Bettye LaVette is the last great vernacular black singer that almost no one knows. She is 66 years old, and her first record, “My Man - He’s a Lovin’ Man,” came out in 1962, when she was sixteen. Eight or ten years ago, she was singing three shows a night on Saturdays, at Bomacs Lounge, in Detroit. The performance at the Kennedy Center was the first time that LaVette had been seen by millions of people. LaVette is small and vehement. Although she is most often described as a soul singer, she doesn’t regard herself as one.
She was born in Muskegon, Michigan, in January of 1946. She met her first husband, Alphonso Mathis, when she was thirteen, and she became pregnant when she was fifteen. A friend introduced her to the musicians Timmy Shaw and Johnnie Mae Matthews, and, in 1962, she recorded “My Man - He’s a Lovin’ Man” (Atlantic Records). She went on tour with some other singers, but her second and third records didn’t do so well. In the mid-sixties, she left Atlantic and started singing with Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford at a club in Harlem.
LaVette describes her voice as “very harsh and very gruff”; its signal characteristic is a prominent catch. She spent part of this summer opening for Robert Plant, and she claims that she’s not a music enthusiast. In 1972, LaVette went to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, to make an album for Atlantic which she hoped would make her a star, but Atlantic decided not to release it. A French fan persuaded the company to let him release the record in Europe, in 2000, and it was released in America later, as “Child of the Seventies.” For years, LaVette played casuals— gigs where you sing one night and go home. Commerce likes categories, and LaVette is not easily classified. She is a rough-singing woman who sounds Southern and rural but whose attitude, manner, and technique are those of a Northern big-city musician." Read more:
Robert Plant's invitation to Bettye to open his July Tour followed her rendition of the Led Zeppelin classic, "All of My Love". The invitation to join the legendary Zeppelin vocalist is not so much a notch in Bettye's belt as another link in the chain. Her latest work is an impassioned dissertation on the much-documented influence that American blues and soul had on British rock n' roll - but more than that, it's an exploration of how those echoes from a foreign shore in turn influenced and reshaped American blues and soul.
The Tonight Show performance heralded the release of her eagerly-awaited new album,
"Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook". Leonce Gaiter declared her; "The High Priestess of R&B".
Bettye LaVette with Jay Leno - image courtesy of The Tonight Show
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".
Bettye LaVette performed "Change is Gonna Come" on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson on Wednesday, June 24.
Bettye LaVette played to an extremely appreciative sold-out crowd at Joe's Pub, above, recently where, for the first time in nearly a decade, she performed a cabaret-style show accompanied only by her pianist and music director, Al Hill.
Called "The sexiest female vocalist alive" by Esquire magazine, Bettye brought the theatricality into her set mixing a viscerally shattering delivery of songs from every style of popular music from Thelonious Monk to Bruce Springsteen and chronicling her life stories in between.
According to respected music journalist/author/songwriter Dimitri Ehrlich in Uptown Social: "She sings, she smolders, she testifies… standouts included a shiver-inducing cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold", as well as re-workings of songs by the Beatles, Ray Charles and her old friend Otis Redding. LaVette still brings a world of pain to every note. "An extraordinary combination of raw emotion and sublime musical intelligence enhances a voice hinting at decades of disappointment, cigarettes, tear stained pillows and benders. Times may have changed, but the yearning and unbearable soul-bruising are still there".
The evening included such tunes as Neil Young's "Heart of Gold", The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", the Buddy Johnson penned timeless "Save Your Love For Me", Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight", the Jerry Butler/Otis Redding collaborative classic "I've Been Loving You Too Long", Bettye's first single at 16, "My Man - He's a Lovin' Man", the Billy Strayhorn composed standard "Lush Life", Sam Cooke's unforgettable "A Change is Gonna Come", among others. Bettye chose to close her show with the gut-wrenching Springsteen number "Streets of Philadelphia".
Having conquered the ghosts of a hard-luck past on her GRAMMY-nominated CD, "The Scene of the Crime", Bettye LaVette shines a new light on that past with her latest, "Change is Gonna Come" Sessions. The digital-only EP for Anti- Records revisits Bettye's forgotten post-Atlantic Records years as a nightclub singer, Broadway performer, and touring cast member opposite Cab Calloway in "Bubbling Brown Sugar."
