Artist: Bette Smith
Label: Big Legal Mess
Release Date: 09.29.2017
There is perhaps no bigger struggle in an artist’s heart than the battle to find both self-expression and parental love. R&B singer Bette Smith found her gift at age five, in church, but her choir director father taught her that making money for performing music was the devil’s work. An indie label, Big Legal Mess, in Oxford, Mississippi, records artists like Robert Finley, the service veteran and former carpenter who finally received recognition for his music in his later years. Seems like a label that would understand Bette Smith, who first chose a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Arts Therapy. At last, her vibrant recording debut is here to bring healing and happiness to fans of singers like Sharon Jones, Betty Wright and Naomi Shelton.
Producer Jimbo Mathus, a roots music connoisseur, formerly played with of blues legend Buddy Guy. The arrangements look back to the mid-1960s, featuring Mathus on electric guitar and keys, stirring brass by Marc Franklin and Kirk Smothers (the Bo-Keys), and the able drumming of Bronson Tew (Ann Peebles).
Smith recently sang on a Hudson River pier in New York City, on a crisp September Sunday. Her pleasantly raspy voice was supported by a first-rate local band. While playing Isaac Hayes’ “Do Your Thing,” Gabriel Caplan (electric guitar) had the crowd clapping along, and Kaori Nakajimi (saxophone) won applause for her wonderfully chunky sound and great articulation. Smith danced through every song, her big natural ‘do bouncing in the breeze. She finished a rocking, soulful “I’ll Fly Away” with arms stretched happily toward the sky.
Minutes later, I asked her to name her influences. “Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding,” she began, then shouted “Etta! Etta James! I’m so sorry, Etta! How could I leave her out?!” She immediately returned to Hendrix. “I love the way he takes his time. He doesn’t try to sound like anyone else.” I mentioned that she sings originals and songs by others with equal authority; she nodded. “I try to sing each song with no reservations.” Asked about her goals, she answered quietly, firmly: “Grammy.”
On the CD, she’s taken steps in the right direction: “I Will Feed You,” Smith’s first original song, opens with a gospel choir and acoustic guitar, building to a dreamy, spiritual soundscape reminiscent of Sgt. Pepper’s. Smith is assertive and energetic on a cover of Lone Justice’s “I Found Love,” with Tew’s drums recalling early Charlie Watts. Drums, gospel choir, and electric guitars mesh seamlessly in a huge, lush arrangement of “Flying Sweet Angel of Joy,” as Smith celebrates the sacredness of 24/7 love.