Bettye LaVette Story
Thanks to
Graham Finch
Artwork and Website Design
Thanks to
Lowell Boileau

This Michigan Chronicle advert is from August 1969

 Bettye’s manager in the late 60s was Jim Lewis, who happened to be vice-president of the musicians union: experienced, with lots of good advice. It was Jim who arranged for Bettye to give a copy of her What Condition My Condition Is In to Kenny Rodgers, a savvy move that came up trumps.

 Kenny not only thought it was an improvement on his own rendition, but loved it so much he put Bettye in touch with his brother Lelan in Nashville, who at the time was in the process of starting Silver Fox Records.

 The label’s name comes from the fact that young Lelan’s hair had turned gray – perhaps from being the promotion man for the New Yorkers running Calla… where he had got to know Bettye. Small world.

 A couple of days after meeting Kenny, Bettye got a call from Lelan, who asked her to travel south. He then arranged sessions in the Sound Of Memphis Studio, where she cut her first session in September ’69.

 The musicians on the terrific He Made a Woman Out Of Me were locals Jim Dickinson on piano, Mike Utley on organ, bassist Tommy McClure and guitarist Charlie Freeman, with Sammy Creason on drums. They later became known as The Dixie Flyers. The group gives an unmistakably southern sound to the song – wonderfully accentuated by the horns that were dubbed on a week or so later by the Memphis Horns.

 While the gritty Southern Gothic fable about a 16-year-old losing her virginity has that inimitable Tennessee country flavor, it’s the sassy soulfulness of Bettye’s delivery that propelled the candid vignette up the R’n’B charts, where it peaked at 25. Bobbie Gentry had a chart-buster with the song soon after.

 On the flip was a super cover of Betty Harris’s Nearer To You – a deep ballad that Allen Toussaint had written and put out on his own Sansu label in ’67.

 Detroiter Ronnie Shannon had written some big hits for Aretha Franklin and came up with Bettye’s follow-up disc, the raunchy Do Your Duty.

The sun’s about to shine over yonder
Come on give me what’s mine
Come and do – do your duty

 This upfront song about bedroom satisfaction put Bettye back on Billboard’s chart, with the disc entering the top 40 in March of 1970. Its slower flip - Love’s Made A Fool Out Of Me - was a song Bettye didn’t really like singing due to the shoobe-doobe–doobe that runs through it. The nice slowy I’m In Love that she cut around that time didn’t see the light of day until released on a CD in 2006.

 Joe South’s self-penned Grammy winning hit Games People Play received Bettye’s by now well-developed cover treatment, but her version failed to replicate Joe’s chart success after its release in early 1970. The flip – My Train’s Coming In - has more dynamism, but the disc turned out to be Bettye’s last 45 on Silver Fox. The company folded.

1970 releases

 Two of Bettye’s other Silver Fox recordings were soon released on Shelby Singleton’s SSS International label – including a rendition of Erma Franklin’s 1967 classic Piece Of My Heart. The impassioned At The Mercy Of A Man was put on the B-side, which made it two great songs for the price of one 45. Perhaps if I had been the plug-side the record would have charted.

 Guitarist B.B. Cunningham had a hand in writing an angst-ridden ballad called Easier To Say Than Do that sadly stayed in the can, probably because it was recorded by Charles Hodges – and released on Calla of all labels. The A-side of his 45 – We Got To Slip Around - was another of Bettye’s Memphis songs never released.

 Her second 45 on SSS International was a re-release of two Silver Fox sides. She also teamed up with fellow Detroiter and Silver Fox stable mate Hank Ballad - who had been performing since the early 1950s as leader of The Midnighters - to re-record his 1960 smash Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go. This and the pair’s version of Hello Sunshine – the song that both Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin had cut for Atlantic in 1968 – stayed in the vaults.

 With SSS International not recording anything on her, Bettye reckoned it was time to move on.



Bettye LaVette Story

Graham Finch
by Lowell Boileau