Bette McLaurin ©1999 JCMarion
In August of 1950, a new independent R & B label called Big Nickel Records releases a disc by the orchestra of Claude Hopkins, a veteran jazz and blues arranger and musician. One side features the vocal of Henry Wright on the song "Are You Forgetting Love". The flip side features the vocal by a new singer named Bette McLaurin. The song is "Crying My Heart Out Over You". By early 1952 Big Nickel Records is no more and Bette is signed to the Derby label. Eddie Wilcox is the musical arranger for the label and he chooses a Benjamin-Weiss song called "I May Hate Myself In The Morning" as a debut side for Bette. The song is recorded with the Rex Kearney Orchestra. The second side is the pop standard "I Hear A Rhapsody" and is released on Derby #790. Within days after its release, it is apparent that Bette has a winner. Soon the cover versions appear and the McLaurin side breaks into the pop field. Soon all the major labels have cover versions of the song out - Decca, RCA, Mercury, and Capitol. However the McLaurin original outsells them and the record gets into the top 25 best sellers in the country on the pop charts which is no small accomplishment for a R & B tinged record on an independent label in the early fifties.
Because of the success of the record, bookings for personal appearances, and demands for her time and talent overwhelm the new star. She appears at The Glass Bar in St. Louis, The Regal Theater in Columbus, Ohio, and embarks on a first class tour of Canada with The Inkspots. In September the followup record for Derby on #804 - "My Heart Belongs Only To You" is released and like its predecessor, does well in both the pop and R & B fields. McLaurin is suddenly a 'name' performer, and a big major, Decca, is looking to boost its R & B appeal using its subsidiary label Coral. With this game plan in place, they sign Bette McLaurin in late November to Coral Records. Bette closes out a most impressive year by appearing on stage at the Apollo Theater in New York for the 15th annual Midnight Benefit Show held by the Amsterdam News. Phil Rose formerly with Derby Records and now an A & R man with Coral is set to supervise Bette's recording sessions.
Very little resulted from the alliance with Rose and Coral Records in 1953, but Bette's two big hits on Derby led to a continuing presence on the personal appearance circuit. In January she was part of a big twin bill in St. Louis at the Riviera Club along with Willie Mabon. Later in the month Illinois Jacquet joins the two for a week at the Regal Theater in Chicago. The same three performers hit the theater trail for the next two months including stops at the Howard in Washington D.C., the Uptown in Philadelphia, and the Royale Theater in Baltimore. Phil Rose becomes personal manager for both Bette and Sarah McLawler. Later in the year Rose feels Coral is dragging their feet in providing opportunities for Bette and leaves in early October but remains as manager for Bette. As the year ends McLaurin plays a week at the Regal in Chicago and a week at Detroit's Flame Show Bar.
In January of 1954, Bette appears with jazz star Dizzy Gillespie, and comedians Dusty Fletcher and George Kirby at Philadelphia's Uptown Theater. Bette then goes on a series of one nighters in the East with the vocal group The Dew Droppers. In February Derby Records moves toward becoming a pop music label, and founds Central Records to be a R & B outlet for the company. Derby moves some unreleased masters by McLaurin to the Central label. In early March Central releases #1004 by Bette - "Who Can I Turn To" / "It's Easy To Remember". In late March Bette does a well received week at Chic's Nightclub in Detroit. By the summer of 1954 Derby Record's financial position is precarious and so Jubilee Records makes the move and signs Bette McLaurin to their label. That October Derby files for bankruptcy and this ends any further plans to release masters by McLaurin. Jubilee announces plans to market Bette as a pop music performer rather than a Rhythm & Blues singer.
In February of 1955 Jubilee releases #5179 - "Old Man River" and "How Can I?" but the marketing plans by Jubilee are a complete failure as the face of the music has changed greatly within the past year. By June Phil Rose, now the president of his own label Glory Records, signs McLaurin to his label and once again they form a partnership as they had at Derby and Coral-Brunswick. By now the proverbial handwriting was on the wall, as the field was wide open for the young rock & rollers to take over the market. Very few R & B performers made the transition, and for one like McLaurin who was always at the threshold of mainstream pop music, it was even more difficult to survive. In the mid and late fifties there were infrequent recordings and sporadic personal appearances, certainly none as a front stage headliner. Now and then there were releases by a number of small record labels into the mid sixties. Some examples : Pulse #1004- "As Long As You're Mine"; Conclave #334 - "I'm Afraid The Masquerade Is Over" / "Goodbye My Love" (also released on the O-Gee label in 1959) ; Almont #309 - "You're The Greatest". In 1957 Atco #6099 - "Autumn Leaves" and "What A Night For Love" does moderately well on the East coast and Bette appears at the Apollo Theater for a big holiday show at year's end presided over by Jack Walker.
Bette McLaurin was always a unique song stylist, and was one whose turn in the spotlight was certainly shorter than it should have been. Those two magnificent records for Derby in 1952 remain as the testament to a moment when the worlds of R & B and pop music were blurred and everyone could enjoy a super talent.
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