Dad was a church choir director who got Bette Smith singing from the pulpit at age five; mom was a gospel music addict, Mahalia Jackson and Reverend James Cleveland platters on the record player. But her older brother was a soul music junkie, exposing her to Otis Redding and Gladys Knight. And at the block parties of her youth in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, when the microphone came her way, the soul just flowed out — up through her swaying hips, her powerful lungs, her great big heart and out through the teeth, a booming range spanning all 88 keys of the piano.
She was discovered in a roundabout sort of way, not by a producer or manager but by a lawyer who saw her sing at a street fair. This attorney was friends of a friend of producer Squirrel Nut Zippers’s Jimbo Mathus. Smith trekked from Brooklyn to Mississippi to record with him, and ultimately that became her 2017 debut album Jetlagger. “She’s the swaggering proof that there is nothing dated about soulful rock and roll sung with attitude, defiance, and a take-no-prisoners aesthetic,” raved American Songwriter.
Her stage presence is similarly indelible: bodacious outfits, constantly bringing a shimmy, sass and a floodlight-bright smile. Brooklyn has brought us modern soul legends Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley — and Bette Smith is block-partying her way right onto that tier.
Biography by Jason Markusoff