Notes On The Life Of Bettye Swann

I remember going to see my first movie in Arcadia. My brothers dropped me off at the movie theater so that I could watch Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender. I went up to the balcony; you couldn’t go downstairs if you were black

Louisiana-born Betty Jean Champion, who would become Bettye Swann, stayed all day and watched the movie many times not knowing you were supposed to view the film once and leave.

Born in Shreveport in 1944, Betty was one of 14 children. Big families were the fashion of the day in that long ago-era.

“I left Louisiana in 1963. I was 18 and had just finished high school,” she says. “I went to live with a sister, and probably the way I got into show business was that I was always singing something.”

After arriving in the City of Angels, the wide-eyed country gal was introduced to Al Scott, a R&B DJ who was sponsored by local record store Dolphins of Hollywood. The founder, John Dolphin had been murdered by a struggling musician, and his wife Ruth inherited the business along with imprint Money Records.

After the death of her husband Miss Ruth put the record store on her shoulders and moved forward strong-widow style with Rudy Ray Moore serving as general manager. She took over Money, and issued Don Julian & the Meadowlarks The Jerk and saw it go to number one on the R&B charts and seven on Pop. It would sell two million records. Flush with cash, she auditioned Bettye Swann and quickly signed her to a contract with Arthur Wright hired to produce. The deal went down on October 24, 1964 — Bettye’s twentieth birthday.

The young chanteuse ventured into Gold Star Studios, and recorded her debut Don’t Wait Too Long followed by What Can It Be and The Heartache Is Gone but these cuts were just a warmup for what was to come next. Make Me Yours was her next single and it would go on to cause hundreds of drawers to be shed in the backseats of automobiles across the US. I’d give a king’s ransom to hear an isolated vocals version of this cut.

Crate raiders the world over go into convulsions when they find dusty old copies of this 45. Make Me Yours peaked at number 21 on the Pop chart on July 22nd, 1967. A day earlier it hit number one on the R&B boards.

Swann says she was paid $7,000 for the track – in advance – and received zero royalties, That’s $54,000 in today’s money.

Romantic entanglements as well as a falling-out with producer Wright led Bettye to quit LA and move to the wilds of Georgia.

My husband (George Barton) is a promoter and he went into business here in Athens, Georgia, and he and his partner planned to get bookings for the nearby University of Georgia. It didn’t work out but we stayed on — mainly because we both liked it so much here.

Bettye would leave Money Records, sign with Capitol, and hit the chitlin’ circuit of the Deep South. The circuit was a loosely-knit route of juke joints and barrooms where black musicians could perform and earn a living. It was a rough and tumble existence but that didn’t seem to worry Swann too much.

Her husband carried a gun and wasn’t afraid to whip it out when it came time for his charge to be paid at the end of the night. “That’s how George got a bad reputation,” says Swann. “He was always fighting to get me my money. He stood up for me and protected my interests. I loved him from the beginning for the type of person he was.

Now Bettye was primed for the big time with a fresh contract with major label Capitol.

“I was introduced to Capitol by one of their promotion ladies, Joyce Miller, whom I first met in ’67. She talked with various people in the company after she saw one of my shows and their A&R people listened to my Money records and then signed me.”

My Heart Is Closed for the Season would mark Bettye’s major label debut with Capitol but it was not a nickel magnet in southern jukeboxes. She followed that with Don’t Touch Me by Hank Cochran in 1969, and saw it go to number 14 R&B and number 38 Pop.

During this period Rick Hall of FAME out of Muscle Shoals had heard Bettye, and after his label signed a subsidiary deal with Capitol he talked the mothership into letting him shepherd her.

“It was directly after I had a hit with the Country song, Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me. Rick had just signed his Fame label with Capitol and he requested that I might be switched from Capitol to Fame with him handling the production.”

This deal which sounded like it was hammered out in a smokey pool hall led to 1971’s I’m Just Living a Lie. After this cup of coffee with FAME, Swann inked a deal with Atlantic that saw Victim of a Foolish Heart dropping in 1972. It went to number 14 R&B but failed to chart Pop.

Next, Bettye tackled Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind with Merle Haggard’s Today I Started Loving You Again on the flip. This session finds Swann in fine form, and it becomes easy to see why Buck Owens had wanted to book her on Hee Haw til the moguls at Capitol got wind of the scheme and squashed it.

Jim Crow had officially been outlawed but if you were on the ground in the US in that era you know that was just a nice noise been splashed across the newspapers. Skulls were still being busted open aplenty.

Reflecting back on that missed adventure, “I had the feeling they wanted me to be a black female Charley Pride.”

The fusion of country and soul is a tricky one but Swann’s rural sophistication could’ve seen her have a nice run in the genre. I’ll put some of her country soul renderings in the critical list below.

1973 came along with Bettye covering Tammy Wynette’s Til I Get It Right with Yours Until Tomorrow on the flip.

rl reeves jr examines the life and career of Bettye Swann

By the late seventies, Barton and Swann had quit the south and moved to Las Vegas where she began performing at a nightclub called The Mint. She also played at at Union Plaza and the Town Tavern til hanging up her mic stand in 1980 when her husband passed away.

As near as I can tell her last public performance was in 2013 in Cleethorpes UK

Bettye Swann
b. Tuesday October 24, 1944

Critical listening
Make Me Yours
Today I Started Loving You Again
Don’t Touch Me
Til I Get It Right
Don’t Wait Too Long
I’d Rather Go Blind
Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me

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