Tuesday, January 09, 2018

BETTY WILLIS - Homeless & Dead on New Year’s Day

"Oh, did you read that sad story about the woman who Brian Wilson discovered?" 

At four in the morning, New Year's Day, Betty Willis, homeless and sleeping in a California mall, was beaten to death during an attempted rape. That's the sad fact. 

The "fake news" is that she was Rachel of "Rachel and the Revolvers," a girl group invented by Brian Wilson and Gary Usher to fuse the California sound with Motown. No, she wasn't Rachel.

What she was, was a very talented singer who caught the ear of young producer Leon Russell. In 1965, he produced a single for her, including a cover of "Act Naturally." By 1968, with only a few singles and duets gathering dust in the record stores, she recorded her last song, ironically titled, "Ain't Gonna Do You No Good." She was disillusioned with the music business, disturbed by the amount of drinking and drugs that went with the lifestyle, and with a young daughter to raise, chose a more sedate and secure lifestyle working for the U.S. Post Office.

A sad fact about some of the homeless, is that they choose that lifestyle. Betty apparently had a pension from the post office, and most certainly had a daughter and other relatives, and even some concerned fans, but she took her meals at charity places for the indigent and slept in the mall.

California climate makes the homeless lifestyle a little less rugged than in other parts of America, and in San Francisco, there are "camps" where some, including aging hippies, seem to thrive. In quiet Santa Ana, Betty felt secure in her day to day life, and the crime rate not especially high. Rape is a crime of violence, not of sexual need, and there are a lot of angry, crazed bastards around. Like THIS guy

Willis (March 10, 1941-January 1, 2018) was born on a farm in Mississippi, but her family moved west to Santa Ana. Her singing seemed like her ticket to fortune. She started with a 1962 duet with Ray Lockhart for Rendezvous. It was credited to "Betty & Ray" and called "You're Too Much." She followed it with a solo effort, "Take Your Heart." Said Righteous Brother Bill Medley, "She had that quality that Leon Russell and myself were drawn to … that wonderful, black church soulful thing.” Her version of "Act Naturally," produced by Russell and recorded in 1965, was released on Phil Spector's Phi-Dan label.

 Listening to “Act Naturally” now, and you’d think, “Oh, that had to have been a hit. It’s Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound meets Motown.” You might even imagine that Goldie and the Gingerbreads (Genya Ravan) could’ve had a hit with it in England while touring with the Rolling Stones…doing her hysteric, overdramatic soulful raving, taking a simple song and detonating it into a funk bomb. 

But, no, this was recorded back when people barely wanted to hear Ringo Starr’s version. Aside from the few R&B radio stations, and the record stores in the black communities, this type of music was simply too raw for the average "easy listening" fan's ears. It would take years of The Beatles (and Lennon's "Twist and Shout") and Dylan and so much more before most people found pleasure in black music. At least, black music that wasn't sweetened and creamed up the way The Supremes did it, or Smokey Robinson. 

Medley's duet with Betty, 'My Tears Will Go Away,' would've been quiet controversial at a time when there was such segregation in the country. It never did get released, and he became busy with his new partner Bobby Hatfield, and their almost instant success with "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling." 

“She had the talent to make it, and she certainly deserved to make it,” says Bill Medley.  “It just breaks my heart to hear this … Damn… It’s a wonderful world, isn’t it?” 

 ACT NATURALLY, Betty's single produced by Leon Russell 

AIN'T GONNA DO YOU NO GOOD, Betty's last single, released in 1968

1 comment:

Anthony Reichardt said...

A beautiful tribute to Betty.
Anthony Reichardt
Santa Ana, California