Becoming Bettye LaVette: an interpreter of the highest order tackles the British Songbook
There are two kinds of people: those who love Bettye LaVette and think she is one of the greatest interpreters of song in our time, and those who are so tragically un-hip that they haven’t yet heard her music.
The number of unenlightened dropped dramatically on a cold January 18th in 2009 when Bettye performed Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” at the Inaugural Celebration for President Obama. The sprawling masses were left in awed silence asking one simple question. “Who was that?”
The historic performance was only the most recent high point since the beginning of her “coming up out of the crypt,” as she calls it, in 2005. It was that year that saw Bettye enter the studio with a small group of musicians, pianistic impressionist Lisa Coleman (once of Prince & The Revolution) and sensitive guitar burner Doyle Bramhall II among them, under the attentive direction of Joe Henry for I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Grammy Nominated The Scene of The Crime with backing band the Drive-By Truckers followed in 2007. A digital EP of classic soul covers inspired by the Inaugural performance came in 2009 and May 25th, 2010 saw the release of one of her most intriguing projects to date, a collection of well known pages from the British-Rock songbook (more on that in a moment).
But how did we get here, dear reader? What took her from the 1962 Atlantic release of “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” at 16 years old, to being a critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated artist, performing for Presidents and common folk alike, embarking on perhaps her boldest adventure yet, revisiting and, in many cases, completely reinventing some of the most canonized songs of the 60’s and 70’s with her latest Anti- records release Interpretations: The British Songbook?
In early May, I sat with the beautiful and gracious songstress to discuss the process of becoming Bettye LaVette.
“You know how ridiculous I felt at 55 when my career had still not taken off?” she laughs, adding, “It was only because of the lack of success in my career that I was able to develop a style. I don’t think I would have been as broad of an artist. And, I don’t think a lot of artists, especially new artists, are allowed to get broad because they get a million dollars for doing a particular thing. Then they get caught up in doing it until they’re old and then they can’t do anything else. In retrospect there were many, many days of suffrage but, gosh, I think I got a lot out of the whole thing.”
Perhaps as a result of that opportunity for exploration and development, Bettye has become graced, as she sees it, in recent years with the label “interpreter.”
“From the place that I come from, that thing was just about going out when I started in 1962, but from 1962 back, that [an interpreter] was a great thing to be. That was what Frank Sinatra was. So for me, that was something I aspired to.”
As for her contemporaries such as Ron Isley or James Brown (whose review show, Bettye had a brief stint in);
“They got a chance to do a lot of recording before as well… You can go back and listen to ‘Try Me’ and that kinda thing on James Brown and earlier things on Ron Isley… You get a chance to know that they weren’t invented.” She laughs. “You know, they were not invented.”
The one thing that seemed to truly separate Bettye from so many of the stars of her generation was her unique and ultimately extraordinarily powerful instrument. She has often said she always felt she sounded more like Wilson Picket then Dionne Warwick.
“…There was no one particular thing that I could ascribe my 40 something years of struggle, but my voice, especially when I was 16… I wanted to be on the road with Baby Washington and The Shirelles and Chubby Checker. But I was on the road with Clyde McPhatter and James Brown. I was working the night clubs. I wanted to do the Dick Clark festival.”
Ironically that same aspect of her voice that made for more difficult placement in her early career may in fact be responsible for her wondrous ability to connect with so many people all these years later. I talked with Bettye about the legacy of “gender cross-over” voices in soul music. James Brown hitting those impassioned high notes on “Please, Please, Please…” It connects with the listener as universal emotion through sound. It doesn’t go out to just a man or a woman; it goes out to you. This skill of Bettye’s is more evident than ever in her performances on Interpretations.
“It was so many years of my former manager. Up until he died, I still had in my head that I wanted to be the Temptations or the Supremes. He said, ‘You better learn to sing, so should you not become the Temptations or the Supremes, you can still get up there and sing.’ He said, ‘I can’t promise you that you are going to be a star, but if you listen to me I can help you become a great singer.’
He never liked anything I recorded. I really wish he had been able to hear this. I believe the construction of this album and the completely relaxed way I approached songs that were almost foreign…oh gosh, he would have liked this.”
Pause for a momentary confessional: “Bless me mother, for I have sinned.”
Upon seeing the tracklisting for Interpretations I was more than a little concerned. I mean, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Nights In White Satin…” While to some these songs represent the pinnacle of rock music, I will simply say they don’t receive a lot of rotation in my household. But, oh, fool that I am. How could I doubt Bettye?
“We released the song listing just to provoke conversation.”
My friend Mary Reid, caught her recent performance in Boston and called me the next day saying, “She was doing all these songs that I never liked, but they sounded SO good!”
And of course, Bettye knew exactly what she was doing.
“I’m having so much fun looking at the audience saying… is that? No! I am having the most fun with my audience I’ve ever had. This is the first time they are getting to entertain me.”
