Bettye LaVette: Grammy-Nominated Soul Singer
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The last date listed for Soul Singer Bettye LaVette was Thursday January 8, 2009 / 10:00pm.
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Who is Bettye LaVette you ask? The simple answer is Ms. 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.
Unfortunately, it says much about the vagaries of the popular music industry that, although LaVette has been recording for over four decades, up until recent years she has remained criminally unknown.
For her 2008 Grammy nominated CD “The Scene Of The Crime”, Bettye Lavette and Drive-By Truckers collaborate on this one-of-a-kind record filled with mini-dramas about life, love and survival. A blistering mix of anguished soul & greasy rock & roll, laced with the with the swampy guitars, Spooner Oldham’s slippery Wurlitzer piano and Bettye’s razor sharp voice.
Her career began some 40 plus years ago but it wasn’t until this millenium that she came into any spotlight at all. And this ‘Great Lady Of Soul’ is certainly making up for lost time. Bettye LaVette, is a 2008 Grammy nominee, a two-time 2008 Blues Critic Award Winner (Best Soul Blues Album and Best Blues Singer: Female). She has topped best of 2007 lists around the world. LaVette came in at #9 on Entertainment Weekly’s Best Records of the Year and landed the #1 spot on No Depression’s critics’ poll. Entertainment Weekly dubbed LaVette as “a force of nature we’ll just have to settle on labeling as awesome.” Scene of the Crime also conquered Best of ’07 lists in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. LaVette was also celebrated in Best Of polls in music magazines and online outlets including Mojo, Paste, Harp, All Music Guide, Pop Matters, Metromix, Living in Stereo and countless others.
However, it wasn’t always so rosy.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 springtime 1965. Released on Nathan McCalla’s Calla label, LaVette’s version of “Let Me Down Easy” was a starkly atmospheric record with the singer’s emotionally-strained voice pitted against a haunting string chart by future Stax arranger Dale Warren and biting lead guitar fills courtesy of Nathaniel Stokes. Bettye recut the song in 1969 for Ollie McLaughlin’s Karen label and to this day “Let Me Down Easy” remains the feisty 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” (later covered by Bobbie Gentry), the disco club hit “Doin’ the Best That I Can,” “Hey Love,” written expressly for Bettye by Stevie Wonder, and covers of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “What Condition My Condition Was In,” the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Joe South’s “Games People Play,” Erma Franklin’s “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” Free’s “The Stealer,” Joe Simon’s “It’s Your Turn to Cry” (called “Your Time to Cry” when originally cut by Simon), Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” and Etta James’ “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, stems from the tutelage and guidance of her late manager Jim Lewis. A veteran of the big band era having played with the screaming and stomping Buffalo-based Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Lewis managed LaVette for ten years beginning in 1968 and constantly harped on her to listen to master song interpreters such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, pointing out the intricacies of phrasing and timbre manipulation that are part and parcel of the sonic art of any truly great vocalist.
It wouldn’t be until 1982, twenty years after her debut forty-five, that Bettye finally saw the release of her first album, the Steve Buckingham-produced 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 r&b 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 Ian Levine’s 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.”