Renowned in deep soul circles for the devastating ballad "Cry to Me," singer Betty Harris was born in Orlando, Florida, in 1941 and raised primarily in Alabama. The child of preachers, her deep church roots conflicted with her desire to sing secular soul music, and at 17 she left home to pursue a performing career, briefly apprenticing under R&B star Big Maybelle before eventually landing in California, cutting the 1960 single "Taking Care of Business" for the Douglas label. Record promoter Babe Chivian recommended that Harris relocate to New York City, promising her an audition with Brill Building producer and songwriter Bert Berns. There she performed a slow, gospel-inspired rendition of "Cry to Me," an uptempo Berns-produced hit for Chivian's client Solomon Burke.
Berns immediately dispatched Harris to the recording studio, and in just three takes she wrapped "Cry to Me," issued on Jubilee in 1963. After the record became a New York radio smash, it broke nationally, cracking the R&B Top Ten and the pop Top 40 in the process of surpassing Burke's original. Soon Harris headlined the legendary Apollo Theater, mounting a national tour after recording her Jubilee follow-up, "His Kiss." The single stiffed, however, and when "Mo Jo Hannah" met a similar fate, Berns opted to cut his losses.
During a 1965 tour, Harris met New Orleans composer and producer Allen Toussaint, and with the superbly slinky "I'm Evil Tonight" became the first artist to record for his fledgling Sansu label. With Toussaint at the helm, the bluesy balladry of Harris' Jubilee sides gave way to a funky, sensual dynamic that heralded a new era of New Orleans R&B. The 1966 ballad "Sometime" was backed by the brilliant "I Don't Want to Hear It," Toussaint's edgiest and most aggressive production to date. The subsequent "12 Red Roses" further refined the approach, and with 1967's "Nearer to You," Harris finally returned to the R&B Top 20, delivering another sublimely emotional performance.
"Love Lots of Lovin'," a duet with fellow Toussaint charge Lee Dorsey, closed out the year -- Harris planned to support the record on tour with Otis Redding, but on December 10, the soul giant lost his life in a plane crash. Harris forged on, with 1968's "Mean Man" delivering her grittiest effort to date. Backed by a session group that would soon evolve into the Meters, she then ended her Sansu tenure with the fierce "Trouble with My Lover," reuniting with Toussaint for one final collaboration, the 1969 funk cult classic "There's a Break in the Road" (licensed to the SSS International label).
With her career at an impasse, Harris abruptly retired from performing in 1970. From there her legend grew, and rumors spread that she served as James Carr's road manager and even drove a tractor-trailer to make ends meet. In reality, Harris simply focused on raising her family, and while she shunned the music industry she continued singing in her church choir -- after settling in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1997, she even began offering vocal lessons. Still, Harris remained oblivious to the growing awe afforded her '60s output by soul aficionados, respect generated largely by an expanded U.K. reissue of the 1969 anthology Soul Perfection.
Then in 2001, her daughter found several Betty Harris fan sites on the Web, prompting the singer to join a soul mailing list to announce her present whereabouts. Her re-emergence caused a stir in deep soul circles, and soon Boston-based guitarist and producer Chris Stovall Brown offered to helm Harris' first recording session in 35 years. On April 17, 2005, she also headlined her first live appearance in over three decades, performing at a benefit for her daughter's Hartford alma mater. Weeks later, Harris performed at New Orleans' annual Ponderosa Stomp. In 2007, she released what was, amazingly, her first real studio album, the Jon Tiven-produced Intuition. During the following decade, the Soul Jazz label reissued her 1965-1969 sides as The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. ~ Jason Ankeny