During the 1960, New Orleans was the home for a plethora of wonderful music, much of it bearing the stamp of the great Crescent City writer, musician, and producer Allen Toussaint. Toussaint penned all of the songs included in this Betty Harris compilation, 17 sides recorded between 1964 to 1969, and originally issued them on his locally distributed record label, Sansu. Local New Orleans musicians, such as The Meters, serve as her back-up band and add to the music’s distinctive Big Easy feel.
Harris came from Florida and would fly in for the recording sessions. Still, she sounds like a local because her swampy Southern stylings fit right in—and I mean hand in glove. Harris knows how to let loose without losing control. She can also break your heart. On songs such as “Sometime”, Harris moans that she has the blues all of the time because she doesn’t have anyone to love and be loved by. Harris intensifies her performance as the song builds to show her hurt and spirit even as the players lay back. Her strength lies on her ability to keep it together, not display the pain and cover the ache in her voice.
Of course, this is New Orleans music so much of the best stuff has a strong sexual presence. Harris’ excitement is itself exciting. On the vibrant “There’s a Break in the Road”, she and the Meters get downright nasty singing about vengeance on a former boyfriend. From the blaring horns to Harris’ recitation of her grievances, the deliciousness of the coldly served dish makes for a wonderful repast. This is of New Orleans, where people know how to feast.
So when Harris has “Trouble With My Lover” the trouble is that she can’t be making love to her lover all the time. That distresses her, but she can’t help but sing her lovers praises and how good he makes her feel. She may not be satisfied but she’s gratified. The bouncy rhythms here just reinforce the physicality of the feelings. Love is sex here in the best sense of both words.
Fifty years has passed since most of the material here was created, but the high quality of it shines through today. The elastic rhythms, jazzy horns, and other distinguishing New Orleans tropes defy aging. Harris’ exuberant vocals just adds to the spiciness of the mix.
However, there’s a reason Toussaint didn’t distribute these singles beyond the Crescent City’s general area back in the ‘60s. The music here is local. Remember what was happening in the rest of the world at the time: the Beatles and the British Invasion, Motown, Soul, and psychedelic pop. It sounded fresh and hip. These songs could have been recorded ten years earlier. There was nothing particularly new about them.
In fact, as compared with the records of say, Aretha Franklin or the Supremes from that time, these sides sound old-fashioned. Today in the face of an uncertain future, the songs and styles of the past may bring us comfort. But there was a time when the immediate past was one of racism and conformity and the future promised freedom. Harris was living in the present, that made her seem dated to those who didn’t understand the place where she was coming from as she is indeed the Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul.
"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…READ the article