Thursday, November 8, 2007

Bettye LaVette; Criminally Honest

Bettye LaVette might be one of those Soul singers forever labeled as the genres best kept secret. LaVette is well known amongst Soul connoisseurs, legendary even. Virtually unknown beyond that crowd. Some in the scene might even claim she's the better over similar voices as Tina Turner. Some might be right.

Bettye got her reputation on the basis of a few scattered Soul singles in the sixties. Most notably "Let Me Down Easy". That 45 was an unsurpassed heartbreaking soul supreme effort. LaVette sang that one as if her heart got ripped out only moments ago. Allegedly not far from the truth . As LaVette recounted years later she recorded the song in front of a boyfriend who had just dumped her. After the recording Bettye was in tears, the boyfriend didn't do so much as bat an eye and left her. This would be the story of her life. Through out it Bettye would feel on the brink of success or love only to see it all fall apart. LaVette stumbled her was through a few record companies throughout the sixties, recording a few minor hits in the process. Nothing that held her over at the time, but enough to cement her reputation as one of Soul's best kept.

It wouldn't be until the turn of the century that LaVette had something that could be called a recording career. In 2000 the European label Munich released a live album that confirmed the suspicions the Soul snobs had all along. Bettye was a force to be reckoned with. Of course by then her voice was whipped into shape by life, her stage theatrics by Broadway. So maybe Bettye talent needed those years to ripe. LaVette proved to be a performer of contradictions. Bettye stage presence was one of a regal Soul dive with an in your face sexuality of a $100 hooker. She bared herself naked on the stage, her years of pain for all to see, yet had an attitude like she would cut you down in a second if you'd even think of messing with her. LaVette displayed a naked and raw emotion that is rare in the world of entertainment today, yet remained vaguely out of reach.

It must have been that live album that prompted Andy Kaulkin, tipped by Ry Cooder, to sign her for his Anti records, a label best known for releasing Punk records and the current home of Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Kaulkin matched her with the Rick Rubin of Soul, Joe Henry, who had been responsible for reviving Solomon Burke's career a year prior. Henry used the same approach for Bettye as he had for Burke. He recorded Bettye against sparse instrumentation having her reinterpret songs that might not have been obvious choices, all of them by female writers. "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was the result. It became one of 2005's most acclaimed albums and gave Bettye a career that she could live of comfortably for the first time in her life. Ironically the successful collection of songs penned by Sinead O'Conner, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton caused some raised brows in the Soul community. Henry's approach was a bit more than the purist could stomach, or was it that LaVette suddenly wasn't their little secret anymore. After years of obscurity, LaVette was suddenly a much wanted guest, playing for large festival crowds with a sound that wasn't exactly traditional Soul.

But by then Bettye didn't need the purist crowd any more. "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was a successful enough to have her release a second album on Anti. A growing rarity in the music business these days, and a first for LaVette, who was often dumped faster than she was signed. "Scene of the Crime" finds Bettye teaming up with yet another seemingly unlikely band, ganstabillies the Drive by Truckers. But only on the surface. Drive by Trukcers' front man and producer, Patterson Hood comes from a family that has Soul music in it's blood. His father being the base player in the legendary Fame studios house band from Muscle Shoals. This is exactly where Patterson took LaVette. Initially he intended to bring Soul veteran Spooner Oldham to the fold on Wurlitzer. But soon the word spread and more "old-timers" payed a visit to the studios, most notably Fame veteran Mike Cooley on guitar.

"Scene of the Crime" betrays Soul's kin ship to Country. When Bettye tears up in Willie Nelson's "Pick Up To The Pieces", you undeniably hear Soul music, even with the pedal steel guitar crying in the back. Although "Pick up the Pieces" is a slightly uneven album it reaches rare peaks from time to time. Even though all songs, save one, are covers again, this is a very personal album. LaVette reinterprets the songs as if she were a method actor, sometimes slightly chancing the lines or phrases in order to keep the song close to her personal experience. Bettye makes the songs her own. As a result she leaves you wondering if she hasn't simple killed the guy who betrayed her in John Hiatt's "The Last Time" as she tears into it with a venomous resolve. Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" sounds like a near rewrite. This song is no longer about veterans, this is about LaVette recounting her personal war in a lonely and shady bar, talking to a dozing bar man. LaVette shows herself the masterful story teller on this album, closer to Johnny Cash than Aretha Franklin. Her voice hypnotizes you, draws you in and lets you experience her past. "The Scene of the Crime" is confronting, painful yet exiting and exhilarating at the same time.

LaVette confessed in an interview with a Dutch magazine a few years back she wanted to be either one of two things as a little girl, "A singer or a hooker, I wanted to wear pretty dresses. I simply ran into a producer first". We as an audience can be grateful she did.


Anonymous said...

It's funny how everybody is trying to figure out why Bettye LaVette didn't make it as big as her peers in the 60s. Who knows? She could certainly outsing the lot of them, but Motown wasn't interested in her or Aretha Franklin because Franklin was "too churchy" and LaVette was "too hard" for what Berry Gordy had in mind for his company.

LaVette got some bad advise by people who should have known better. Here she was, 16 years old, signed to a hot record label, Atlantic Records, and she's advised (after her manager is killed) to "get out of that contract. No matter what the executives say." So, she followed the advise of her Detroit elders and went back to Michigan. Big mistake.

I was a fan from the first time I heard her sing. I kept on buying anything she brought out and when I made tapes for parties, Bettye was always included.

She was always a fierce singer. What she did with her voice, nobody else was doing. It was, as Aretha puts it, "deep and greasy." Bettye has said that she lived in the shadows of Etta James for over 30 years. But, I think Bettye was a better singer, even though I love Etta very much. Bettye's soul is so deep, it would take 40 years to dig deep enough to get to the core.

I'm just thrilled that the world has finally caught up with the rest of us who have been there (and never left) from the start, cheering her on.

Now, she's getting her due. There is a God.


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