Betty Harris, on the list of the greatest soul singers of all time, gave a knock down, drag-out-all-the-emotion performance at New Orleans’ Old Point Bar on St. Algiers Point. Some of the city’s finest back-up musicians were there to support her in the person of Marc Stone’s Band, and the 200 plus audience that crammed into the funky little West Bank neighborhood bar was knocked flat by a performance that happens once in a lifetime.
When Harris growled, “Is it Hot in here, or is it me? This love is hotter than hell,” the mercury soared and probably didn’t let up until a few days later. Could explain the heat wave in New Orleans this week. That’s the great thing about music here. Great stuff happens in little out of the way places and musicians go all out to support each other. The usually affable Marc Stone looked like an anxious wreck before the performance. He had put heart and soul into bringing Harris down from Atlanta to return to the city where she cut many of her original records for Allen Toussaint’s Sansu label in the 1960s. Intuition (Evidence Records), produced by Jon Tiven, is Harris’s first release since she defined the term “funk” with the explosive “There’s a Break in the Road.”
Stone wasted a whole lot of worry, because Harris still knows her stuff, the band delivered, and the audience knew it. Harris made it to the top of the R&B and soul charts in 1963 while still in her teens with “Cry To Me.” Backup vocalists included Dionne Warwick and Cissy Houston. After that initial success, the road beckoned, and fellow travelers included none other than Sam Cooke, James Brown, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and most of the top names in black music.
Harris virtually disappeared to raise her family and sang only in church during those “missing” years. She has since taken major venues in the US, Australia, Italy, Spain and France by storm with rave reviews wherever she goes.
The past aside, Harris was in absolutely unbelievable voice as she played it all out over the Algiers’ levee. I would suspect people heard her across the river at New Orleans’ City Center. This was no small feat with a horn section that only the Big Easy could deliver. The audio engineer commented that even without a monitor Harris was able to bring it home because R&B singers of her day worked without a net all of the time. Hurricane Betty Harris did not disappoint, and the guys were blowing hard to keep up.
Harris was all elegance and soul, diamond ring catching the lights as she worked the crowd to their knees, begging for more. “I don’t need no love I don’t want no love, I don’t want your love, baby, They say love is a contradiction But I think it’s just science fiction… Take it and shove it.”
Where else but New Orleans can you stumble into a neighborhood bar and find Eddie Christmas, currently drumming for Jon Cleary, formerly with Sting, the Black Crowes, Gerald Levert, Willie Nelson and many others; Bassist Sam Price, leader of Otra and New World Funk Ensemble; Jimmy Carpenter, sax man and horn section leader for Walter ”Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters--not to mention a three piece horn section? Guitarist Marc Stone is well known and loved throughout the New Orleans music scene and has worked Campbell Brothers, Eddie Bo, Harry “Big Daddy” Hypolite, Terrance Simien, Marva Wright, Eric Lindell and countless others from the the Louisiana Music Scene. Stone convinced Christof Waibel, Austria “boogie piano master” who backed Betty at her triumphant appearance at Festival MNOP in France this year to round out the mix, along with Harris’s hand-picked vocalists from Atlanta who came along for the ride.
For video of Betty with the Marc Stone Band at Festival MNOP in France (August 11, 2007) see this link:
Harris has a sleeker look now, but don’t skip this video. Only 200 people saw Harris at Old Point, so listeners probably won’t be disappointed with her Nashville-backed CD, Intuition. It would be fun, though, to hear a recording with Stone’s band, a band that knows what soul is all about and is able to meld perfectly with the performer and support the emotion.
Harris keeps getting “discovered.” Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint recently covered the ballad, “Nearer To You”, which Betty cut for Sansu in 1967. Christina Aguilera included Betty’s original version on her latest release.
Check out www.evidencemusic.com
Note: We came down to New Orleans to cover post-Katrina and environmental issues, but the return of music to the Big Easy and the ongoing struggles faced by musicians in a city that has been all but abandoned by the music industry caught our attention in a big way. We think this is an important enough story to put some real time and effort into. So, over the coming weeks we will take a closer look at well-known favorite artists who refuse to leave, and up-and-comers who will help define New Orleans’ culture for decades to come.