Bettye also rejects the pressure to “do it all”, proving with Interpretations that sometimes the highest art can simply be doing one thing right.
“…There is no way I could have been in the business all these years and not be able to write something. But for me to say ‘Bettye LaVette – singer songwriter, producer…’ No, I am not.
Just get one thing down really, really good and I wouldn’t be mad at you. But when I’m broke, looking at someone doing 4 things fairly well, or when a dancer wins singer of the year… that gives me tremendous headaches, Jesse,” she laughs.
With so many songs that are meant to be sung, waiting to have new life breathed into them each time, why do we hold so much music in abstract reverence?
“…I am having the damnedest time. I mean, these are not my songs. These are the songs of young white men. They’re not the songs of black radio and these are artists you rarely find too many black people in their audience. I mean we had this sort of ‘love-in’ thing in the 60s, but now the people who are 60 and going to see them are primarily white. I am having the damnedest time separating these songs from these people. This was my husbands concept but I wouldn’t let the arranger or musicians call [the songs] by the people’s names. I mean they’re songs. They were words on a piece of paper before they sung it. If Roy Rogers had sung it, it would have been a Western song. I think if you’re a writer you’ve got to want people to hear your words. No writer writes just for themselves.”
As a result the song selection was no simple matter for Bettye on this record or her previous ones. It’s the mark of her interpretive skill that she looks to connect with a lyric on a level often deeper than that of the original performance.
“There are songs that I won’t sing in a certain setting. The song just doesn’t belong there. I don’t think like a recording artist, either. I think like an entertainer. I have to think about what I’ll be doing on stage with a song. I couldn’t do the Twist at 65. Everything I do now, even if I have a lot of energy, has to be in line with a 65 year old woman. Even if it’s a funny song, like the one I wrote on the last record; ‘Before the Money Came,’ it has to be truthful.
I have been able to sing ever since I was a little bitty girl, but one of the worst things you have ever heard in your life, was me at 16 in front of a 16 piece orchestra who were all older than me, singing ‘Lover Man.’ I mean, I had nothing to relate to, it could only be so real for me. That was more instruments then I had ever seen in my life, and they were laughing at me, the musicians… This poor little girl.”
Bettye’s life has clearly informed her performances and this is no small piece in her recent “comeback” success.
“I used to quit every 6 months. But the people kept me holding on. I was talking with my very dear friend, who has passed away now, Curtis Jackson of The Spinners. I said, ‘Curtis, tell me to quit. I want someone I respect to tell me you should quit now cause you’re real old.’ And he said, ‘Take this $20 dollars and go get you a drink.’ It was always something like that. It was people paying my rent, people paying car notes, saying, ‘Don’t quit!’
I am sure at some point even they were thinking ‘Well, shit, she’s tried every darn thing and none of it will work.’ I don’t think they were investing in me because they thought it was gonna work, I think they just kinda took me on.
But there were folks around Detroit who always came out to my shows. And they might not know me from anything else. Then I did Bubbling Brown Sugar [the musical] for 6 years and there are people that only know me from that. And there are the people who knew the old records, who probably thought I was dead because they weren’t hearing new records. But when I started back up 6 years ago, I got all of these young white people. So now with all that, my audience looks like a real audience, you know? I call it a Ray Charles audience, which is the kind of audience I always wanted. The internet helped too because it helped connect all those people.
A lot of really strange and magical things have happened. I mean, what are the chances of being married to a crazy man who asks my agent to call the Kennedy Center and ask them if I could sing ‘Choices’ for George Jones. But they went online and saw me sing ‘Little Sparrow.’
What are the chances of that?
Then they liked it so much that they wanted me to sing at the Inaugural event. I saw my good friends the O’Jays and they said ‘We couldn’t believe this. We wrote every letter we could and then we say, ‘Who’s this that comes walking out on the stage…? and we haven’t see you in 20 years.’ I told them I was saying the exact same thing.”
So with the days quitting every 6 months behind her what’s ahead for Bettye LaVette?
“Now’s the time for me to do something I’ve never done in my career, and that’s make some money! I’m gonna try that hill very soon and if I can get that done, I will have had a pretty complete career.
I’d really like to do a one woman show at some point. I’d like to do something like that show that Lena Horne, God rest her soul, did recently. To sing all the songs. I’ve sung so many kinds of songs because of the gigs I’ve had. I just had to adapt, so I’d like to do that.
But I am very pleased with this album, I haven’t been this pleased with an album in a long time.
This is more than a notion.”
Bettye LaVette’s newest album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook is available now from Anti- Records.
Live Well & Listen Closely,
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
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photography by Carol Friedman
art direction & design by www.hayesmusicdesign.com
special thanks to Bettye, Tresa at Anti- Records and my editor Kellee Webb.