Born on January 26, 1946, in Muskegon, MI; married three times; children: one daughter. Addresses: Record company--Anti- Records, 2798 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026. Website--Bettye LaVette Official Website: http://www.bettyelavette.com.
"It was pure, magnificent soul: passion carried by an eloquent voice and exquisite timing," wrote New York Times critic Jon Pareles, describing the beginning of a performance by vocalist Bettye LaVette. "And she was only getting started." The tragic, cathartic, hyper-emotional performances of soul music veteran LaVette marked a remarkable music success story of the early and middle 2000s: after laboring in the trenches of soul and R&B for 40 years, LaVette suddenly stepped into the national and international spotlight. In a way, LaVette believed, her long years of obscurity had served her well. "I wouldn't have become this proficient at my craft had I had any success," she mused to Sean Howe of Entertainment Weekly. "I feel like it's taken me 44 years to make this work."
LaVette was born on January 26, 1946, in Muskegon, Michigan. Factory work soon took the family to Detroit, and in both cities their home was something of a local entertainment center. "They sold corn liquor and barbecue sandwiches," LaVette recalled in the Houston Chronicle, of the family's Muskegon home. "If you were going to drink and dance, that's where you came; there was a jukebox in the living room." Raised in the Catholic religion, LaVette didn't have the usual gospel background of other soul singers her age. She did absorb the gospel influence indirectly from the numerous Detroit and national stars who dropped by to sing and socialize, including gospel groups like the Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama. As her main vocal influences LaVette has named Bobby "Blue" Bland, Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett.
Recorded Top-Ten Single
The teenaged LaVette's circle of friends included future Detroit legends Aretha Franklin and Martha Reeves. In 1962 LaVette jumped out in front of her friends' careers when she recorded the single "My Man (He's a Lovin' Man)" for the Northern label and saw it rise to number seven on national rhythm-and-blues charts. By that time LaVette was already married and the mother of a child. That could have been what slowed her career as Detroit music exploded in popularity in the mid-1960s. It was two decades before she was signed to the Motown label, which demanded exacting rehearsal and touring schedules from its young stars. From the tortured lyrics of abandonment in many of LaVette's songs, fans sometimes conclude that her domestic life was as unhappy as that of Tina Turner, to whom she has been compared. But LaVette, in conversation with Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune pointed proudly to the accomplishments of her college professor daughter and college graduate grandson. "I've never had any great man problems," she said. "I've not been a battered woman." Abuse in LaVette's case came from the music industry: "My career has pretty well beat me up. It's often put me in situations that were painful for me."
LaVette recorded some 30 singles from the 1960s through the 1980s, and she came to the brink of success several times. "Let Me Down Easy," an emotion-drenched breakup number that became a staple of LaVette's live shows, was recorded first in 1965 and then again in 1969. Like several of LaVette's best songs, it originated in the field of country music. But LaVette replaced the circumspect interpretations of country vocalists with full-blown intensity.
In the late 1960s LaVette recorded with scattered success; her Silver Fox label single "He Made a Woman Out of Me" was banned at some radio stations but was later covered successfully by country-pop singer Bobbie Gentry. LaVette, who wrote little material herself, was dependent on finding songs whose lyrics, as she put it to Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle, were "something I would actually say, an extension of my conversation." LaVette worked to hone her skills in the late 1960s, studying jazz at the behest of her manager, former big-band player Jim Lewis. She learned to sing difficult numbers like "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Lush Life," and studied the phrasings of Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. "I was 19, 20, and 21," she was quoted as saying on the Anti- label website. "None of my friends wanted to hear these old dreary songs." But Lewis reminded her that she wouldn't always be a hot young vocal star, and convinced her that if she learned singing as a craft, she could work forever. "He just instilled so many things in me that are coming back to help me now," LaVette said.
Album Shelved by Label
LaVette was signed to the Atlantic label and recorded a moderately successful cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" for Atlantic's Atco imprint in 1972. Her horn-drenched album Child of the 70s, recorded in the Fame studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was readied for release, but what LaVette has often called her "buzzard luck" commenced when the album was shelved by Atco. Discouraged by her recording prospects, LaVette applied her vocal skills to live theater, appearing in the cast of the Broadway musical Bubblin' Brown Sugar for six years and stepping into the spotlight for duets with jazz vocal legend Cab Calloway. Although she had no real enthusiasm for disco, LaVette jumped on the bandwagon with the 1979 single "Doin' the Best That I Can." The single had some club airplay in the United States and also in Europe, where LaVette began to find a small but devoted circle of fans.
In 1982 LaVette released her first album, Tell Me a Lie. Though made for the Motown label, the album was recorded in Nashville; its title track was another of the desperate romantic numbers that were her specialty. One single, "Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)," reached the R&B top 40, but the early 1980s marked a low point for soul singing in the classic mold, and LaVette's release went mostly unnoticed except by connoisseurs. For the rest of the 1980s and the 1990s, LaVette recorded no more except for a cassette single in 1997, a cover of Etta James's "Damn Your Eyes." She lived in Detroit and performed in small clubs whenever her manager, a Ford Motor Company assembly-line foreman, called to inform her of a gig. Occasional European appearances kept her name in front of American music enthusiasts there.
