With contemporary so-called R&B so dominated by Britney Spears wannabes in blackface, it's so pleasurable indeed to hear the real thing done by a seasoned artist who knows how it's done. Certainly Betty Harris's Intuition fits that bill -- to a tee! It's just an all-around musical pleasure.
Betty Harris perfected her soul, blues and R&B chops from 1958 to 1969, working with singer Big Maybelle and producers Bert Berns and Allen Toussaint, and touring with Otis Redding. Then she retired from music to raise her family, but fan notice posted on the Internet brought her back into performing again in 2005. In December, 2006 she teamed up with producer/engineer/songwriter/musician Jon Tiven to record Intuition, her debut solo CD, released on the well-regarded Evidence blues and soul label.
Harris knows well her roots, and her roots artists, but she's no clone. She's definitely her own blueswoman, but with tantalizing echoes of other roots greats such as Barbara Lynn and Tina Turner, and even spicy dollops of Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor. Also evocations of the great male artists of soul and soul-blues: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke and Little Milton.
Betty Harris is backed excellently on Intuition by a rightly understated soul-blues musical backdrop that partakes of blues, early 1960s R&B, soul, gospel and country. Perfect playing for a great voice showcasing 16 great songs, all of them A-side quality.
Tiven has appropriately kept the primary musical accompaniment to the basic guitars, rhythm section and keyboards, with no strings, and just the occasional use of an elemental horn section of trumpet and sax, or just sax, to emphasize, not dominate. Evocative roots, to be sure, but contemporary originality also: Intuition shows there's still plenty that can be done, and done freshly and excitingly, within the standard classic R&B/soul-blues format. No need for gimmicks when the vocals, songs and musicianship can carry it all on their own.
The excellent quality of the material make Intuition as much a songwriters' CD as it is a vocal artist's one. Fifteen of the 16 songs were written by Jon or Jon and Sally Tiven in collaboration with top creative others, including the arresting Bekka and Bonnie Bramlett; John Hahn, manager and songwriter for Shemekia Copeland; Keith Reid, writer for Procul Harum; "Piece of My Heart" co-creator Jerry Ragovy; the legendary Don Covay; and Betty Harris herself. Ten of the songs are in a soul groove, but "How to Be Nice" is gutbucket blues, and five others, "Who's Takin Care of Baby?" "Time to Fly," "Tell It to The Preacher Man," "Happiness Is Mine" and "A Bible and a Beer" are also straightforward blues.
As befits a soul-blues album, love is the principal theme here, both good love and bad love, but where the bad love usually just breaks the heart, not the bones. But "She Stays On" is about that other kind of bad love, a powerful, disquieting tale of a physically abusive husband and the woman who endures it. "Tell It to The Preacher Man" has an indirectly spiritual motif, while "A Bible and a Beer" definitively does not, it being the tale of a heartbroken woman seeking solace in combining the two!
Arrestingly different lyrical approaches abound, especially in "Who's Takin Care of Baby?" "Isolation (Someone to Hold)" and "Intuition." Freddie Scott, who had the pop hit "Hey Girl" in the early 1960s, duets with Harris on "Since You Brought Your Sweet Love," an affirmation of good love's togetherness banishing loneliness, a theme also emphasized in "Is It Hot in Here?" "You Do My Soul Good" and "Happiness Is Mine."
There's lots of great put-downs of bad love here too, notably in "Still Amazed," "A Fool Can Always Break Your Heart," "How to Be Nice" and "Time to Fly." "It Is What It Is" and "Need" describe the emotional travail of bad love pungently, from the woman's side.
These 16 tremendously creative songs, coupled with dynamite arrangements throughout, and topped with Betty Harris's deeply expressive vocals that wrap around each and every song like a perfectly-fitted glove, not only make Intuition an outstanding soul-blues album, they make a soul-blues album that is honestly a paradigm of the genre, soul-blues at its dynamic best.
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Photo by Greg Ballinger.