
|*||What A Sad Feeling/I'm Evil Tonight||Sansu 450||1965|
|*||I Don't Want To Hear It/Sometime||Sansu 452||1966|
|*||Twelve Red Roses/What'd I Do Wrong||Sansu 455||1966|
|*||Lonely Hearts/Bad Luck||Sansu 461||1967|
|*||Nearer To You/I'm Evil Tonight||Sansu 466||1967|
|(BB Pop/Rock #85; BB R&B #16)|
|*||I'm A Fool For You||Goldwax 328||1967|
|(James Carr with Betty Harris, A-side only; BB Pop/Rock #97; BB R&B #42)|
|*||Can't Last Much Longer/I'm Gonna Git Ya||Sansu 471||1967|
|*||Love Lots Of Lovin'/Take Care Of Our Love||Sansu 474||1968|
|(Both sides with Lee Dorsey; BB Pop/Rock #110)|
|*||What'd I Do Wrong/Mean Man||Sansu 478||1968|
|*||Hook Line 'N' Sinker/Show It||Sansu 479||1968|
|*||Ride Your Pony/Trouble With My Lover||Sansu 480||1968|
|*||There's A Break In The Road/All I Want Is You||SSS International 766||1969|
|*||Cry To Me/I'll Be A Liar (reissue)||Jubilee 5658||1969|
|(BB R&B #44)|
|*||Cry To Me (reissue)||Virgo 6014||1973|
|(B-side: "Snap Your Fingers" by Joe Henderson)|
|*||His Kiss/It's Dark Outside (reissue)||Virgo 6036||1975|