Bettye LaVette is not thinking about her next album. And when she decides to change that, she won’t be wasting any time.
“I’m not thinking about that yet,” said the soul legend, who will perform Friday night on the NewPage Main Stage at the 2010 Cityfolk Festival, held at RiverScape MetroPark. “It could be a while, and when I do it, it’ll probably be like my others—we pull some stuff together in four days, get into the studio for a couple of days, and get done with it. I love to perform, but I do not like to record. It amazes me when people say, ‘Oh, I’ve been working on this album for three years.’ Get in there, sing the damn songs, and stop wasting your time and money.”
Gritty and languid of voice, familial in tone (“Baby” she called me many times, like a knowing aunt), with a raucous, throaty laugh and a salty gin-joint brand of wisdom, LaVette has seen and done it all, and she does not mince words.
Nearly 50 years ago, LaVette began her career as a professional musician in her hometown of Detroit, when her first single, “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man,” was released when she was only 16 years old. That success led to a whirlwind concert tour with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, and newcomer Otis Redding.
“It wasn’t happening to anyone else in the 9th grade,” she said with a laugh. “Otis and I were so young, just starting out. We had both released our first records on Atlantic, and we were there looking at these stars thinking, ‘I hope I can be like that one day.’ The rest of the people who started around 1962 are around 10 years older than me, except Stevie Wonder—he’s the only one who’s younger.”
Many of LaVette’s contemporaries reached mainstream success which eluded LaVette for much of her life, but her passion for singing drove her on. She toured the country playing wherever she could, and put in six years on Broadway in the cast of the hit musical Bubbling Brown Sugar alongside Cab Calloway during the 1970s.
“That was the most interesting thing I’ve ever done in showbiz. Learning to tap dance as an adult…that was very difficult. But in all, [that experience] was the way I thought showbiz was supposed to be. It was about a touring company during the ’20s, and when you did it, you dressed up, went out and danced for a few minutes, and you were a star. I got to throw my dress around and walk down long staircases and tap with Cab Calloway… It was really exciting.”
LaVette continued to record through the years, but remained in obscurity except to soul hardcore enthusiasts until the New Millennium, when, more than 40 years after recording her first record, 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise shot her to worldwide recognition with its blues-drenched, heart-scouring renditions of female-written songs like Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” and Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream.” Suddenly, Bettye LaVette was claiming—in short order, at high speed—the limelight which had eluded her for decades.
In 2006, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation gave LaVette its Pioneer Award, and 2007’s The Scene of the Crime, recorded with alt-rock band Drive-By Truckers, was Grammy-nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album. Always reaching for greater heights, LaVette created one of 2008’s lightning-in-a-bottle media moments with her performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. Invited to perform in honor of recipients Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who, so gut-wrenching and stunningly new was her transformation of “Love, Reign O’er Me” that during the thunderous ovation that followed, fellow honoree Barbra Streisand, profoundly moved by the performance, turned to Townshend and asked in amazement, “Did you really write that?”
Those who did not know Bettye LaVette before certainly knew her now, and since then, the triumphs just keep coming. The New York Times has gushed that she “now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation’s most vital soul singernow rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation’s most vital soul singer. She uses every scrape, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator’s sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song.” She performed “A Change is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. And this year, she released Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, featuring classics by the Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, and more, concluding with an audio recording of her famous Kennedy Center performance.
“The concerpt was my husband’s,” she said. “After the Kennedy Center Honors, he found 500 songs from the British Invasion era and went through them, and we narrowed them down.”
The Stones’ Keith Richards recently told NPR, “When you hear a voice like Bettye LaVette’s, there’s a sense of transportation, a certain freedom of movement and emotion,” and Jon Bon Jovi said of her after the inauguration performance, “Some singers sing… Then there is Bettye. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives each of them. I’ve heard it. I’ve stood close enough to see it in her eyes.”
So demanding is her tour schedule that LaVette rarely has time at home, but when she does, she relishes each moment.
“I really love to be at home. When I was young, I wanted to live running around in the streets—wanted to get dressed up and go out and be Bettye LaVette!, and now I’m sitting here at home, looking out at my lawn, with the water going around, and I’ve got my two kitties with me—Smokey and Otis. I spend time with my husband; he’s a record collector, historian, and dealer, and now they’re calling him ‘the ultimate soul collector.’ I met him online more or less as a fan. He gave me some advice I didn’t ask for, and I wrote back a rather nasty response to tell him I didn’t appreciate it. He flew to Detroit to make amends, and here we are,” she said, chuckling.
(I ask about one of her old albums. “Oh, I don’t know, I never remember any of that stuff. He knows all that.” She calls to him nearby. “Baby! What year was that?” He calls back a response. “That sounds right,” she says. “He knows my career better than I do.”)
“I love watching old movies,” she says. “When I’m home, that’s what I love to do. My favorites would be Casablanca and Now, Voyager. Anything black-and-white made before 1945, really. And sometimes I’ll turn on CNN and see what they’re doing to my president.” Her voice furrows with concern. “All the things they’re saying about the oil spill being Barack Obama’s Waterloo—I don’t believe that. When a problem gets solved, people move on to something else.”
The Huffington Post, which lauds Lavette as “the High Priestess of R&B,” said of Interpretations, “It’s astonishing to hear what depths can be found in these songs…LaVette inhabits these tunes, wraps her skin around them like some kind of song-eating monster. There’s something so deeply human going on here that it’s incantatory, so distinct that it’s indelible. So true that it dares to be ugly sometimes. So right that it can cause you pain.”
“I feel good about the new album,” she said serenely. “It’s been received wonderfully. This is as much due as I’ve ever gotten. The things the artists have said about my renditions of their songs, and the things the press has written… Most of my early career is attributed to lack of exposure. My career is not one you can just follow by the numbers—all you can do is go by when you heard of me. Now I’m beginning to connect everything together, though. All those years in between helped me to become an entertainer. Fame and money come and go, but entertainment will always survive. I had to stop wanting to be a star and learn how to be an entertainer, and I played everywhere I could—tiny bars for $20 a night—whatever was there, and I’m up here now with all the people I started with in 1962. No matter how much money anyone’s made, or how many panties have been thrown onstage, we all started together in 1962. And it feels good to be a part of that.”