Bettye LaVette had her first brush with stardom as a sassy teenage soul singer in the early 1960s, but she’s long since transcended genre—she’s now a magnificent vocalist who can make seemingly any song sound as though it were written specifically for her.
A longtime Detroiter, LaVette signed to Motown in the early 80s, but only briefly—in fact, for much of her career her successes have been halting. She finally broke through to the mainstream with the 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, where she sang material by the likes of Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, and Sinéad O’Connor (LaVette often delivers O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” a cappella as an encore). Her next two full-lengths, 2007’s The Scene of the Crime (recorded in Muscle Shoals with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers) and 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook (featuring covers of Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, among others), were likewise a long way from the straight-ahead R&B with which she’d broken into the business.
“I think that somewhere along the line, the fact that I’m a singer and a song interpreter got lost. I have always done so many different kinds of music,” says LaVette. “My first manager wanted me to be a broad singer. He told me early on, ‘You may never be a star, but if you will learn how to sing a lot of good songs and sing them well, you can work until you die.'”
Sat 6/8, 7:45 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Last year LaVette released the Bob Dylan tribute album Things Have Changed, exploring Dylan’s deep catalog—and her performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music revealed hidden nuances in his lyrics, despite their myriad twists and turns. “I’m old and I can’t remember all the damn words,” she says, laughing. “There was one song I took maybe three verses out of it, and I still had four!'”
When LaVette became an overnight sensation in 1962, at age 16, she was singing someone else’s material. She’d met singer and producer Timmy Shaw at a show at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom, and he introduced her to his business and songwriting partner, Johnnie Mae Matthews. “I was there to try and be close to the singers,” LaVette says. “But I didn’t think anyone would say ‘Here—you can sing too!'”
Despite LaVette’s total lack of professional experience (she sang along with her parents’ jukebox in Muskegon, Michigan, as a toddler), Shaw and Matthews handed her their driving tune “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man” and told her to learn it. “I met them on a Sunday, and we recorded it the next Sunday,” she says. “It was out the next Friday.” The single was released by Atlantic Records, and LaVette had a national R&B hit her first time on wax.
- Bettye LaVette’s debut single, 1962’s “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man”
When her next single flopped, LaVette went to New York and audaciously demanded that Atlantic honcho Jerry Wexler release her from her contract. “Leaving Atlantic when I was 16 is still the most stupid thing I’ve ever done in my career,” she admits. But LaVette rebounded. While living for a time in New York, she hit again in 1965 with the moving soul ballad “Let Me Down Easy,” for the Calla label. Its success got her on the network TV program Shindig! that same year.
LaVette returned to the R&B charts in 1969 with a soulful rendition of the slightly salacious country tune “He Made a Woman Out of Me” that she’d cut in Memphis. But bad luck dogged the singer. What should’ve been her triumphant debut album, made in Muscle Shoals in 1972 and loaded with potential hits, was shelved without explanation by Atco Records (a division of Atlantic). “If I was acting and I needed to make tears come, all I’d have to do is dwell on that,” LaVette says.
- Bettye LaVette performs her 1965 hit “Let Me Down Easy” on Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny in 2012.
At the Blues Festival, LaVette and her current band will play a set spanning her entire career—perhaps she’ll even do something from that shelved record. “I’ll be doing some of what’s going on now, some of what has gone on, and some of that that happened at the Regal Theater there in Chicago that nobody else knows about,” she says. “I’m trying to let people know that I didn’t happen by osmosis!”
LaVette has made an indelible mark on music, and she’s done it entirely her own way, rough patches and all. “I thought I would die obscure and broke,” she says. “Now I’m just going to die broke. But everybody knows who I am!” v