Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Bettye LaVette: Mrs TNT

Bettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette

Soul legend Bettye LaVette will tell you she ain’t no soul singer. She will tell you how she was ignored and left out in the wilderness for many years. She will tell you how she yearned for exposure and recognition, but it never came. How hurt she was when others got the accolades and she was ignored. She will tell you how she will never forgive Atlantic Records and its boss, the late Ahmet Ertegün, for dumping what would have been her debut album.

She will also tell you how three separate fortune tellers predicted she WOULD eventually get the success she has longed for, but she’d have to wait a long time. It is not in dispute that Miss LaVette, 66, has never had the recognition she truly deserves, even though her voice is as good as any of her contemporaries.

But that’s all changing with the celebrations to mark her 50 years in music - since her first single, the iconic soul classic "My Man, He’s a Loving Man." She has a stunning new album “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” the 24th of her career - 12 tracks of passionate R&B straight from the heart. It really is a masterpiece. The title, an obscure Sly & The Family Stone track. Her raunchy, rasping vocal sending shivers up the spine. My gut tells me the Grammy panel just might think so too.

In the title song, she sings a poignant lyric: “The powers that be said I should have another day…” Well, with the new CD, her “explosive” auto-biography “A Woman Like Me,” and a European tour which rings her to London, it is very much her day right now.

Her star was back up in the sky shining brightly when she was asked to sing at President Obama’s inauguration, a duet with Jon Bon Jovi to 800 million people on TV. Aptly singing, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She ascended even more when she sang a show stopping rendition of “Love Reign O'er Me" to pay tribute to The Who at the 2008 star-studded Kennedy Centre, in front of the British rockers, Barbra Streisand, Beyonce and Aretha to name but a few.

So how does it feel to be reading such accolades as the New York Times wrote: “Miss LaVette now rivals Aretha Franklin as this generation’s most vital soul singer.”

“Well, for the last eight years, we have been on the ‘Who the hell is Bettye LaVette,’ tour. Now we are on the 50th anniversary tour. I needed the big boost that the Kennedy Centre and the Inaugural event gave me. It was a relief to be asked…I have wanted to have 800 million people see me for 800 million years,” she tells me from New York. She certainly keeps regal company; as a recent New York appearance with Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr proved yet again.

She didn't see her first album released until 1982. Her first single dropped in 1962. "My Man-He’s a Loving Man." Picked up by Atlantic which landed her a US tour, with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, and Otis Redding. She recorded for the Lupine label, on Calla she had her big hit, "Let Me Down Easy,” and spent a month on The James Brown Revue tour.

Other labels she recorded for include: Big Wheel, Karen, (“Hey Love", was written for her by Stevie Wonder,) Silver Fox, (with a then unknown studio group, The Dixie Flyers.) Other hits included: "He Made a Woman Out of Me and "Do Your Duty." In 1972, she again signed to Atlantic, through Atco.

She went to Muscle Shoals, with producer Brad Shapiro and the MSS studio band, to make what was going to be her first full length album. The recordings were ready to be released as, “Child of the Seventies.” A publicity tour was booked but Bettye got a call to tell her the project was not being released, and they told her: “Please return the plane tickets." She never got an explanation as to why her LP was dumped.
From those sessions, the single "Your Turn To Cry," was released. She signed to Epic. In 1978 she had a hit disco record, "Doin' The Best That I Can" which sold over 100,000 copies. In 1982, she released the album “Tell Me A Lie” on Motown, and two singles, including, “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)." The album was grossly under-promoted.

In 2003 she made a come-back with, “A Woman Like Me,” and picked up a clutch of awards. She signed a three album deal with her current label, Anti- Records and the first CD was “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise,” Then Grammy nominated “The Scene of the Crime,” and in 2010 “The British Rock Songbook” which was also Grammy nominated. “Thankful N’ Thoughtful” is produced by Craig Street (Norah Jones, Meshell Ndegeocello, John Legend etc.)

Born Betty Jo Haskin, her profile has not always been this big, as she explains: “All I ever wanted was some recognition and some exposure, and I am now being recognised like my friends are. Martha Reeves and I would go out some place; sit at dinner and a 1,000 people could come up and speak to her, and never even look at me. If I didn’t do this (music) it would be OK, but I do what they do and it is like being overlooked.”

“It was very, very hard to take, because what I sell is me and they don’t recognise what I am selling. Being ignored is very, very hurtful. One of the songs on the new CD, “The More I Search” (her favourite on the album) says; ‘my favourite wine in my veins is humiliation.’ Even though people didn’t recognise me when I left the house, just in case that 1 in 1,000 did, I always ‘looked’ like Bettye LaVette. That was just humiliation, because I was really not being allowed to be her, but I felt the need to look like her whenever I left home."

Read more from this fascinating interview with soul legend Bettye LaVette in our print edition - click below to order your copy now.

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