When people describe the past six years of Bettye LaVette’s musical career as a comeback, they overlook one very important point—she never really left music behind at all.
“Oh no, I always correct that statement, because I’m just being allowed to take the second step,” the raw-throated, 60-year-old R&B singer says emphatically. “I took the first one 45 years ago, and they never allowed me to take the next step. That’s really all that’s happening now is I’m an old broad taking a second step.”
Step one came in 1962, when LaVette scored a R&B Top 10 hit for Atlantic with “My Man—He’s a Loving Man.” She was only 16 at the time, and a far cry from the worldly wise performer captured on her more recent recordings. “I mean, goodness, I sounded like Minnie Mouse,” she jokes.
After decades of false starts and disappointments, the other shoe finally dropped. A European label released an album she’d long ago given up on. Her 2003 blues record, A Woman Like Me, earned a W.C. Handy Award for, of all things, Comeback Blues Album of the Year. A partnership with Anti-Records yielded the sinewy Joe Henry-produced soul album I’ve Got MyOwnHell to Raise, and last year the Rhythm and Blues Foundation honored her with a Pioneer Award.
“I’m talking to more people than I’ve ever known in my entire life, you know, including cousins and boyfriends that have long been forgotten,” she says. “That’s the true sign there—when those cousins and boyfriends start coming out of the woodwork, you know you’ve hit upon something.”
LaVette has had her share of heart-breaking near misses. She was in and out of Detroit during the heady days of Motown, but found that she, unlike many of her peers, wasn’t “pop” enough. “It frustrated me that Motown felt that my voice was, well, for lack of better words, too much like Wilson Pickett’s and not enough like Kim Weston’s,” she admits. “It was very frustrating to have people that I had known forever, you know, suddenly be riding through the neighborhoods—and we still kind of all lived close together. They just lived maybe in a better part of the ghetto—in their Eldorados and limousines and whatever. That was extremely frustrating.”
In 1972, LaVette got a second chance with Atlantic (she actually begged her way out of the first deal), but the label shelved what would have been her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies. “I got up under my dining room table and I stayed under there two or three days and drank about a jug of wine,” she says. “I didn’t eat anything. I just cried. It was like coming home and finding your husband in bed with somebody.” The old wound was somewhat salved six years ago when the album was rescued from the vault and released under the name Souvenirs on tiny French independent Art and Soul.
If anything, LaVette’s limited success as a recording artist drove her to become a zealous performer. Instead of trading in music for a day job (“I probably ain’t going to show up on time every day, not to no job where I’m not the star,” she says), she worked small nightclubs in Detroit, New York and New Orleans. “I didn’t have any reason to think anything other than ‘If I ever get anyone to promote me, it will work, because everyone who has seen it thus far liked it—it’s just that not enough people have seen it at one time.’ I was collecting people 50 a year for 40 years, you know, depending upon what little joint I was working at.”
Remarkably, LaVette’s memories of the leaner times aren’t colored by bitterness or regret. She’s more practical and resilient than that. “Probably, had I been distracted by a hit record, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become so talented,” she reflects. “All I had to do was work on my craft. I wasn’t being called all over the world to do concerts. Of course, if you’d come to me any day and said, ‘Well, here would you like to stop starving to death and just have this hit record?’ I probably would have said, ‘Yes.’ In retrospect—my goodness—the suffering has taught me so much.”
By her own admission, LaVette is no songwriter. She’s a visceral, intuitive interpreter, slicing to the heart of a song, claiming the story as her own with her well-aged, tough-as-nails voice and, when she’s performing live, her expressive bodily motions. All 10 songs on Hell to Raise were written by women, a first for LaVette.
Her rendering of Joan Armatrading’s “Down to Zero” is far more raw and biting than the original. “I had to put [the songs] in my mouth, you know,” says LaVette. “That was one of the things that was so much fun about ‘Down to Zero,’ because it was written by a black woman who did not have an American accent and who thought of things in a different kind of more poetic way, and I had to make it a little more street-ish and a little more in-the-hood-ish.”
LaVette’s jagged funk treatment of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” has earned her praise from the songwriter herself. “I don’t know her, but people who do know her and who have gone to see her shows say that she mentions me often, and I’m so grateful for that because her audience is far bigger than mine,” she says. “I hear constantly, ‘I went to see Lucinda Williams and she said….’ ”
LaVette has always been supremely confident in her music, regardless of its relative anonymity. These days she takes obvious pleasure in every bit of positive attention she gets.
“That’s what I’ve been after more than anything else, just a lot of people to applaud and say ‘That was really, really good’—and somebody to give me some money for a change.”