The EP opens with a stirring solo version of Sam Cooke's posthumous Civil Rights anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come", a song which Bettye sang with Jon Bon Jovi in January as part of the "We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial" concert. Joining Bettye for these Sessions are pianist and musical director Al Hill, veteran bassist John Heard – who has accompanied such luminaries as Count Basie, Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald, and Art Pepper – drummer Danny Frankel KD Lang, Lou Reed, and Tom Hagerman from DeVotchKa on strings.
A mix of standards and soul classics from Bettye's 1970s stage and nightclub repertoire rounds out the 6-song set, including songs by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Withers, and Jimmy Reed. A rendition of Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child" – a song that Bettye first performed with show-stopping magnificence in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" – highlights Bettye's vocal mastery. Rather than attack, Bettye approaches these tracks with subtlety – while nonetheless wresting every ounce and every nuance of meaning from the words she sings. Once more, Bettye provides the definitive answer to the question posed by NPR in its review of The Scene of the Crime: "Is there any soul singer who brings more guts, more conviction and more emotion to her singing?" Absolutely not.
On the night he was elected president, Obama referred to Cooke's civil rights anthem when he said, 'It's been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.' It's been a long time coming as well for LaVette…What an absolute thrill to see her finally gain the long-overdue recognition she so richly deserves."
Track Listing: 1. "A Change is Gonna Come" (Sam Cooke) 2. "'Round Midnight" (Thelonious Monk) 3. "God Bless the Child" (Billie Holiday / Arthur Herzog) 4. "Lush Life" (Billy Strayhorn) 5. "Ain't No Sunshine" (Bill Withers) 6. "Ain't That Lovin' You" (Jimmy Reed)
In other recent news, Bettye made her Tonight Show debut performing "I Still Want to be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am)"
from her Grammy-nominated CD The Scene of the Crime.
LaVette nominated for the 2009 Blues Music Award for "Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year"
Bettye's most recent Grammy-nominated CD, " Scene of The Crime", earned her praise across the board, from NPR, which asked "Is there any soul singer who brings more guts, more conviction and more emotion to her singing?" and Entertainment Weekly, which echoed, "Is there a more wrenching soul singer alive than Bettye LaVette? If so, keep it to yourself, because I'm too wrung out from Crime's intensity to take anything more emotionally potent", to USA Today, "This album…just rips, with some truly sublime peaks.", and Rolling Stone, "LaVette's nuanced singing evokes prime Tina Turner with even more command".
Bettye LaVette, the 45+ year veteran of American soul music has filmed a new video for what is arguably the most moving track from the Grammy nominated "The Scene of the Crime": the poignant re-interpretation of the Elton John classic "Talking Old Soldiers."
It was filmed by Lex Halaby (The Frames, Atmosphere) in The Locker Room, a bar in her hometown of Detroit, MI, where she spent many a night feeling the things that appealed to her in the lyrics of the song. The video captures in Bettye all the disappointment and loneliness that lyricist Bernie Taupin imbued in his timeworn veterans, and adds the distinctly modern cry of a woman and an artist aging in a young person's game. Bettye said she chose to record "Talking Old Soldiers", because "it is a true segment of my life."
In his Pick of the Week at USA Today, critic Ken Barnes wrote: "The Detroit soul survivor transforms Elton John's "Tumbleweed Connection" obscurity into a tour de force about outliving the people one loves the most. "How the hell do they know what it's like to have a graveyard for a friend?", she wails, looking around the bar at the youngsters who've dismissed her as a crazy old broad… LaVette's chill-inducing performance is without question one of the finest you'll hear all year."
Still, while the song may be a lament, the overarching vibe of "The Scene of the Crime" is one of redemption and triumph. The album marks Bettye's second for Anti- Records, and on it, she returns to the city of Muscle Shoals, AL, where some of her earlier work had been recorded, yet remained unreleased for years, this time with backing band Drive-By Truckers. The master song interpreter with a reputation for ferocity and perseverance, backed by this band of rock 'n roll outlaws, together created a record as emotional as one of her highly regarded live performances.
"LaVette's nuanced singing evokes prime Tina Turner with even more command." - Rolling Stone "Living proof that classic soul is as durable a style as any brand of American music." - New York Times "LaVette sings 'Scene' as if she's been backed into a corner and relishes the sensation." - Village Voice
You can also now get Bettye's "Do Your Duty". Sundazed have remastered the Silver Fox/SSS International tracks from 1969-70. Produced by Leland Rogers with the Sounds Of Memphis studio guys, who went on to become known as The Dixie Flyers.
