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Archive for March 31st, 2014

Reviews: Real Gone Goes R&B with Bettye Swann and Samuel Jonathan Johnson

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Bettye Swann - AtlanticShreveport, Louisiana-born Bettye Swann never liked her birth name of Betty Jean Champion, yet when it came to soul music, Swann was certainly a champion.  Her debut single for Money Records, 1965’s “Don’t Wait Too Long,” became a Top 30 R&B hit, and two years later, “Make Me Yours” went all the way to the No. 1 spot on that chart.  It was inevitable that bigger labels than Money would come calling, and sure enough, Swann recorded two country-flavored LPs in 1969 and 1970 for Capitol.  Rick Hall of the FAME label and studios was among Bettye’s fans, and with a distribution deal through Capitol, signed Swann to his production company.  But by the time he was ready to release any recordings by Bettye, the deal with Capitol was up.  Following one 45 issued directly on FAME, Hall brokered a deal to sign Swann to one of the cornerstones of American soul music: Atlantic Records.  Real Gone has teamed up with SoulMusic Records for The Complete Atlantic Recordings.  This new compilation rounds up all 23 sides recorded by Swann for the New York giant between 1972 and 1975, five of which are making their very first appearance anywhere.

Unlike some of her earthier counterparts, Swann possessed a smooth, girlish and frankly pretty voice.  Hall, in charge of Swann’s first seven Muscle Shoals-recorded Atlantic sides, deployed that voice to great effect on this collection’s opening single, the ironically-upbeat “Victim of a Foolish Heart,” in which Swann implores her man not to fall prey to the charms of an old paramour.  Though Swann’s message is clear, it’s delivered in such a sweet way that one can’t see how the weak-willed guy could possibly turn Bettye down!  Hall and Swann took a more traditionally torrid southern-soul approach on a revival of “I’d Rather Go Blind” with its tight guitar licks, organ and stabs of brass, but Swann’s coquettish lead allows the gritty lyric to be heard anew.  Swann and Hall also recut Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” which she had recorded at Capitol, and took a stab at the oft-recorded Carole King/Gerry Goffin copyright “Yours Until Tomorrow.”  Swann’s recordings lacks the fervor of Dee Dee Warwick’s or the drama of Gene Pitney’s, but compensates with the mature, intelligent delivery of Goffin’s pleading lyric.

Despite the strength of the Muscle Shoals recordings including an irresistible makeover of Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer’s Supremes cut “I’m Not That Easy to Lose,” none of Swann’s singles got any higher on the Hot 100 than “Today I Started Loving You Again” with its No. 46 placement.  So Atlantic set Swann up at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios in 1973, teaming her with The Young Professionals, a.k.a. LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt and Tony Bell, younger brother of Philadelphia soul architect Thom Bell.  Though Philly soul could be as sweet as it comes, Taylor, Hurtt and Bell’s first recording with Swann made the Muscle Shoals tracks sound positively sugary in comparison.  “The Boy Next Door” is swaggering Philadelphia-style funk, with burbling guitar licks, slashing strings and an insistent groove.  Arranger Tony Bell’s second track for Swann, B-side “Kiss My Love Goodbye,” should have been the A-side.  It’s a quintessential, up-tempo Spinners-style track, and for Swann’s next single, Tony Bell turned to his older brother Thom to provide the charts.  You can hear Bell’s influence in the soft horns, strings and ethereal male backing vocals of the gorgeously melancholy “Time to Say Goodbye,” providing a cushion as soft as Swann’s velvety voice.  Thom also arranged the A-side of “Time,” the darker, funk-infused “When the Game is Played on You” in which Swann once again serves up a tasty dish of vengeance to the one who’s done her wrong: “How does it feel, baby, when the game is played on you?”

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Written by Joe Marchese

March 31, 2014 at 12:37