The sequence of events leading to LaVette's rediscovery began with French soul music collector Gilles Petard, who heard Child of the 70s, believed it was a neglected masterpiece, licensed it from Atlantic, and released it with the new title Souvenirs on his Art and Soul label in 2000. LaVette launched a new European tour and recorded a live album for the Netherlands-based Munich label. Both albums won rave reviews from European critics, and an appearance at New York's Columbia University helped spread the word about LaVette's talents among a new generation of listeners. The new buzz surrounding LaVette's career landed her a place on high-profile festival bills, and her performance at the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival was a major success.
Reworked Songwriters' Material
LaVette entered the studio in 2003 to record her first album in over two decades. A Woman Like Me was recorded with Robert Cray producer Dennis Walker, who had a collection of LaVette singles and albums, and released on the small San Francisco label Blues Express. The album included three Cray songs, including the torrid-but-cynical "Strong Persuader," but as usual LaVette reworked the material at will. "I'm a better editor," she was quoted as saying on the Anti- Records website, explaining why she sought out the work of other writers rather than composing her own songs. "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." A Woman Like Me won the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year in 2004. LaVette, however, disliked the term "comeback," pointing out that she had never stopped performing.
Roots music booking agent Mike Kappus happened to be in attendance at a birthday party in California at which LaVette was performing, and the agent immediately demanded that Anti- label president Andy Kaulkin come with him to a LaVette nightclub gig. Kaulkin, who was as amazed as anyone else who heard a LaVette concert, was waiting with a recording contract when she came off stage. He suggested that LaVette record an entire album of compositions by women songwriters. At first LaVette resisted the idea, but she came on board as she began to sort through a group of a hundred songs that were suggested by the label and by her new husband, a New Jersey antiques dealer. He and LaVette had met on an Internet soul music discussion group, and he showed up for their first date with a stack of CDs containing all the music she had ever recorded. After her marriage LaVette moved from Detroit to West Orange, New Jersey, where she frequently performs at a small club there.
LaVette selected ten songs, with several drawn from the country tradition (Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and Bobbie Cryner's "Just Say So") and others from rock music (Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream," Lucinda Williams's "Joy," and Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got," which often closed out LaVette's live concerts). She made extensive written notes on each song as she pondered her interpretation. LaVette's 2005 album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise was produced by Joe Henry, who had also laid down classic soul grooves for Solomon Burke's 2002 comeback Don't Give Up on Me. I've Got My Own Hell to Raise advanced LaVette's rapid late-career ascent, as she appeared on Late Night with David Letterman and was interviewed on National Public Radio. The album landed on numerous critics' ten-best lists at the end of 2005. Esquire named her the sexiest female vocalist alive. LaVette turned 60 in January of 2006, but she wasn't planning on retirement. "I've hung on this long," the ultimate soul survivor told Tammy La Gorce of the New York Times. "I'll keep doing this until I drop."
by James M. Manheim
Bettye LaVette's Career
Recorded single "My Man (He's a Lovin' Man)" for Northern label, 1962; recorded trademark song "Let Me Down Easy" for Calla label, 1965; signed to Atlantic label and recorded unreleased album Child of the 70s, 1972; also recorded for Karen, Epic, and Silver Fox labels; performed in Broadway show Bubblin' Brown Sugar c. 1972-78; released disco hit "Doin' the Best That I Can," 1979; recorded album Tell Me a Lie on Motown label, 1982; Child of the 70s released in France as Souvenirs, 2000; recorded live album Let Me Down Easy--In Concert in Netherlands; recorded A Woman Like Me, 2003; recorded I've Got My Own Hell to Raise for Anti- label, 2005.
Bettye LaVette's Awards
Blues Foundation, Memphis, TN, W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year, 2003.
- Selected discography
- Tell Me a Lie Motown, 1982.
- Souvenirs Art and Soul, 2000 (from unissued album Child of the 70s 1972).
- Let Me Down Easy: In Concert Munich, 2000.
- A Woman Like Me Blues Express, 2003.
- I've Got My Own Hell to Raise Anti-, 2005.
- Boston Herald, December 1, 2005, p. 46.
- Entertainment Weekly, September 23, 2005, p. 89.
- Esquire, October 2005, p. 82.
- Houston Chronicle, January 19, 2006, p. 10.
- New York Times, August 5, 2003, p. E5; February 19, 2006, p. 12.
- San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 2005, p. E1.
- Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), January 18, 2004, p. F6; January 20, 2004, p. B4.
- "Bettye LaVette," Anti- Records, http://www.anti.com/artist.php?id=25 (March 3, 2006).
- "Biography," Bettye LaVette Official Website, http://www.bettyelavette.com/Biography/biography.html (March 3, 2006).