Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Breaks in the Road

June 15th, 2009 · 6 Comments


It’s so hard to fathom why some talented folks decide to chuck it all in favor of more humdrum lives. Such is the case with the great Betty Harris, who recorded a bunch of outstanding soul sides in the 1960s, then mysteriously disappeared. The cut above was her last, and it’s a Microkhan favorite—an odd-yet-catching meditation on the vagaries of fate, featuring Harris’s trademark semi-growl.

Contrary to frequent rumors, Harris did not become an interstate trucker. Instead, she settled into a life of Nutmeg State motherhood, before mounting a comeback in 2005. A great piece on her journey back to the limelight is available here, via the Hartford Advocate. Our favorite tidbit:

Harris concerned herself with raising her two children. She went by her married name and dropped completely out of music. Living in Florida, she kept her vocal chords in shape in church and at community functions. She moved to Hartford eight years ago, seeking better educational opportunities for her daughter Christina. She started giving vocal lessons at the Artists Collective.

Right around that time, Nashville entertainment attorney Fred Wilhelms negotiated a settlement with one of Harris’ old labels. The artists would finally see some of the royalties they were owed. But when he tried to find Harris, he came up empty.

Four years ago, Christina moved away to college and Harris got her a computer. One day, Christina called: “Mom, you’re famous.”

Her daughter had found several Betty Harris tribute websites created by soul fans. Then Harris looked at eBay and found her old 45s going for up to $50 a pop. She shelled out $20 for a CD compilation of her own music, the UK-released Soul Perfection Plus. (“One dealer in Georgia, after I sent him my picture with my order, never cashed the check,” she laughs.)

Realizing she still had a fan base, Harris joined a Southern Soul e-mail list and announced her whereabouts. She also cleared up some Internet rumors. Some sites said she had started as a maid for Big Maybelle, roadied for James Carr, and was now a truck driver. In reality, Harris had gotten some early vocal tips from Maybelle, recorded a duet with Carr, and had been married to a trucker.

The big lesson here: The Tubes are not always the most reliable source of information about vanished artists.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    That is a sweet track.

    I definitely wonder about all the rap stars who blow up and then drop off the map. Some of them must still be making music, albeit under the radar, but others must have returned to humdrum lives. That must make for some seriously weird psychological effects.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: It’s probably a huge test of a person’s true nature. Harris seems completely at peace with her decision to step away from the limelight. On the other hand, you have folks who will always regard those creative years as their apex, and will do anything to return to their former glory. And thus our culture is saddled with the sad specter of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

  • Gramsci

    “The Tubes are not always the most reliable source of information about vanished artists.”

    Though Betty Harris is indeed a beauty…

    http://www.thetubes.com/sitemap.htm

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Last year, my pal offered me free tickets to see these guys play at B.B. King’s in Times Square. I declined. And I haven’t regretted that decision for an instant.

  • hubcap

    Just a few weeks ago the Washington Post had a story on Herb Feemster, aka “Herb” of Peaches & Herb fame. He’s a security officer for the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. And in between his soul/R&B career in the 60s and disco career in the 70s/80s, he was…a DC cop.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/28/AR2009052803916.html

    I think people like me who wish they had this kind of talent underestimate how rough the touring musician lifestyle can be. Especially back then, and especially if you actually wanted to raise a family. I’d bet after crooked managers, promoters and record labels took their cuts the decision to give it up and live a straight life was pretty simple for Betty Harris & Herb Feemster.

    I dunno, people tell me that the music industry is dying. And yet I can listen to old Betty Harris cuts, order a Lee Fields LP (with mp3 download) and get tickets to see Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings all while sitting at my desk, leading my humdrum life. Couldn’t do THAT back in the 80s and 90s.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @hubcap: Wow, thanks a mil for the WaPo story. The story of how he became a cop seems so…so random. Just driving down the street one day, and he sees a D.C. Police recruitment trailer.

    Harris got bilked out of a lot of royalties, which probably led to some of her disenchantment with the biz.

    W/out The Tubes, Harris would never have been able to mount a comeback–and I would never have been able to post the cut above, either. As long as people are born being able to speak the language of music, we’ll have organized sound to soothe our ears.

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