By Eleni P. Austin
During the first half of the 20th Century, with the advent of the phonograph record, Pop Music became, well, popular. In that era, songwriters wrote, musicians played and singers sang.
Hoagy Carmichael wrote “Stardust,” studio musicians recorded the melody and then singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Keely Smith and Nat King Cole, (to name a few, there are 1,500 versions), sang it. Each added their own individual stamp to the song.
The Beatles and Bob Dylan changed all that. By the mid ‘60s it became de rigueur for musicians to compose, play and sing their own songs. If you were a singer who just interpreted songs, suddenly you were somehow considered less then. These new Pop Music “rules” certainly slowed the trajectory of Bettye LaVette’s career.
Bettye LaVette, (ne’ Betty Haskins) was born in Muskegon, Michigan and raised in Detroit. She showed an affinity for music early on, singing R&B and Country songs for her parents in their living room.
She was signed to by a local producer at age 16 in 1962. She scored a minor hit with “My Man, He’s A Lovin’ Man.” After Atlantic Records bought the distribution rights, the song shot up the charts to the Top 40.
This led to a tour with other up and coming artists like Clyde McPhatter, Barbara Lynn, Ben E. King and a very young Otis Redding. Her next song, “Let Me Down Easy” came out in 1965 and brought her to the attention of James Brown, who included her in his James Brown Revue.
LaVette scored smaller hits with a few more songs before signing with the independent Silver Fox label. She cut a variety of tracks and had two more Top 40 R&B hits, “He Made A Man Out Me” and “Do Your Duty.”
By the late ‘60s, LaVette had signed with Atlantic/Atco. The label was home to Soul superstars like Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett and Ruth Brown. They sent her to Alabama to record at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, which had proven to be fertile ground for Franklin, Pickett and the Staple Singers. The ensuing album, Child Of The Seventies was inexplicably shelved by the label.
Throughout the ‘70s, LaVette continued to record songs for small labels with negligible results. By the early ‘80s she signed with her hometown label, Motown. Predictably, they couldn’t figure out a way to harness her talent.
For a time, she quit making records altogether and joined the company of the smash Broadway production, “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” The show was an homage to the African American composers who spearheaded the Harlem Renaissance back in the 1920’s. For six years she appeared alongside legends like Cab Calloway and Honi Coles.
In the ‘90s, a French Soul Music collector named Gilles Petard heard LaVette’s personal mono copy of her unreleased Atlantic effort, Child Of The Seventies. It took years to locate master recordings, (they were thought to be lost in a fire.) Finally he licensed them from Atlantic and issued the album, re-titled Souvenirs, on his Art and Soul label.
Meanwhile, the Dutch Munich label released a live Bettye LaVette recording, Let Me Down Easy-Live In Concert. Both releases sparked renewed interest in LaVette. In 2003 she recorded A Woman Like Me for the tiny Blues Express label. A year later it won the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Comeback Blues Album Of The Year.” That brought her to the attention of Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti- Records.
A sister label to indie giant Epitaph, Anti- began in 1999 and boasts an eclectic roster that includes Neko Case, Merle Haggard, Bob Mould, Beth Orton, Mavis Staples, Wilco and Tom Waits. Kaulkin signed Bettye LaVette and suggested she let singer-songwriter Joe Henry produce her Anti- debut.
Joe Henry began carving out a respectable solo career in the mid-80s, (although in certain circles he’s best known for being Madonna’s brother-in-law). A talented producer, he has provided adroit assistance for artists as disparate as Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, Loudon Wainwright III and Bonnie Raitt.
Released in 2005, “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise” was a brilliant synthesis of singer and song. Each title on the album was written by a female singer-songwriter. LaVette offered sharp interpretations of songs made famous by Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor, Aimee Mann, Rosanne Cash and Fiona Apple.
LaVette was on a roll. Two years later, her collaboration with Southern alt-rockers, Drive-By Truckers yielded the album, Scene Of The Crime. It topped critic polls and garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
In 2008, the Kennedy Center honored The Who for their contributions to music. At the ceremony, Bettye LaVette brought down the house with her scorching version of “Love Reign Over Me,” from the Quadrophenia album. Two months later, at President Obama’s inauguration, she received the same reaction when she performed Sam Cooke’s apropos anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Both events raised LaVette’s profile considerably and inspired her next record, Interpretations: The British Songbook. It was a deft deconstruction of British Invasion era hits from the Beatles, Animals, Pink Floyd and the Who.
