know. So I dug a little further and called a few people directly. Everybody said that Bettye had seemingly vanished and no one had heard from or spoken to her for at least twenty years. I was told that she was working as a waitress in a restaurant somewhere in Georgia, that she’d become a Jehovah’s Witness and not only had she turned her back on the amorality of the music business, but she’d also changed her name to make sure that her past stayed exactly where it was. I even spent several weeks randomly ringing any B.Swann or B(etty Jean) Champion – her real name – I could find in the American telephone directory. It got me nowhere. The only thing that I knew for sure was that Bettye had disappeared, which was going to make her story hard to tell. The most recent interview I could find was from over thirty years ago.
Then one evening I spoke to Candi Staton who had been close to Bettye back inthe early seventies. She told me that last she’d heard Bettye and her husband,George Barton, had moved to Vegas. I’d not heard good things about Georgeand so assumed they had divorced, but Candi said she heard that George had died.There were two Betty Bartons in the Vegas White Pages, but no Bettye. I rangthe first number, by now feeling like some kind of stalker, and a woman pickedup. “I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” I said, “butare you Bettye Swann?” When she said yes I nearly put the phone straightback down in shock, overcome by a vague sense of guilt that maybe the reasonnobody had been able to find Bettye was that she didn’t want to be found.She couldn’t have been nicer though, but after a few minutes’ chatand passing on some of her old friends’ numbers she said she had to begetting on, that she’d call me back in a day or two so I could talk toher properly. The call never came.
So the mystery of Bettye Swann remains and all we’re left with is the music.The one thing I did learn about her life now is that she works with childrenwith educational problems, and seems to be very happy doing so. She sounded verycontented, and obviously enjoyed working at something which helped other people.In a way then she’s doing exactly the same thing as she was nearly fortyyears ago, because for me the special quality of Bettye Swann’s voice isits inherent optimism. Even when she’s singing the saddest of songs, there’sa streak of hope that runs through the notes.
Betty Jean Champion was born in Shreveport on October 24 1944, and spent her first nineteen years growing up in rural Louisiana. Then she moved to Californiato pursue her dream of making it as both a singer and writer. On her twentiethbirthday she signed a deal with Money Records. She recorded some beautiful singlesfor Money but her breakthrough came with ‘Make Me Yours’ in 1967,still her biggest selling record. Shortly after ‘Make Me Yours’ hit,Bettye married her manager George Barton and they left Los Angeles for Georgia,where George had set up as a promoter on the black circuit down south.
Within a year, Bettye was back in LA. After the Money deal expired she signedwith Capitol Records, who teamed her with Wayne Shuler. Wayne is the son of thelegendary Louisianian producer Eddie Shuler, and had grown up surrounded by music.He’d found his way to Capitol Records and worked variously as promo man,A&R man, and even as executive producer on Joe South’s records. Workingwith Bettye was the first time Capitol let Wayne produce a record on his own.Fortunately he was a natural.
“ They gave Bettye to me because I was the only person who really knewR&B”, he told me. “I knew some of her Money records and likedher voice but wasn’t that familiar with her. I had always wanted to cutan R&B version of Hank Cochran’s ‘Don’t Touch Me’,and Bettye was tailor-made for it. She wasn’t up for it so I had to doa sales job, but once it hit of course it became her idea.”
Though Bettye told me that she was happy to sing country songs, she did say “Iwanted to do any song I was given my way. When I say ‘my way’, Imean the way I was feeling it. If someone played a song for me, no matter whatthe style was, I’d want to sing it the way I felt it.” For sure,it was her proposal to try an upbeat version of Merle Haggard’s classiccountry ballad ‘Today I Started Loving You Again’ – and Waynewas reluctant. The whole time I spoke with him the most excited he got was whenhe told me that they also cut a slower version as a duet with Buck Owens. AsWayne tells it – “It’s just a killer, man. Nothing but a rhythmtrack; Bettye and Buck Owens. It’s a killer. Bettye wanted to do it up-tempothe way it is on the album, but I wanted to do it slower and got Buck in. Butwhen Ken Nelson [head of the country division at Capitol] found I’d cutBettye with Buck he practically had a haemorrhage. Buck was all ready to putBettye on ‘Hee Haw’ [his massively popular nationally-syndicatedcountry-comedy show], and DJs were ringing begging me to let them have the record,but I had to tell them that Ken Nelson would sack me straightaway if I let thathappen.” Though this was a year after the assassination of Martin LutherKing, and two years after Charley Pride had become the first black singer toappear on the Grand Ole Opry, the powers that be at Capitol obviously fearedthat to be seen and heard duetting on a love song with a black woman could seriouslydamage Buck’s career. Ironically, later that same year Capitol’sbiggest country star, Merle Haggard, followed up ‘Okie From Muskogee’ – hisseemingly conservative anthem – with a song about interracial love called ‘IrmaJackson’. (And three years later Bettye cut yet another version of ‘Today…’ atFame with Rick Hall that was much closer to Wayne’s original conception.)
