Sign up for our mailing list Real artists creating records on their own terms

Sign up for our mailing list


Monday, October 2nd, 2006

Bettye LaVette is covered by The Lexington Herald-Leader

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."


Facebook | Twitter

Browse by Artist

1675All Artists 97Tom Waits 69Mavis Staples 57Neko Case 51Lost In The Trees 50Sean Rowe 48Dr. Dog 44The Milk Carton Kids
41Jolie Holland 40Bettye LaVette 37Man Man 35Tinariwen 33Tim Fite 33DeVotchKa 31Islands 31Grinderman 31Son Little 27Galactic 27Wilco 27Saintseneca 24Michael Franti and Spe... 23Glen Hansard 22Bob Mould 22William Elliott Whitmo... 22Doe Paoro 21Nick Cave & The Bad Se... 21The Frames 20Joe Henry 19Booker T. Jones 19Sage Francis 18Christopher Paul Stell... 17John K. Samson 17Yann Tiersen 17Deafheaven 16Ramblin Jack Elliott 16Jason Lytle 15Andy Shauf 15Xenia Rubinos 15Prism Tats 14Delicate Steve 13Daniel Lanois 13Billy Bragg 13The Drums 12Xavier Rudd 12Peter Silberman 11The Weakerthans 11Lyrics Born 11Rain Machine 11Mose Allison 11Roky Erickson 11The Antlers 11Calexico 10The Swell Season 10The Melodic 10So Much Light 10Cass McCombs 10Jade Jackson 10Ryan Pollie 10The Dream Syndicate 9Marianne Faithfull 9N.A.S.A. 9Cameron Avery 8Solillaquists of Sound 8Greg Graffin 8Cadence Weapon 8The Coup 7Elliott Smith 7Eddie Izzard 7Dead Man's Bones 7Alec Ounsworth 7Beth Orton 7Kelly Hogan 7Title Fight 7Ben Harper and Charlie... 7Richard Reed Parry 6A Girl Called Eddy 6Busdriver 6Os Mutantes 6Kate Bush 6Broken Twin 6Girlpool 6Yves Jarvis 5One Day As A Lion 5The Field 5Keaton Henson 5Beat Connection 5Japandroids 5Foxwarren 5Jeremy Ivey 4Ersi Arvizu 4Marketa Irglova 4Pops Staples 4Curtis Harding 4Rafiq Bhatia 4Combo Chimbita 4Darrin Bradbury 4Boy Scouts 3Danny Cohen 3Sierra Leones Refugee... 3Petra Haden 3Walter Wolfman Washing... 3Mothers 3Marc Ribot 3Wynonna 3The Good Ones 2Various Artists: RANGO 2Jeff Tweedy 2Lido Pimienta 2Glitterer 2Purr 1Tricky 1Joe Strummer And The M... 1Youth Group 1Blackalicious 1Antibalas 1Porter Wagoner 1Various Artists: ROGUE... 1The Locust 1Rogue's Gallery 1Kronos Quartet with Br... 1Simian Mobile Disco 1case/lang/veirs 1Merle Haggard 1Ben Harper 1M. Ward
See Full List+