Betty Everett: The Reluctant Pop Star

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ImageQuitting her professional singing career has apparently been foremost in Betty Everett’s mind ever since she made her debut single in 1957. Yet she continues in the music business and, at the same time, seems honest when she says she’d rather perform for churchgoers than record anything at all.

Not surprisingly, Betty’s early musical training took place in a church, where she began singing and playing piano at the age of six. It is ironic, however, that the musical expertise gained there would help lead her away from the religious life she never really wanted to leave.

By the time Betty turned 17, her talent had carried her from the piano bench at Greenwood, Mississippi’s Sacred Heart Church to the night club stages of Chicago. There she met Muddy Waters and accepted an invitation to go on the road with his group; but, already hesitant about developing a musical career, she said goodbye to the bluesman after only three weeks.

Shortly thereafter, the singer was offered a steady gig with Ike Turner’s band, which she joined briefly in St. Louis. For the same reason she’d left Waters, however, and also because, at this point, she felt uncofortable around other musicians (“I’d been pretty sheltered at home”), Betty soon quit Turner’s show as well.

Returning to the Windy City, the reluctant performer was singing solo in a club—appropriately named The Hideaway—when record company people began to notice her. Despite Betty’s uncertainty about continuing her career, she signed a contract with the One-Der-Ful label, on which she quickly racked up her first big hit, “You’re No Good.” Then she moved to Vee Jay and scored with “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” a 1964 million-seller, and “Let It Be Me,” a duet with Jerry Butler. Now recording for Fantasy, she has recently released an LP, Love Rhymes, and a single, “Sweet Dan.”

Though Betty’s status in the music world has been rising steadily, she sounds unexcited when she discusses her career. She says she has given up songwriting because “my mind is not there.” She suggests that questions about her albums’ musical backup be referred to her producers and that queries about her producers be directed to her record company.

Apparently not granted control over—or not concerned with—those facets of studio work, Betty seems equally uninvolved with other aspects of the music she makes her living from. She doesn’t know what song occupies the flip side of her latest single, for instance, and she expresses open dislike for “The Shoop Shoop Song” as well as for much of the other material she has recorded.

“Clearly, even after almost 20 years in the business, Betty would still rather be surrounded by stained-glass windows and rows of pews than by studio control boards and night club walls. Since she’s having trouble making the break, the logical compromise woudl seem to be for her to continue making records while also performing liturgical music in a parish.

When asked about this, however, she explains: “That would be straddling the fence. Either I’m gonna sing spirituals and be in the church or I’m gonna do the other. I don’t believe you can serve God and serve the devil, too.”

Why does she equate her current occupation with lending Satan a hand? “Because of my religious belief. We don’t believe in working clubs and all that. We also don’t believe in smoking. We don’t believe in drinking. We don’t believe in a whole lot of things.”

Then why the devil—if she will forgive the expression—doesn’t Betty just quit popular music? “Because I don’t feel I’m ready. In order for me to stop today, I would really have to have a made-up mind. Right now, I don’t.

“When the time comes for me to quit and go back to doing spirituals in the church, I think I’ll know. But because I have a longing to do it, I know that I’ll eventually return to religious singing.”

Betty predicts that she will abandon popular music within the next three years so she can return to0 what she considers her natural calling.

“Three years,” she repeats in a firm voice, and then adds hopefully, “if not before then.”

Epilogue: Everett recorded little popular music after this 1974 interview, but she never entirely renounced the genre: Her last public appearance came on Doo Wop 51, a PBS TV special that aired around the year 2000. She died in 2001 at the age of 61.

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