Anne Steele Bio:
F. Scott Fitzgerald once opined “There are
no second acts in American lives…” Well, once again that quote
is being debunked, this time by Bette Anne Steele. To put it simply, she
is back for yet another act - at 72!
Bette Anne Steele realized early on what she wanted
to do in life…that was to sing. She grew up poor as an only child
in Richmond VA during the depression - a time when there was not much
to sing about. To her, music offered an escape and she began to dream
of being a star someday.
She remembers the first song she learned to sing was
Ella Fitzgerald’s “A Tisket a Tasket” when she was only
three years old. At night she recalls listening to the radio, hearing
the likes of Ella and Billie Holiday, dreaming that she too would sing
like them some day.
She began her professional singing career on the radio
at the ripe old age of five - when she was a regular on Harvey Hudson’s
show on WRVA in Richmond. She loved being on the radio and entertaining
During her high school years she won honors such as “Radio Queen
of Virginia” and honed her skills as a singer, entertaining people
at places such as the Tantilla Club in Richmond. She recalls one of the
highlights of her life came in 1952 when she got to interview Frank Sinatra
on WRVA while he was in Richmond promoting his latest record.
Her big break came with landing a solo vocalist slot
with the Buddy Morrow Orchestra in 1954. She went on the road with them
and toured the U.S. and Mexico with them for nearly a year paying her
dues. She recalls that it was a “great experience - but a grueling
one at that”. After the tour, she decided that life on the road
was not for her after all. She yearned to settle down and start a family,
so in 1955 she left the Buddy Morrow Orchestra to do just that.
She had no plans on giving up her singing career though
and she decided to move to New York City and pursue a career as a solo
artist. It wasn’t long before RCA records came knocking at her door
and offered her a recording contract. Among the songs she recorded was
“Suppertime”, a song made famous by Ethel Waters. Her old
friend Buddy Morrow conducted the orchestra at the sessions.
After RCA, she moved to Capitol Records where she recorded
such songs as “Give Me A Little Kiss” and “Mama He Treats
Your Daughter Mean” plus six other tunes.
her stint at Capitol and still looking for her niche, ABC Paramount beckoned
in 1956 with an opportunity to record what they felt was “A sure
number one hit”. The song was “Mr. Wonderful”. Few know
that she was the first vocalist to be given the song to record. Recorded
with the great Don Costa at the helm, the record had potential. In fact,
it was the “ #1 pick ” by Billboard Magazine.
At that time though, she had just given birth to her first child and it
was determined that she would not able to meet the promotional obligations
for the record. She recalls that ABC had “promised to give her exclusivity”
on the song but they did not keep their promise and within a few weeks,
both Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn released versions of the song. Since Peggy
Lee and Sarah Vaughn were both major stars at the time, their covers of
“Mr. Wonderful” garnered all the attention and went on to
become major hits for them. Even though both singers were idols of Bette
Anne’s, it didn’t lessen her disappointment and heartache.
All was not lost though, the B side, “Never Do A Tango With An Eskimo”
went on to become a hit in Japan.
To make matters worse, the music scene had changed dramatically
in 1956 with the arrival of Rock and Roll. In general, the music industry
was now geared towards Rock 'n' Roll, not the big bands, not her kind
the mid to late fifties, the big band era was all but gone. Many musicians
and singers of that era were left scratching their heads and wondering
what to do next. Bette Anne was one of them.
Around 1957, she was picked up by Canadian American
Records. The new label wanted her to record more “marketable”
and “youth oriented” tunes. To be sure, she liked some of
the “new” rock and pop music going on at the time but she
had always considered herself a big band and jazz vocalist first and foremost.
She said that she never really felt comfortable performing some of the
songs she was given to record while with Canadian American. Not that she
didn’t like the music, she just felt a little out of place. Canadian
also encouraged her to take a stage name as part of her “reinvention”
process. The name she chose was Betsy Brye, a name inspired by her daughter
Susan Bryant “Brye”.
Some of her best material was recorded around this time.
Her haunting cover of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”
being one of the stand-outs. She was the first to record a vocal version
of this tune, and it charted in the summer of 1959.
During 1959 she continued on in New York and performed on Allen Freed’s
TV and radio shows. She also performed at a couple of concerts he organized
and produced that year at Brooklyn’s famous Fox Theater, sharing
the stage with the likes of Sam Cook, Leslie Uggams, Bo Didley and Jackie
She continued recording and performing on occasion into the early sixties.
Some of the highlights of this period were appearances with Johnny Carson
and Andy Williams.
By the 1961, she had finally had enough and decided
to retire from recording, get out of the showbiz rat race, and focus on
raising a family. Over the years she would continue to perform here and
there but these performances were few and far between.
Many have commented “If she had only been born
ten years earlier she would have made it big…”. As they say
in show biz though, “Timing is everything” and it just wasn’t
meant to be…
Many here in Richmond VA have not forgotten her though.
Now in 2005 she is back singing again on a semi-regular basis around Richmond
- performing some of her favorite traditional jazz standards to enthusiastic
audiences with the Russell Wilson Trio and loving every minute of it.
She also went back in the studio for the first time
in years. In the fall of 2004 she cut a five song CD featuring some of
her traditional jazz favorites.
She has never lost the love and thrill of entertaining
and singing her favorite songs to a receptive and appreciative audience.
She plans to continue to entertain, delight, and give us a smile for many
years to come…
“Never give up and keep reaching for tomorrow”
she likes to say.
- Scott Richards, Summer 2005