The name Betty Willis is one of the more obscure ones of classic 1960s Soul, and this Los Angeles-based singer would probably have not released a single note were it not for her associations with Leon Russell, who recorded and produced her in 1964 and 1965. But her musical pedigree actually goes back several years, and she is important in a different way. She was one of the first non-Beach Boys production for a very young and up-and-coming Brian Wilson, and according to James Murphy‘s fine, essential biography Becoming The Beach Boys, this was the first time Brian worked in the studio with his own studio band.
The story of how this single came to be is a humorous one. Hanging out with his friend and collaborator Gary Usher, the two were talking about making a Soul record, and playing around with the idea of getting a female vocalist in the studio. Being young and somewhat inexperienced, the two young men didn’t know any black female singers, so the two of them decided to drive into Watts and Compton one night and visited several nightclubs to see if they could find a girl to fill the role. After a few meetings, they were introduced to Willis, and she was brought into the studio to quickly record the songs.
The resulting single was credited to the band Rachel & The Revolvers, to give the impression of a girl group. Released on Dot Records, it came and went without much notice, which would become one of the odder, more inexplicable realities of Brian’s side productions. For a young man with a seeming Midas touch when it came to his own band, it’s somewhat inexplicable as to why his productions languished in obscurity.
It’s hard to understand why “The Revo-Lution” suffered such a fate. Leading in with an excited Brian countdown, it quickly becomes a fun, fast-paced dance number, with Willis’ voice powerfully belting out the song whilst being propelled with one helluva saxophone melody. It’s a pure dance groove that should have found an audience–and did many years later in the British Northern Soul scene. From the unique spelling of the title, one would be inclined to think that this was Brian trying to emulate the Little Eva hit from a few months prior, “The Loco-Motion.” One would indeed be correct, and one must certainly give Wilson credit for doing a damn fine job with this experiment.
The flip side to the single, “Number One,” is also a fine number; it’s a mellow ballad that highlights the sweeter side of Willis’s vocal talents. With snapping fingers and bit of a swing shuffle, it’s not as electrifying as its flip side, but it’s still a fine number and shows that Wilson was becoming a very fine songwriter.
This reminiscence, sadly, comes at the very tragic news of Ms. Willis’s fate; on New Years Day, Willis was assaulted by a mentally ill homeless man and died as a result of the attack. She only released a handful of sides in her life before leaving the industry. But it’s her work with Wilson–and the importance of the work she did with him–that will live on. Though her singles fetch outrageous sums, one can find both songs on the superb and essential Ace Records compilation Pet Projects: The Brian Wilson Production. (I reviewed this compilation upon its release in 2003.) RIP Ms. Willis.
(Note: It has been reported by a few friends of hers that Willis did not sing on this track. However, there seems to be evidence to show that this assertion is not correct, and while there may be differences in opinion, we choose to honor Willis on the assumption that those who have done significant historical research are correct. Regardless of who sang lead vocals–and listening to Ms. Willis’s other recordings it’s certainly easy to assume she sang on this single–the historical importance of this single in the history of Brian Wilson’s career is not tarnished by any possible confusion or disagreement as to who sang lead on these two sides.)
I knew Betty. Over our nearly 38 year friendship, we discussed her music extensively. She remembered every tune she recorded if it was pressed into a record. She never met Brian Wilson. She is not related to Alonzo Willis of the Alley Cats. She is not related Carolyn Willis of the Honey Cone. She is not the vocalist on ‘Revolution’ by Rachel & the Revolvers. Years ago, those claims were made and printed without any fact, only speculation.