Bettye Swann 

Bettye Swann

Whereas today we have white men revealing the breasts of African-American women during Super Bowl halftime shows, back in the '60s members of different races were seldom seen sharing a TV screen. For instance, a Capitol Records bigwig once forbade young soul diva Bettye Swann from singing a duet with Buck Owens on his Hee Haw show, believing the world wasn't ready for an interracial duo professing their love during prime time.

This collection -- much never before heard on CD, but now liberated thanks to London-based label Honest Jon's -- is a unique artifact from this tumultuous period. Between 1968 and 1970, the twentysomething Louisiana native recorded numerous sessions with white LA producer Wayne Shuler, drawing heavily from white songwriters like Tammy Wynette, Hank Cochran, and the Bee Gees. But whereas the crossover material of, say, Ray Charles occasionally felt watered down for "mainstream" consumption, Swann's songs were uncompromisingly soulful, rife with fluid licks and amped horn parts -- the missing link between Motown's slick harmonies and Stax' feverish grit.

Mostly, these tunes deliver via Swann's voice, an instrument that sounded supremely optimistic even in the face of overwhelming sorrow -- almost like a smoother Aretha Franklin. The young singer could take hoary chestnuts like Chip Taylor's "Angel of the Morning" and Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" and make them truly swing. Even great soul songs, such as "Ain't That Peculiar" and "Tell It Like It Is," felt fresh and new in Swann's hands. She was no slouch as a songwriter either: Her own "(My Heart Is) Closed for the Season" deserves to be embraced by anyone trying to survive heartbreak.

By the mid-'70s, Swann had given up the music business and disappeared. When tracked down by the producers of this collection, she pointed to the "really rough times" she endured as the reason for quitting. Listening to Bettye Swann makes one grateful she was able to endure them as long as she did.

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