Bettye Swann 

Bettye Swann (Honest Jon's/Astralwerks)

Whereas today we have white men revealing the breasts of African American women during Super Bowl halftime shows, back in the '60s, members of different races were seldom seen sharing a TV screen. For instance, a Capitol Records bigwig once forbade young soul diva Bettye Swann to sing a duet with Buck Owens on his Hee Haw TV show, believing the world wasn't ready for an interracial duo professing their love during prime time.

This collection -- much never before heard on CD, but now liberated, thanks to London-based label Honest Jon's -- is a unique artifact of this tumultuous period. Between 1968 and 1970, the twentysomething Louisiana native recorded numerous sessions with white L.A. producer Wayne Shuler, drawing heavily from such songwriters as Tammy Wynette, Hank Cochran, and the Bee Gees. But while the crossover material of, say, Ray Charles occasionally felt watered down for "mainstream" consumption, Swann's songs were uncompromisingly soulful, rife with fluid licks and amped horn parts -- the missing link between Motown's slick harmonies and Stax's feverish grit.

Mostly, what puts these tunes over is Swann's voice, an instrument that sounded supremely optimistic even in the face of overwhelming sorrow -- almost like that of a smoother Aretha Franklin. The young singer could take hoary chestnuts like Chip Taylor's "Angel of the Morning" and Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" and truly make them swing. Even great soul songs, such as "Ain't That Peculiar" and "Tell It Like It Is," felt fresh and new in Swann's hands.

By the mid-'70s, Swann had given up the music business and disappeared. When tracked down by the producers of this collection, she pointed to the "really rough times" she endured as the reason for quitting. Listening to Bettye Swann makes one grateful that she was able to endure them as long as she did.

More by Dan Strachota


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