Soul siren Bettye Swann had been making records for labels big (Capitol Records) and small (Money Records) since 1965 when she connected with Atlantic Records, arguably America's most prestigious soul label, via a production deal with Rick Hall and his Fame Studio in 1972. Over the next four years, Atlantic issued seven singles by Swann with little commercial success, despite collaborating with a variety of fine producers and songwriters, but this collection makes it clear that quality was not the issue that kept Swann from hitting the upper reaches of the charts. The Complete Atlantic Recordings features both sides of those seven Atlantic singles, a 1976 duet single with Sam Dees, and seven tunes that either popped up on compilations or went unreleased, and while the approach of the production and arrangements shifts throughout the set, Swann's vocals are superb from front to back. Swann's style was a canny blend of the smooth sophistication of Chicago and Philly sounds and the emotional power of Southern soul, and she had a real knack for turning classic country tunes into soul workouts. Swann's versions of Tammy Wynette's "Till I Get It Right" and Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" are excellent, "Suspicious Minds" takes the Elvis Presley standard and gives it a tough, funky edge, and "All the Way in or All the Way Out" sounds like it should have found a place on both the C&W and R&B charts. Swann was also a sure hand with more traditional soul and R&B material, as her performances of "I'd Rather Go Blind," "This Old Heart of Mine," and "The Jealous Kind" confirm. The first few tracks, produced by Hall, sound like Memphis soul with a Motown accent in the arrangements, while four tunes arranged by Thom Bell and produced by the Philadelphia-based production team the Young Professionals play like classic Philly International outtakes, and the remaining tracks, produced by Brad Shapiro (best known for his work with Millie Jackson), lack the same force of personality but still provide a great showcase for Swann's talents. After Swann's contract with Atlantic ran out, she retired from music, and stayed out of the public eye until playing a show in England in 2013; The Complete Atlantic Recordings makes it clear she was a great underutilized talent, and fans of vintage soul will find this to be an unexpected delight.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming