She raised her own hell for 40 years By Walter Tunis CONTRIBUTING MUSIC CRITIC "Oh, I'm holdin' on, baby."
That's the honest, concise and disarmingly soulful reply Bettye LaVette gives when presented with an interview opening "How are you?"
And, true to her words, this veteran Detroit-area singer has been holding on for close to 40 years. That's roughly how long it took for anyone other than the most learned and dedicated of R&B fans to pick up on her regal brand of traditional soul.
"I use to have these 10 people in every major city all over the world that always liked me," LaVette said. "Now those 10 people are standing along the sides looking pretty frightened -- much like I am.
"There's a blues idiom that I've been able to collect from. And now there's a whole college group also listening to my music. So my audience looks pretty weird."
For that, you can thank LaVette's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, a 2005 career comeback album that matched the singer with 10 songs written by champion female singer-songwriters Joan Armatrading, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams and Fiona Apple. It also enlisted an acclaimed producer and soul-music aficionado (Joe Henry) and a celebrated record label (Anti) that is home to stylistic giants Tom Waits, Daniel Lanois and Michael Franti.
But the recording differs little from the soul-stirring R&B LaVette cooked up in Detroit during the '60s and then cut for a series of major and indie labels over the next three decades.
"Everybody that heard them liked them," LaVette said of her early records. "But, really, nobody got to hear the damn things."
Enter Anti with an offer to record -- and, more important, promote -- a new album. But singing the tunes of other women didn't thrill LaVette, at least not initially.
"I rejected the idea at first because I don't usually do songs by women," she said. "I tend to have a little stronger thing with my relationships and my career. I didn't think a woman would be able to write words that would enable me to interpret that strength as well as I would like to."
Nonetheless, LaVette agreed to sift through 100 songs by some of today's top songsmiths. Some came from country backgrounds, others from contemporary pop. But such origins mattered little to the singer.
"I think people are too hung up over genres of songs," LaVette said. "There really aren't genres of music, only genres of singers. The song by Dolly Parton (Sparrow) was only considered country because she sang it that way. Had I sung it first, it would have been R&B.
"I tend to be a very arrogant singer. I don't even hear or acknowledge the other singer with the songs I do. I don't care who sang it before me, whether it's Caruso or Tiny Tim. If I like it, I sing it. The person who sang the song first doesn't intimidate me."
Neither did working with producer Henry, a noted songwriter who also has overseen several traditionally minded soul music projects over the past year (most notably, a 2005 collaboration with Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples and Irma Thomas titled I Believe to My Soul).
"I went to Joe's house, sat on the floor and sang these songs to him a cappella exactly the way I was going to record them, which kind of thwarted his notion as a producer," LaVette said.
"He was saying, 'We'll get into the studio, and the magic will happen.' I said, 'Joseph, honey, I need a record real, real bad. I cannot depend on the magic to happen. Here is how I will sing the songs. Find me people who can play them well and interestingly.' It took about a day for everyone to understand how this was going to go."
If LaVette sounds all business when it comes to music, she is. One listen to I've Got My Own Hell to Raise reveals how sagelike the soulfulness of her singing remains. But at age 60, she sees little sense of ceremony in her work.
Ask about her feelings on covering What's Happening Brother? for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's new remake of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album, and LaVette all but shrugs her shoulders. That's hardly a sign of disrespect. It's just that artists like Gaye were people she grew up with. She deflated her own celebrity myths about such performers long ago.
"People know Marvin Gaye as a legend," she said. "To me, he's somebody I've known drunk, naked or broke. Or all three. This is one of the things about being this age. There isn't any black in this business who is over 40 -- and I don't care how rich they are now -- that I don't remember being broke. That's because I was right there with them."
What does excite LaVette, though, is how the critical success of I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, along with a W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2004 and a Pioneer Award earlier this year from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, has finally pushed her name alongside Gaye and other greats.
In short, after 40 years of working in comparative obscurity, LaVette has arrived.
"Just to be considered in the same conversation as these people is gratifying. I don't have to stand around someone else's dressing-room door anymore and say, 'Do you remember me?' Those were the humiliating things.
"But the gratification has come. When I got this Rhythm and Blues Foundation, I was there with Smokey Robinson, who used to live across the alley from me. I was with Patti LaBelle, who I saw open shows at the Apollo for a dozen people. Just to be there and have my name in print alongside theirs ... I mean, it just made me feel so absolutely legitimate."