Thankful N’ Thoughtful, released in 2012, was another solid outing; it included down n’ dirty versions of songs by Neil Young, the Pogues and Tom Waits. Now she is back with her first album for the Cherry Red label, entitled Worthy. She is also reunited with Joe Henry.
The album opens with the slinky syncopation of “Unbelievable,” culled from Bob Dylan’s less than great 1990 album, Under The Red Sky. In Dylan’s hands it was a lean roadhouse rocker. LaVette gives it a Bluesy patina, as she parses life’s inequities. “They said it was the land of milk and honey, now they say it’s the land of money/ Who ever thought they could make that stick, it’s unbelievable you can get rich this quick.
There are some obscure tracks here, and she quickly makes them her own. Her savvy version of Savoy Brown’s “When I Was A Young Girl” is the best Blaxploitation movie theme you’ve never heard. Roiling organ notes collide with sinewy bass lines and skittery guitar riffs that recall BB King and session great, Eric Gale. Regret and recrimination is the song’s leitmotif, but some hard-won observations are absorbed. “You can’t get a sneak preview of what you’re going to go through/ You gotta rely on your body and mind to see the light from the shade.”
She strips away the country comfort from Mickey Newberry’s “Bless Us All.” The Bare bones instrumentation is accented by plaintive piano chords, but the focus is on LaVette’s rough-hewn vocals and lyrics that offer a tender benediction to all God’s children.
“Undamned” comes from the Ohio band, Over The Rhine. Their original is Folk-flavored and tentative. Here, the action is anchored by churchy piano, prickly guitar licks and spare percussion, LaVette’s version is achingly spiritual and oddly biographical. “I’ve got a thousand lost songs (too many just got away), I’ve done a thousand things wrong (far too many to name)/But I’m not too far gone to fall headlong into the arms that love me.”
Re-branding Classic Rock songs and claiming them as her own has become something of a signature for LaVette. She continues that tradition with her renderings of the Rolling Stones’ “Complicated” and the Beatles’ “Wait.” On the Stones track she retains some of the playful swagger of this “Between The Buttons” deep cut. The melody is fueled by a hip-switch handclap rhythm, rippling piano, wickedly stripped down guitar and lush Hammond B3 colors.
LaVette flips the script on the Glimmer Twins ripe appraisal of a ‘60s femme fatale, recasting the lyrics as a sharp self-assessment. Now I’m kind of special in my own way, I do the same things every day/And I’m totally dedicated to having my own way, I’m kind of complicated.”
“Wait” was a herky-jerky rocker on the Beatles career defining Rubber Soul album. Here delicate acoustic arpeggios and moody organ fills intertwine, along with hints of steel guitar, underscoring the ache in LaVette’s voice. This is her greatest strength, taking a throwaway lyric about a long distance romance and imbuing it with a world-weary tenderness.
The album’s centerpiece is “Just Between You And Me And The Wall You’re A Fool.” This laconic romantic post-mortem from Country-Rockers, Amazing Rhythm Aces is transformed by LaVette into an excoriating Blues dirge. Hammond B3 gently washes over restrained percussion as tensile, stinging guitar licks underscore the restrained vitriol that she teases out. The lyrics feel like a verbal vivisection.
Other interesting tracks include “Stop,” written by Joe Henry. Powered by a kick-drum beat, cascading piano chords and blistering guitar riffs, it shares some musical DNA with Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good.”
“Where Life Goes” is a sweetly soulful and spiritual. The lyrics offer this tribute; “In this lonely world we’re lost, on an angry sea we’re tossed/But you my dear have made it safe across where life goes.” Meanwhile, the horn-accented “Step Away” feels like a kissin’ cousin to Clarence Carter’s Soul classic “Slip Away.”
The album closes with the title track, written by alt-country singer, Mary Gautier. Propelled by sweet ‘70s Soul guitar licks and subdued organ, this survivor’s anthem is the perfect end to an amazing record.
Joe Henry has smartly surrounded Bettye LaVette session players he has collaborated with for years. His version of the Wrecking Crew includes drummer Jay Bellerose, guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, bassist Chris Bruce and Patrick Warren on keys.
In the tradition of Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole and Judy Garland, Bettye LaVette is a world-class interpreter of other people’s songs. She doesn’t need to write a lyric to feel it. Worthy proves that claim, from the minute the needle hits the groove.