Bettye’s first two records were on Atlantic. The last ’e’
was added years later.
sung in a dark place with drunk people - and I like that
It’s powerful and sanctifying, but Bettye’s gutsy vocal delivery wasn’t developed in any southern church: “Mine was learned there at the feet of my parents, selling corn liquor at the weekends. I’ve always sung in a dark place with drunk people - and I like that sound.”
Born on January 29th 1946 in Muskegon, a small town on Michigan’s western shore, Betty Haskin moved to booming Detroit when just two years old. In the late 50s, her weekends were spent jiving at Mom and Pop’s boozy house parties that carried on until the early hours, with 45s by the likes of Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter and Etta James providing an atmospheric score. By the time she was 16, Bettye’s main activity had progressed to hanging around the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward Avenue, the long-gone 1920s landmark that wasn’t a million miles from the family home in the city’s leafy North-end district.
Outside the Graystone, Bettye rubbed shoulders with some of the stars appearing at the cavernous venue - such as Willie Jones of the Royal Jokers - which in turn led to her getting involved in Detroit’s then emerging recording business:
“I first met Willie Jones, who had written Shut Your Mouth. Then Timmy Shaw said I could sing and he introduced me to Johnnie Mae Mathews. My best friend then was Sherma LaVett Something - it was the prettiest name I had heard at that time - so I took her name.” (To add a flourish, an extra ‘e’ was added to both her first and last names some years later.)
In 1962, Johnnie Mae Matthews was one of Detroit’s primary movers and shakers; she had forged a business relationship with Robert ‘Fred’ West, the city’s main music man. Johnnie Mae and Timmy had written a song titled My Man – He’s A Loving Man and Bettye was taken to Correc-tone’s studio on 12th Street, where Robert Bateman was running the show.
My man - he really knows what to do
He treats me just like I want him to
When things go wrong - I get sad and blue
He takes me in his arms and he knows what to do
My man - he’s a heck of a man
My Man is certainly no archetypical teen-girl offering and the raunchy recording inevitably has some traces of Johnnie Mae’s blues style; she would have had no doubts about her young protégé’s ability. Sounding seductively assured, precocious Bettye belies her age – in fact it’s hard to believe she was just 16. And Johnnie Mae’s faith in youth was reinforced by 14-year-old Leroy Emanuel playing guitar on the session.
‘Hit Paved Way For Betty’ headline
October 1963 headline from the Michigan Chronicle
But instead of being put out on one of Johnnie Mae’s own labels – such as Northern, Jam or Reel – My Man was sold to Atlantic in New York, something that doubtlessly eased its ascent of Billboard: it shot up the chart to peak at number 7 during November of ’62; a meteoric rise that still amazes Bettye:
“I went from hanging around to being an Atlantic recording artist in about 10 days. It’s incredible the way that it happened. I had never sung before. I hadn’t done auditions or been in groups. I did not come out of Baptist church and I never sang any gospel.”
On the back of its dizzying success, Bettye started touring what was then termed the chittlin circuit – a series of theaters and clubs dotted around the segregated United States that catered to African-America audiences:
“When I first went on the road, I went on the chittlin circuit with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E King, Barbara Lynn, Clarence Frogman Henry and The Upsetters Band. We did the Regal and the Howard, and the Royal in Baltimore and the Royal Peacock in Atlanta Georgia, Sir John’s Nightbeat in Florida. That was pretty much the circuit. The Apollo was on the circuit, but it was the high end of the chittlin circuit, because you had to have a really big record – in the top 20.”
This initial tour put the novice teenager in the surreal position of traveling with famous names in America’s Rhythm & Blues realm, one of whom Bettye had had a particular soft spot for since 1958:
“My mother bought Lover’s Question, which is when I fell in love with Clyde McPhatter. Every time she’d go and buy it, my daddy would break it. And every time he would break it, she’d go and buy it. She bought Lover’s Question maybe 5 times one Saturday. So needless to say, when I first go on the road, the first time I’m ever leaving Detroit, I’m going on the road with Lover’s Question: Honey - I thought I was going to faint.”
This Ypsilanti gig was in March 1964
In January 1963, Bettye headlined at the Royal Peacock with a relatively unknown and hit-less Otis Redding, and later that year cut her second 45, You’ll Never Change.
Johnnie Mae – preoccupied with her own hit My Little Angel - had sold Bettye’s contract to Robert West, who had done the initial deal with Atlantic. The New York giant had vigorously promoted Bettye’s first 45, so it’s one of those mysteries that the recording business habitually throws up as to why You’ll Never Change - her atmospheric follow-up - flopped.
Recorded at United Sound with some of Detroit’s best musicians on the session - Don Davis in particular provided great lead guitar work – and The Falcons singing background, You’ll Never Change is a supreme slice of early Detroit Soul.
The Detroit weekly The Michigan Chronicle published an interview with the young starlet at the time, under the headline “Hit Paved Way For Betty”. It proclaimed the 45 “promises to surpass sales of her first big hit”. It was more accurate when it stated “Betty would like to stay in the field of music for the rest of her life” and that “she will pursue her career with all the enthusiasm she can muster.” Her soulful determination was already evident.
After the surprising failure of You’ll Never Change, Robert West released a 45 on his own Lu-Pine label in 1964 titled Witch Craft In The Air. Bettye recalls that the intro became increasingly bizarre, with members of the Falcons providing novel sound effects in United Sound – such as imitating a witch’s cackle and creating the noise of a boiling cauldron by blowing bubbles into a glass of water. This record didn’t make much of an impression either, even in Detroit.
Without a chart-entry, Bettye’s headlining days gradually dwindled and by March ‘64 she was sharing the bill with fellow Detroiters Emanuel Laskey and Theresa Lindsey at Ypsilanti Armory – just north of Motorcity. As you can see from the advert below, later that year she appeared with Johnny Nash at Phelps Lounge.
Johnny Nash was probably plugging his lilting ARGO 45 “Love Ain’t Nothin’” at this 1964 gig. The Funk Brothers were then the house band at Phelps Lounge.
To compound the problem of not having a hit, Bettye’s manager got seriously injured in July ’64. Mr. West was shot in a New York hotel room after a struggle with Herman Griffin - then married to Motown’s prime star Mary Wells. The three were in the Big Apple due to Herman and Mary’s eagerness to get a lucrative recording deal with a major label. Bettye:
“That was why Robert West went to New York - to negotiate a deal for them. Herman took West on as a partner, to negotiate the deal. Berry Gordy wasn’t gonna let Herman run the company - Herman thought he should be running it, because Mary was the biggest thing they had.”
Following Mr. West’s hospitalization, 18-year-old Bettye wondered where her next hit was going to come from. It didn’t seem like it was going to happen any time soon in Detroit.