Bettye Lavette makes a special appearance on Austin City Limits. Bettye @ Austin City Limits
For the past 33 years, Austin City Limits has been televising rare and intimate performances from some of the most important artists in music. On October 11th, soul legend Bettye LaVette will take her place in a long list of luminaries who have appeared on the show - everyone from Ray Charles to the Pixies, Van Morrison to the Dixie Chicks.
"When Austin City Limits debuted in 1975 with Willie Nelson as its first performer, no one – not the producers, not the network, not the fans, not even Willie – knew that this 60-minute show from a PBS station in a mid-level market would become a cultural institution. But we have, thanks to an impressive roster of artists drawn to our straightforward, no-muss-no-fuss aesthetic and a production team that works solely to highlight the artist. In studio 6A, the spotlight sits squarely where it needs to be: on the performance."
Bettye LaVette will not disappoint. Playing with her scorching and perceptive backing band - Alan Hill on keyboards, Darryl Pierce on drums, Brett Lucas on guitar and Chuck Bartel on bass – the veteran performer has been honing her skills, touring non-stop in support of 2007's critically acclaimed and Grammy nominated The Scene of the Crime.
"LaVette…isn't just an engaging performer, she's a musical force of nature, a hurricane in heels that whips up a fiery mix of soul, jazz, country and blues." - The Houston Chronicle
"LaVette radiated strength and conviction on anguished, sould-searching ballads…[and] on up-tempo numbers, LaVette had all the moves, timing and intonation of a stage veteran, prancing, prowling and dancing, nonstop." - The Seattle Times
Revered for her ability to take other's compositions and make them her own, LaVette will be performing a number of covers during her performance on Austin City Limits, including the Elton John tear-jerker "Talking Old Soliders", to which, characteristically, Bettye adds a certain amount of defiance missing from the original. Called "the album's tour-de-force and true gravitational center" by Patterson Hood (The Scene of the Crime's co-producer and member of Drive By Truckers, who backed Bettye on the record),
Bettye LaVette is awarded "Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist 2008" at the Blues Foundation's Blues Music Awards.
"Critics have lined up to call her the greatest soul singer alive. But LaVette, recently argued that ''soul'' is a white man's misnomer. Maybe best blues interpreter, then? A track like ''Talking Old Soldiers'' — crooned in a bar to a stranger, by an aging drunk who's seen all her friends die — gets to the essence of despair the way great blues does... even if it's actually an Elton John cover. Enlisting the Drive-By Truckers as her rowdy, ragged backup band, LaVette continues to imbue her other borrowed tracks (from Don Henley, George Jones, and Willie Nelson) with grit, anguish, and even some serious sex appeal. She's a force of nature so we'll just have to settle on labeling as awesome." - EW.COM
R&B Foundation Board Member, Bonnie Raitt, with Bettye LaVette, R&B Foundation Pioneer Award Winner, 2006.
The R&B Foundation Pioneer Award Winners 2006
Berry Gordy, Lifetime Achievement Award
Otis Redding, Legacy Award
Thom Bell, Songwriter, Sideman, Entrepreneur Award
Chubby Checker, Individual Award Recipient
Bettye LaVette, Individual Award
Barbara Mason, Individual Award
The DelFonics, Performance Group Award
Frankie Beverly, Performance Group Award
"It should be a very interesting evening; I'm sure it will be a very emotional one for me.
I wanna look very stern and really mean, but will probably cry several times!" - Bettye LaVette.
In 2004, The Blues Foundation selected "A Woman Like Me" as "Blues Comeback Album of the Year".
The Blues Foundation honors outstanding Blues artists and musicians through the annual Memphis
WC Handy Blues Awards - the highest recognition bestowed on Blues artists in the music industry.
Bettye was also nominated in 3 other categories:
"Soul Blues Female Artist of the Year"
"Soul Blues Album of the Year" and
"Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year"
Bettye LaVette made a moving acceptance speech and performance at the Awards.
Handy Award winners, Bettye LaVette & Little Milton.
"Her use of vocal texture, of which she has lots of shades, is perfect and really involves you with the track. Worthy is well worth the wait." - Express (London)
"The life story of this soul singer is destined for the big screen… LaVette’s candid story is also a window into the early years of Motown." – New York Post