“It’s taken a long time, a real long time, but we made it.” When Betty Harris retired from performing in 1970 she could have had no inkling nearly 50 years later she’d be headlining a sell-out London show.
Buoyed by the upturn in interest since last year’s Soul Jazz Records’ The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul, which gathered 17 tracks issued between 1965 and 1969 for Sansu under the direction of the legendary Allen Toussaint, Betty was afforded one of those hero receptions UK soul audiences are renown for.
As that collection showed, Betty was equally adept at R&B dancers, soul ballads and the lolloping New Orleans rhythms intrinsic to music from Louisiana’s Crescent City. Although despite Soul Jazz’s crown, Betty was not from nor ever lived in New Orleans, she was flown in from Florida to record. But that's splitting a beignet.
Shaky opening numbers ‘Mean Man’ and ’12 Red Roses’ indicated this might be a gig where fans were simply glad to be in the rare presence of someone whose records they’ve enjoyed over the years. As Betty told us, these were songs she recorded when she was 19-20 (born in 1939 she was older but you didn't hear that from me) and hasn’t sung some since, but come the third song, a rollicking ‘I Don’t Wanna Hear It’, Betty loosened up, that soulful rasp was to the fore, and we were cooking from there on in.
Backed by the Disposable Breaks, doing their best attempt at hitting the funk of the Meters, ‘Trouble With My Lover’, ‘Bad Luck’ and ‘Close To Me’ caught a groove and Betty’s slower take on Solomon Burke’s ‘Cry To Me’ – the closest she came to a real hit in 1963 – carried real emotion and experience.
Whilst fans were there to give something back, Betty, resplendent in glamourous gown and wearing her best hair, also had her own giving to do. Of her three backing singers, two were young teenage girls who’d not had the best start in life but had been offered a chance to come to the UK and sing. Betty acknowledged they found her intimidating but countered nobody was there to help guide her early in her career. Apologies for not catching the girls’ names but they should be proud of the job they did especially when handed the entire lead for ‘Can’t Last Much Longer’. The baton was passed.
Few people recorded a better version of ‘Ride Your Pony’ and after that irresistible mover Betty was brought back for a well-earned encore with the heavy funk bomb ‘There’s A Break In The Road’.
A cackling, engaging presence throughout, it was a joy to spend an hour in Betty’s company and this gig was everything, if not more, anyone could’ve hoped for. Betty was correct, it did take a long time but she made it.