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Finding soul in country

Times Staff Writer

Ray CHARLES blazed the trail in the early ‘60s with his landmark “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” but he wasn’t the only African American singer in that decade to cross the divide between the white and black musical traditions of the South.

“Bettye Swann,” a recently released compilation of late-'60s recordings by the Louisiana native, is a fascinating slice of long-lost soul-country fusion, one that comes with an intriguing back story that has a detective-tale twist.

Swann, whose real name is Betty Jean Champion, was born in Shreveport in 1944 and moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘60s, where she recorded for the independent Money label, reaching No. 1 on the R&B; chart with “Make Me Yours” in 1967.

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The singer then moved to mighty Capitol Records, where she and producer Wayne Shuler embarked on a remarkable, barrier-busting series of soul-infused treatments of country material.

The sound is classic Southern soul, a cross of Memphis and Muscle Shoals with a leavening of Motown pop. Jubilant horns and driving rhythms frame Swann’s direct, vibrant voice. Her singing is not fiery or flamboyant, but it has a bright, direct intelligence that invariably leads her straight to the heart of the lyric.

The bold approach also carried a resonance of racial and cultural harmony during a turbulent period in U.S. history. In his booklet essay, writer Tim Tooher recounts that Swann recorded a duet of “Today I Started Loving You Again” with country star Buck Owens. Tooher quotes Shuler as saying that Capitol refused to release it, fearing negative reaction to the interracial pairing. The track is apparently lost and isn’t included on the album.

Only one of the Capitol sides, “Don’t Touch Me,” made the R&B; or country charts, and “Bettye Swann” -- which is on the Honest Jons label, an English record company that’s co-owned by Blur’s singer Damon Albarn -- is the first time they’ve been released on CD.

Swann moved on to Atlantic Records and had some modest success into the mid-'70s, then dropped from sight. In working on the album essay, Tooher came up empty when he tried to track her down until he got a tip that she was in living in Las Vegas. He looked up her married name in a phone book there.

Swann, now 60, spoke pleasantly, Tooher writes, and they arranged to talk again about her career. But she never called back. When Tooher reached her again, she told him:

“The best thing about show business I loved was actually singing, making music and interacting with people, but it wasn’t always 100% fun, and there were some rough times, really rough times, so I just stopped.”


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