It Was 50 Years Ago Today: A Mysterious Outsider Upsets Stevie Wonder Atop the R&B Chart

July 25, 1967
“Make Me Yours” by Bettye Swann
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, July 22 – August 4, 1967

One of the hazards of focusing solely on #1 records is that it gives a distorted view of what was really going on in popular music. This limitation is especially apparent in soul music.

By this point in time (1967), the top of the R&B charts was guarded by the three-headed Cerberus of Motown, Stax, and Atlantic, which let few outsiders pass. But for decades, R&B (and its predecessor, “race music”) had been the province of local scenes and fly-by-night labels. Even Motown and Stax were essentially regional labels that got lucky.

Occasionally, however, glimpses of the outside world of soul would manage to break through. Such was the case with Bettye Swann, a Louisiana native who signed with the Los Angeles-based Money Records in the mid-’60s. Money was a tiny label with no distinctive sound of its own and only one real hit to its name: “The Jerk” by the Larks (not to be confused with the more popular ‘50s group of the same name), which topped the Cash Box R&B chart in 1964.

Swann’s first single, the self-penned “Don’t Wait Too Long,” peaked at a respectable #27 on the R&B charts in 1965. For a talented singer-songwriter on an obscure label in a flooded soul market, it was as well as could be expected. Two years later, however — at the apex of Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough, fresh off eight straight weeks of “Respect” at #1 — the unknown Swann would emerge out of nowhere to topple the mighty Motowner Stevie Wonder from the top of the R&B charts.

“Make Me Yours” had to sound like a throwback in 1967: it follows none of the trends of the era like Motown’s psychedelic flourishes or the gutbucket hard soul out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Instead, “Make Me Yours” could almost fit alongside Mary Wells’ singles from half a decade earlier with its supper-club instrumentation, prominent use of vibes, and light jazzy swing. Swann shares Wells’ vocal precision as well — she’s not a gospel belter or bluesy stylist but a controlled singer with a light, airy touch. But whereas Wells always sounds self-possessed, Swann’s vocals are cloaked in vulnerability. On particularly emotional notes, her native Southern grit peeks through.

 

Her own label couldn’t even spell her name right.

This contrast between vocal control and glimpses of suppressed emotion gives Swann an endearing, natural appeal that a more demonstrative or acrobatic singer couldn’t quite match. It also exemplifies the conflict at the heart of the song.

 

“Make Me Yours” is uptempo with a jaunty horn section and lyrics about being in love. Yet Swann tumbles out her words in a breathless torrent as if trying to win over the one she loves through sheer word power or to forestall a possible rejection by not letting him get a word in edgewise. When she sings, “Make me yours,” it’s not an encouragement or a celebration, but a plea that she fears might not be answered.

Perhaps it was this undercurrent of uncertainty beneath an otherwise cheery love song that made “Make Me Yours” resonate with listeners. Maybe it was its breezy, low-key sound that stood out from the more emotionally intense and ambitiously produced records of the era. Whatever it was, “Make Me Yours” was a genuine surprise hit. Swann spent two weeks atop the R&B charts, interrupting the four-week run of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her,” which itself interrupted Aretha Franklin’s reign (falling immediately between “Respect” and “Baby I Love You”). “Make Me Yours” also crossed over to the pop charts, peaking at #21 on the Hot 100.

Despite the success of her song, however, Swann never quite established herself as a soul star. After the success of “Make Me Yours,” she left Money Records for the major label Capitol. Swann earned a decent-sized hit with a cover of country singer Jeannie Seely’s “Don’t Touch Me” in 1969 and charted a couple more times with “Victim of a Foolish Heart” in 1972 and Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” in 1973. By the mid-’70s, however, her recording career had come to an end. A decade earlier, Swann had emerged from seemingly out of nowhere and from another time. Perhaps it was inevitable that she would vanish just as mysteriously as she came.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.