Wayne told me that he always recorded Bettye with a black audience in mind, anddespite the high proportion of country songs these are definitely soul records.Somehow these two displaced Louisianians combined to make music that sounds likenothing else from the time. Bettye never sings with the desolation of O.V.Wright,the hurt of Percy Sledge, or the sheer pain of the final Linda Jones records.Yes, there’s a southern feel to these Swann-Shuler recordings, but theyalso have a light, almost poppy quality to them. Sometimes they sound like themissing link between Muscle Shoals and Motown.
Wayne’s selection of songs for Bettye’s Capitol sessions never putsa foot wrong. Whether a fifties’ pop standard like ‘Little ThingsMean A Lot’, a current rock hit like ‘Traces’ by Classics IV,or recent soul smashes like ‘Tell It Like It Is’ or ‘Cover
Me’ – Wayne consistently produced records with Bettye that have somuch personality and life you completely forget that you’re listening tosomeone else’s songs. Only last week I watched a room packed with threeor four hundred young Londoners dance euphorically to Bettye’s versionof Tony Joe White’s ‘Willie and Laura Mae Jones’. I doubt whethermore than a handful of the people in that room had any idea what they were dancingto, but thirty five years after it was recorded it’s as infectious andjoyous as the day it was recorded. Dusty Springfield cut the same song in 1969as well, and as great as Dusty’s version is, it’s languid where Bettye’sis defiantly upbeat.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Bettye’s ability to transform a songand make it her own is her version of ‘Stand By Your Man’, whichsheds any trace of submissiveness, coming across instead as a plea for toleranceand patience with the man you love, and a declaration that his faults and weaknessesdon’t mean that you have to be weak too. No other version of this songmanages to make it a song about self-empowerment in the way that Bettye’sdoes.
During the weeks I spent trying to track Bettye down the one thing that becameincreasingly clear is that everyone who’d known her only had good thingsto say about her. The more people I spoke to the more obvious it became thatthe vibrancy and optimism that you hear in her voice were simply an expressionof her personality. When we told Candi Staton that we were reissuing Bettye’sCapitol sides she immediately asked if we knew where she was as they’dbeen good friends in the seventies – they met at one of Bettye’sshows – but had lost touch when Bettye left the music business. “Shewas a beautiful lady. She was really, really friendly. Soft spoken, very generous.Just a down home girl, someone you’d be glad to know. We used to talk toeach about our kids, husbands, travelling, and stuff like that.”
Sometimes Candi would travel with Bettye as a friend even if she wasn’tpart of the show. Life on the road in the south for black singers could stillbe hard. One time whilst driving through Mississippi they stopped for gas, andwhilst Bettye’s husband filled the tank, Bettye and Candi asked the attendantif they could use the bathroom. “Our bathroom ain’t for niggers”,came the reply. Hearing this George said “If we’re not good enoughto use your bathroom, we don’t want your gas”. They paid the fewdollars for the petrol they’d already pumped and got out of there as quicklyas possible. A story like that makes you think again about Bettye’s duetwith Buck Owens. It brings home exactly how radical it was for black and whitemusicians to be working together back then. I’ve always felt that the recordsmade in the South in the mid-to-late sixties must have helped ease the racialtensions that had so nearly torn parts of America to pieces just a few yearsbefore. Wayne Shuler was a good old white boy from Louisiana and Bettye was ablack girl from the same State, but the records they made together are neitherblack or white; they’re just soul records, great soul records.
Bettye Swann never did call me back, so I called her again. She was on her wayout but we chatted for a few minutes and she explained, “The best thingabout show business I loved was actually singing, making music and interactingwith people, but it wasn’t always 100% fun and there were some rough times,really rough times, so I just stopped.”