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The life and tragic death of Betty Willis, a 1960s soul singer with Fresno roots

Betty Willis
Courtesy of Joseph Fenity
Betty Willis

This New Year’s Day marked six years since the death of Betty Willis. In the 1960s, Willis was a soul singer who worked with songwriters and producers like Leon Russell and Phil Spector.

The Willis family moved from the South when she was a child, eventually settling in Fresno, before Betty made her way to Los Angeles. Her life parallels that of Aretha Franklin in many ways: both women were from the South, sang the same genre of music and died at the age of 76.

However, while Aretha became known as the Queen of Soul, Willis died tragically in relative obscurity. She was sexually assaulted and killed while living on the streets of Santa Ana in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in 2018.

Her death briefly made local headlines and caught the attention of freelance journalist Joseph Fenity. For years he has followed the case, publishing an extensive piece in Los Angeles Magazine on Betty’s life and the long road to bring her killer to justice.

KVPR's Elizabeth Arakelian spoke to Fenity about his reporting and Willis' legacy. Hear their conversation in the audio player on this page.

Below: Betty Willis sings a soulful rendition of "Act Naturally," originally recorded by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos.

A Valley native, Elizabeth earned her bachelor's degree in English Language Literatures from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her master's degree in journalism from New York University. She has covered a range of beats. Her agriculture reporting for the Turlock Journal earned her a first place award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association. While in graduate school she covered the New Hampshire Primary for NBC Owned Television Stations and subsequently worked as a television ratings analyst for the company's business news network, CNBC. Upon returning to California, her role as a higher education public relations professional reconnected her to the Valley's media scene. She is happy to be back to her journalism roots as a local host at KVPR.
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