Born: 1946 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Bettye LaVette is one of the greatest soul singers in American music history, possessed of an incredibly expressive voice that one moment will exude a formidable level of strength and intensity and the next will appear vulnerable, reflective, reeking of heartbreak. Although LaVette has been recording for over four decades, up to this point she has remained relatively unknown.
Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946, LaVette grew up in Detroit. Despite the palpable level of emotion and fire breathing intensity that permeates the essence of her vocal art, LaVette is one of the very few soul singers who did not get her start singing in the church. “Discovered” at the age of 16 by the legendary Motor City music raconteur Johnnie Mae Matthews, LaVette’s first single was the insouciantly swinging “My Man--He’s a Loving Man.” Recorded initially for Northern in the fall of 1962, the record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The net result was a Top 10 R&B hit that just missed the pop Hot 100 and would be eventually covered by both Tina Turner and Ann Peebles.
LaVette next hit the charts with the Dee Dee Ford penned “Let Me Down Easy” in early 1965. She rerecorded the song in 1969 for the Karen label and to this day “Let Me Down Easy” remains the singer’s theme song, serving as a climactic, gut wrenching showstopper night after night on her incendiary gigs.
Over the next three-plus decades LaVette cut a string of consistently strong singles for Big Wheel, Silver Fox, SSS, TCA, Atco, Epic, West End, Motown and Bar/None. Among her more notable recordings were the sultry Top 30 chart entry “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Doin’ the Best That I Can,” and “Hey Love,” written expressly for Bettye by Stevie Wonder. She went on to do soul covers of “What Condition My Condition Was In,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Games People Play,” “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” “The Stealer,” “It’s Your Turn to Cry” “Heart of Gold,” “Behind Closed Doors,” and “Damn Your Eyes.”
As the above list of covers makes manifest, Bettye has always had big ears and a wide open mind, preferring to fulfill the role of a song interpreter, rather than attempt to write her own material. “I’m a better editor,” insists the diminutive singer. “If you make a statement, I can make it a stronger statement. And, if you write a story, I can make it a stronger story. But, I rarely think of a story I ever want to write myself.”
Bettye’s near mystical ability to get inside a song’s lyric, melodic line and harmonic implications, in the process invariably making anything she covers her own.
Despite the wealth of quality recordings that Bettye cut over the years, only six of her forty-fives managed to chart R&B and none of them broke into the pop Top 100. In 1972, on her second go round with Atlantic Records, LaVette headed down to Muscle Shoals with the Memphis Horns and producer Brad Shapiro to cut her first full-length album. The recordings were mastered and readied for release under the title Child of the Seventies before the powers-at-be at Atlantic mysteriously pulled the plug, unconscionably shelving the record for nearly thirty years before French soul collector Gilles Petard licensed the recording from Atlantic and released it in 2000 in France on his Art and Soul label under the new title “Souvenirs.” Soul fans the world over were stunned by what was clearly a heretofore unknown masterpiece
It wouldn’t be until 1982, twenty years after her debut forty-five, that Bettye finally saw the release of her first album, “Tell Me a Lie.” Cut in Nashville, again with the Memphis Horns, and released by Motown, the album’s lead single, the Hi-influenced “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love),” clawed its way to #35 on the charts. Save for a stunning cover of Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes,” issued on cassette by Bar/None in 1997, and a handful of recordings for the Motor City Soul label, that was the end of Bettye’s recording career until her storied comeback after Petard’s decision to release “Souvenirs.”
Subsequent CDs have included the live “Let Me Down Easy--In Concert,” issued by the Dutch Munich label, and 2003’s “A Woman Like Me,” released on Blues Express. The latter helped Bettye win the coveted W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year” as well as the Living Blues critic pick as “Best Female Blues Artist of 2004.” Also in 2005; The Blues Critic Award: Best Female Blues Singer. In 2006, she was honored with The Rhythm and Blues Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. Living Blues again picked her in 2007 for Blues Artist of the Year, and Most Outstanding Blues Singer.
LaVette has been on a roll since her 2005 release on Anti Records, “I've Got My Own Hell to Raise” which brought her back into the national spotlight, 43 years after her first single “My Man is a Loving Man,” was released in 1962 when she was a teen. This roll only gathered more strength and critical acclaim when Anti issued her second CD for the label in 2007, the Grammy nominated, “The Scene of the Crime.” She was also featured in the film documentary Blues Divas.
She performed at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors where she received a standing ovation from the all star audience; and then started 2009 by performing Sam Cooke’s revered anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebration.
In 2010 LaVette released Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. The album is a 13-song journey through compositions by the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd among others. Throughout this record her performances are a revelation not just of raw emotion, but of the inexorable ties between British rock ‘n’ roll and American blues and R&B, which when combined, catalyzed popular music.
Source: Rob Bowman