Bettye LaVette has been making gritty, powerful soul music for more than 50 years. If you haven't heard of her, that's not unusual. If you thinkher career began in 2000, that's not surprising either.
LaVette's had an up-and-down career, releasing almost three dozen singles — a number of them charting for labels such as Calla, Atlantic, Silver Fox, Karen, SSS International, and Scepter — and a few mostly European album releases in the '80s and '90s. It wasn't until the 2000 release of LaVette's previously unreleased 1973 soul classic Child of the Seventies that listeners on her U.S. home soil were reminded of her hidden charm. Released as Souvenirs by French imprint Art & Soul, the album was a reintroduction to the deep, raw, and guttural growl of a singer unafraid to let anyone or anything stand in the way of her success.
That vocal nuance still radiates in LaVette's recent music, as does a sense that the Michigan native harbors bitterness and anger about her toiling in relative obscurity while former friends Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross made it big and left her behind.
"That's exactly what it is," she says from her New York home. "I worked all of those years for $25 to $75 a night . . . My friends became stars and millionaires.
"I still feel like I'm shouting out: 'Look at me, look at me, look at me!'" she says. "But I know how to shout now, and I know how to get your attention. I've had a couple good wagons to ride on recently."
Detroit, 1962: When the teenage LaVette's first single, "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man," landed high on the R&B charts in 1962, it looked as though her wagon quickly might turn into a Cadillac. LaVette became a soul singer because, well, it was the thing to do at the time if you had any kind of voice. Being a singer was a possible escape route. The smallest chance to score a hit record became the bridge across the poverty line, away from hardship and, most likely, a mundane factory job building someone else's car.
"I hate to say simply that's what everyone was doing in Detroit in 1962, but it was essentially that," she says with a laugh. "It was the dream I harbored for a long time. I was only 16 years old, I was black, and in segregation, so I didn't have a lot of dreams. Becoming a singer or a star of any kind was not normal. I was able to sing and, in Detroit at the time, it was something — if you were able to do it. Then you had a chance."
Nevertheless, it was a challenging situation for a black teenager trying to make it in the music business. Difficulties included performing in blacks-only clubs, low pay, and sometimes extreme work and travel conditions. LaVette relied on the single's sales to keep her star rising. The potential was worth the struggle.
"It was better-than-normal life because of what was happening with black people and segregation in Detroit," she says. "I knew that the people who worked in all the factories did so so they could buy General Motors cars. I knew who had Eldorados and Fleetwoods — and I liked them."
LaVette's career started like a rocket blast. "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man" shot up the R&B charts, peaking at number seven. That was enough to provide LaVette her chance at stardom. Of course, that initial success was clouded by her teenage view of the world.
"I was 16 and was thinking about it exactly the way any other 16-year-old did: I thought I was on my way," she says with another laugh. "I thought I was a star."
LaVette got a rude awakening when her next few singles flopped, sending her into a slight panic.
"When the next record came out, I thought I was going to be a bigger star, and then it flopped. I said, 'Oh, my goodness, they're stealing my stardom from me.' Then when another [failed to chart], and then another . . ." she says, pausing as if to emphasis the fear she felt at the time. "But then when another [charted], I thought I was a star again."
The ups and downs, though a given in such a fickle industry, were a struggle, LaVette acknowledges. But, she says, she never had faced troubles besetting many of today's teen stars.
"You see from Justin Bieber and that other little girl who ended up so bad, Lindsay Lohan, it's an overwhelming business and you shouldn't be left alone in it. And I was left alone in it," she says. "But you also didn't just leave home and have a million people following you and become a star. It wasn't like that then . . . It'd be terrifying."
In 1973 and no longer a child, LaVette recorded Child of the Seventies, featuring the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and expected it to be her breakthrough. The first single failed to chart, and the album was shelved after falling victim to internal label squabbles. The master tapes gathered dust for almost 30 years.
"It was completely devastating. I got under the dining room table and stayed there for two or three days," she says of learning that her first full-length album — what supposedly was to be the height of her career — was not going to be released. "I'm just finding out now bits and pieces. I just got lost in that power struggle. Jerry Wexler [who produced Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, among others] was on my side, and [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun was on [the other] side. I got lost in the middle."
The Coming About: Don't call LaVette's newfound success a comeback or, worse, a revival. LaVette prefers to call that period "my coming about" — moreover, with good reason. Her newer works, The Scene of the Crime (featuring backing band the Drive-By Truckers), Interpretation: The British Rock Songbook (famously reworking The Who and Led Zeppelin), and, most recently, Thankful N' Thoughtful, show a different side, one where LaVette, not some label head, is in control of her destiny. Each album features interpretations of mostly well-known songs, but each is distinctive because of LaVette's powerful voice.
"These are reinterpretations, and not everybody can do that. I do that because I can. This is what I've been doing for years," she says. "When [producers] called, they didn't call for Bettye LaVette, they called for a female singer, or female jazz singer, or female pop singer or whatever. I had to adjust myself to the gig."
She's still doing that. Thankful N' Thoughtful features LaVette's renditions of tracks by classic artists such as Tom Waits, Sly Stone, and Bob Dylan. And, in something of a change, she reworks songs by younger artists, including The Black Keys' "I'm Not the One" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."
"I felt like I could sing them and make them more adult-sounding," she says with a chuckle.
Doesn't matter whose song it is, really; LaVette makes them all burn with the longing, passion, and intensity only a veteran soul singer can muster.
"It sounds mysterious," she says with another deep laugh, "but it's not."