Few artists could have struggled through a career as thoroughly frustrating as that of American soul singer Bettye LaVette and still continue to display the strength and good humor that she does.
After four decades of disappointments and obscurity in the music business, her perseverance is now paying off as, in her early 60s, she is at last getting the wider recognition and financial rewards that have long eluded her. In the last three years alone, she has released two new albums as well as some earlier work and has toured extensively worldwide, including an upcoming appearance at the Fuji Rock Festival.
Unlike many other soul singers, LaVette (born Betty Haskins in 1946) did not get her start singing at church. “My parents were too busy with hangovers on Sunday mornings to go to church,” she chuckles down the phone from her home in New Jersey.
LaVette was brought up in Detroit, where her parents, originally from Louisiana, had a liquor store. “We had a jukebox in our living room and I learned all the songs,” she says. “But we often had gospel groups in. This was during segregation. After they had done their shows, they couldn’t just go to a bar, so they went to where they could go, which was our place. So we had drunken pilgrim travelers around.”
These gospel strains, alongside an affinity for the looseness of country music, can be heard in LaVette’s vocal delivery, and these are also two features of the Southern soul style that was brought along during the blacks’ mass migrations to the North for work.
“It comes out naturally,” she says. “If you’re black and born before segregation was abolished, you were always with other blacks. You were exposed to everything. It’s natural.”
LaVette cut her first record in 1962 at 16 years old, the jumping “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man.” When the song became a top-10 hit on the R&B chart, she had a head start on her childhood friends in Detroit, such as the as-yet untested Aretha Franklin. In 1965, she scored a top-20 R&B hit with the instant classic “Let Me Down Easy,” a visceral, heart-wrenching expression of the pain involved in breaking up. The song became her calling card and a highlight of her live shows, which are now known across the globe as firebombs of pure emotion.
Capitalizing on her small successes by putting out a whole album was the necessary next step up, but this proved to be extremely difficult in the singles-driven market of her field. LaVette drifted from label to label, releasing a string of quality singles such as “He Made a Woman Out of Me” (1969) and her interpretation in 1970 of “Piece of My Heart,” originally recorded by Erma Franklin (big sister of Aretha). These gained her little exposure but were highly prized abroad, especially in the Northern Soul scene in England and Europe. Even Detroit’s own beacon soul label, Motown, initially passed her over — no doubt LaVette’s approach was too raw for the label that brought the world the sweet pop sounds of Smokey Robinson and The Supremes.
“I didn’t sing like other people; I didn’t sound like the No. 1 singer of the time,” she says. “And that’s the thing that hindered me. My producer Jim Lewis would say, ‘It sounds good if it sounds like you,’ and I used to say, ‘But it isn’t pretty!’ But he’d reply, ‘No, it isn’t pretty, but its soulful,’ and that took any fears I had away.”
LaVette came close to fulfilling her dreams when Atlantic Records took her to record an album in the storied town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 1972, whose studios have given birth to legendary soul recordings by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge (including his immortal “When a Man Loves a Woman”), as well as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and more. However, the rug was cruelly pulled out from under her feet when the result, earmarked for release under the title “Child of the Seventies,” was suddenly shelved. The move has been given no satisfactory explanation, although one theory is that with the rise of politically minded and overtly black-conscious funk music, by artists such as Funkadelic or Curtis Mayfield (who had just put out the legendary “Super Fly” album), LaVette’s brand of soul was somehow deemed out of step with the times.
Whatever the reason, it was a devastating blow. However, she kept her body and vocal chords in good shape so that she was ready whenever work beckoned. She spent much of the ’70s on Broadway, and traveling, with the hit musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” alongside jazz legend Cab Calloway. She finally released her first album, “Tell Me a Lie,” on Motown in 1982, which has just been rereleased this month, followed by “Not Gonna Happen Twice” in 1990 on Motor City. Neither of them got her to where she deserved to be, but she never gave up, even when she felt like doing exactly that — which, she admits, was approximately, “every two weeks, every time something didn’t work.”
Things finally moved up a gear when a dedicated soul collector in France got the tapes of her unreleased 1972 album and put it out in 2000, under the title “Souvenirs”; soul music fans hailed it as a long-lost masterpiece of the genre. It also brought about a renewed interest in LaVette and offers to record, so far, two new albums of material.
The first of these was “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” recorded in 2005 with Joe Henry, who also worked with Madonna and Aimee Mann. Throughout her career, LaVette has rarely written songs, preferring to interpret those written by others, and this album was a collection of 10 songs by contemporary female singer-songwriters, including Joan Armatrading, Dolly Parton and Sinead O’Connor. When taking on others’ songs she manages to completely make them her own, rephrasing the words, sometimes changing a few lines of lyric, adding a different emphasis to bring out new aspects of each song.
“All I can be is me; the only thing I have is my voice.” she says. “I have no choice but to do my own thing. I’m not competing with anyone, or chasing anyone.”
LaVette returned to Muscle Shoals in 2007 to record the aptly titled “Scene of the Crime.” For this album she channeled the story of her struggles in the business, resulting in the song “Before the Money Came (the Battle of Bettye LaVette).” A frank and defiant testimony to her strength and determination, it included such lines as, “All these years I kept my style / I wouldn’t crossover, so it took me a while.”
Referring to singers of her generation whose careers took off in the day when hers didn’t, LaVette comments: “I am 25 years behind my (peer) group. But I am the only one in my group who can fit into a size 6! I am ready to march on, for as long as I can march on.”
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