sound patrol 12-30-04
You've probably never heard of Bettye Swann, which is sad for many reasons; on the bright side, though, it means you're in for a treat. Thanks to the UK label Honest Jon's, which specializes in resurrecting neglected treasures from soul's golden age, 22 revelatory tracks from Swann's too-brief career are now available on CD, many for the first time.
First, a bit of background: Born Betty Jean Champion in 1944, the Shreveport, La., native moved to Los Angeles at 19 and signed a contract with a small independent label, Money, which released several singles -- one of which, 1967's "Make Me Yours," was to be her biggest hit -- and a full-length album. Next she signed with Capitol, recording two LPs between 1968 and 1970, neither of which yielded any major chart successes. Her last label, Atlantic, released a few more singles, including "Victim of a Broken Heart," a minor Billboard hit that was recently covered by British neosoul phenom Joss Stone. In 1975, Swann washed her hands of the whole dirty business, reverting to her married name, working at a regular job in Las Vegas, and ignoring most interview requests.
It's impossible to say why Swann's name isn't as familiar today as Aretha Franklin's, Ann Peebles', or Mavis Staples', but one thing's for sure: It certainly wasn't for want of talent. Swann's supple alto is as subtle as it is affecting, poised somewhere between delicacy and abandon, between restraint and surrender. Whereas many of her peers trafficked in emotional extremes, Swann took a more understated approach, delivering the melodies with a stabbing sweetness no less powerful for its refinement. The emotions she conveyed were richly nuanced and sometimes paradoxical: a cheerful sadness, a tender fury, a frightened joy, a fragile defiance. Other singers may trump her when it comes to flashy vocal acrobatics or rank charisma, but few can match the depth and dimension of her interpretations.
This compilation contains Swann's recordings for Capitol, all cut between 1968 and 1970 with producer Wayne Shuler, a white man who recognized Swann's crossover potential but wisely chose not to compromise her distinctive gifts. A relative novice, Shuler had remarkable insight into the cross-pollinating worlds of country and soul, and the material represented here reflects his wide-ranging tastes. The tracks are fascinating country-soul hybrids, wildly imaginative reinventions of contemporary R&B standards, country & Western weepers, and mainstream pop hits, along with a few solid originals.
Although still in her twenties, Swann was as adept at reinventing standards as she was at rescuing cheesy soft-rock bagatelles. Her transcendent readings of "Sweet Dreams," "Ain't That Peculiar," "Stand by Your Man," and "Tell It Like It Is" are every bit as good as the versions made famous by Patsy Cline, Marvin Gaye, Tammy Wynette, and Aaron Neville, respectively; her takes on such minor pop tunes as the Bee Gees' "Words," Chip Taylor's "Angel of the Morning," and Classics IV's "Traces" prove that a great stylist can redeem and transform even the slightest of novelties.
Maybe Swann's lack of commercial success can be blamed on the idiocy of the record industry: One Capitol Records executive blocked the release of a duet Swann recorded with Buck Owens and forbade her from performing on Hee Haw, cynically assuming that an interracial love song would ruin Owens's career. Or maybe Swann just didn't try long enough, giving up after 11 years and three LPs. More likely, though, Swann -- by all accounts a classy lady with a mind of her own and high moral standards -- simply lacked the temperament to make it in the music business. Lucky for us, these recordings remain, cementing her place in the canon of Southern soul and proving that great music knows no race or genre.