These CDs deservedly put Bettye back in the limelight. "I think of myself as a singer who recorded.”
In 2001, almost 40 years after her first record on Atlantic, and 20 years since her Motown singles, I met Bettye in Detroit. She had recently got her first ever royalty check – from Atlantic – for just over US$1,000. Divide this into the weeks of her whole career and it works out to around fifty cents a week. Little wonder Bettye is dismissive about her 45s:
“I like every song I every recorded; I don’t like the records. The records do not hold up when played in a group of records. Just say you like ‘em. Don’t tell me they’re great.”
Apart from being ridiculously modest, she sounds almost bitter, but insists that’s not the case - just a victim of bad luck (buzzard luck, as she calls it) when it comes to getting sustained chart success.
It’s her hard-earned and pragmatic understanding of the fickle music business that has kept her going for decades; understandably focusing on getting paid work singing at clubs, a vocation manager Jim Lewis had instilled in her years before. It was Jim who curtailed her record hop appearances and told her that she couldn’t depend on a bunch of old 45s to get work - she’d simply end up waiting tables or driving a cab sooner or later.
Once he became her right-hand man in 1968, for the next 10 years Jim encouraged Bettye to methodically practice the art of singing each and every day, got her to develop and perfect her interpretation and timbre by listening to unfashionable yet accomplished artists like Sarah Vaughan. His sage advice has since paid dividends.
The various 45s were just a means to an end:
“I think of myself as a singer who recorded,” she told me.
After the Motor City sessions, Bettye kept performing throughout the 1990s, mainly to European audiences. Soulful determination. Most of America had lost track of what she was doing. Twenty years without a US release - a generation of people didn’t know who she was.
In 1997, Bettye recorded a super version of Etta James’ Damn Your Eyes - one of her favorite songs - that was backed with Out Cold on New Jersey label Bar None, but this didn’t help her bank balance or gig bookings to any significant extent. It was released without Bettye’s knowledge or consent on cassette only.
What did lift Bettye’s profile from obscurity was the release of her Souvenirs CD (The previously unreleased Atlantic songs.) in 2000, which coincided with her eight-track Let Me Down Easy In Concert album that was recorded in the Netherlands. The latter album includes Damn Your Eyes as well as her early Atlantic songs My Man and You’ll Never Change, plus Let Me Down Easy – which just seems to improve with age.
Things got even better in 2002 after Bettye signed with the booking agency Rosebud, going on to win the Blues Foundation’s prestigious W.C. Handy award for Comeback CD in 2003 for her A Woman Like Me album.
Famous for his polished work with guitarist Robert Cray, songwriter-producer Dennis Walker brought out Bettye’s - as Dave Godin coined it - unambiguous spirit. The 60 minutes of unbridled blues on A Woman Like Me had taken a few years to actually make it from the recording studio into record stores – years that led to worry and doubt - yet the wait was worth it.
A CD single of the Elton John song.
Bettye then collected the Living Blues accolade of “Best Female Blues Artist in 2004”. But it was Bettye’s 2005 recording sessions that got the great American CD buying public to really take notice of her again.
The CD’s title, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, refers to the lyrics of one of the songs – a cover of Fiona Apple’s Sleep to Dream, yet the compilation is fusion of eclectic songs from the likes of Sinead O'Connor, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading and Dolly Parton. All of the songwriters were women.
As music writer Rob Bowman put it “The result is too beautiful for any words that I can muster.” The disc was set to be nominated for a Grammy, but a dastardly mix-up resulted in the proposal never making it to the judges’ desk. Buzzard luck.
Bigger success and more acclaim came with her 2007 album, The Scene of the Crime. Recorded in Alabama at the Muscle Shoals’ FAME studio, backing was provided by southern outfit Drive-By Truckers. The title refers to the city of Muscle Shoals, where Bettye had recorded for Atlantic 30 years previously; an album’s worth of great material that was feloniously shelved.
As usual, she delivers a powerful virtuoso performance and the album deservedly went to number 1 on Billboard’s Blues Chart, also earning a nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album Grammy as well as making the top of the ‘Best of 2007’ lists in the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune.
The album features songs from Elton John, Willie Nelson and Eddie Hinton, plus one co-written by Bettye herself - Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye Lavette) – that tells of the marathon journey to success. Ask yourself: How many recording artists persevere for over 40 years? She also co-produced the set.
Bettye painstakingly selected compositions she felt comfortable performing. Songs she could put her soul in, ones that she could mold, which allowed her rasping vocals to be heard.
It’s a stupendous compilation resulting from a four-decade-long singing career; a journey peppered with highs and lows; with buzzard luck, false dawns, broken relationships, pay dirt and salvation. You can hear it on each track.
Bettye predictably picked up the Blues Foundation’s Best Contemporary Blues Female Artist title in 2008 and is busier than ever touring around the globe. Now over 60, her live performances have developed into benchmark master classes and Esquire magazine bestowed her the title ‘The Sexiest Female Vocalist Alive’. You could also say she’s the most soulful; in fact one US newspaper said as such: “LaVette is the most emotive, emotional singer in the R & B world.” But as Dave Godin wrote, you can add any complementary adjective ad infinitum, and she would deserve them all.
Bettye LaVette Story
by Graham Finch DESIGN, GRAPHICS & HOSTING
by Lowell Boileau