Set in prewar Harlem, Bubbling Brown Sugar showcased that period’s top entertainers, such as Duke Ellington, and opened on Broadway in 1975, going on to get nominated for a Tony Award.
Bettye joined the cast and despite getting a regular paycheck, was easily seduced from her Broadway sabbatical with another recording opportunity. This was towards the end of 1978:
“I was doing Bubbling Brown Sugar and somebody told me to call a guy named Cory Robins. I called him, went to meet him and he was my grandson’s age! But he said - I’ve got this song and I’ve got some money to record it - and I said, well, I need a record so I’ll go ahead and record it.”
This was the age of Disco and Doin’ The Best I Can was very different from anything Bettye had done before; nevertheless, there was something about the song that she liked:
“There was a line in it that said: ‘I stay away from waterfalls, I don’t carry dimes, so I won’t call.’ I said that’s a great line! And I recorded the thing - and hated it!”
Hated the 7” 45 so much so that she went back on the road with Bubbling Brown Sugar, convinced the song – released on the West End label - would bomb:
“Then they got the number one Disco mixer. I went back on the road with Bubbling Brown Sugar and when I came back they said ‘Oh, you’re gonna love it’. They played it for me and it played for about 20 minutes and I said ‘Ah-oh’ and it played for another 20 more minutes and I said ‘whoa’. And it played for another 20 minutes then I sung a verse of the song. Then it played another 20 more minutes and I sung another verse. I said, Cory, if you will give me a release from my contract you don’t even have to owe me anything; really.”
“I went back on the road – when I came back it had sold 150,000 copies in Manhattan. Just in Manhattan.”
Of course Bettye exaggerates the length of the song and modestly understates her own contribution. In retrospect, the 12” remix of Doin’ The Best I Can – where the vocals are better balanced and the up-front drum machine is diffused with strings that give it a much sweeter and commercial edge - is one of the better dance anthems from that period of platform soles, flared pants and big hair. It’s now listed as one of the best 100 Disco records of all time.
Bettye LaVette Story
by Graham Finch DESIGN, GRAPHICS & HOSTING
by Lowell Boileau