Rare is the artist who first finds success around the time her AARP card arrives in the mail. And Bettye LaVette’s definitely a rare artist. At an age when most performers are trying to conjure a younger version of themselves, the evocative 67-year old blues and soul singer is no one but herself.
“I’m not a has-been; I’m the world’s oldest never-was,” LaVette cackles, staring at the falling snow outside her New Jersey home. LaVette recorded her first single, “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man,” at 16 and dreamt of being a star. “I’m so glad I had a manager who told me, ‘You may never be a star. But learn to be a good singer, and you can sing all of your life.’”
LaVette got lost in the cracks. She cut a number of tracks in the ‘60s then signed to Atlantic Records, the perfect home for her gritty, heart and soul sound. In 1972, they sent her to Alabama to record her debut, Child of the Seventies, with writer/producer Brad Shapiro (Isaac Hayes, James Brown) and the famous Swampers, the Muscle Shoals session pros that backed Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and the Staples Singers on some of their biggest hits. But Atlantic shelved the record.
Still under contract, LaVette went to New York intent on being connected with Atlantic writer/producer team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. But they had just left the label (eventually to start their own). Instead, LaVette was scheduled to work with a young producer by the name of Burt Bacharach.
“At that time, Burt Bacharach had only had ‘Walk On By’ [by Isaac Hayes], which I didn’t care for, so that he was going to produce me was not impressing me at all,” LaVette cracks. “They never told me who he was going to be.”
“I said, ‘I want to get out of my contract,’” she continues. “Only thing wrong with that was they were absolutely the only people I knew in the record industry. So leaving, I had no idea where I was going. I just knew it sounded very adult to say, ‘I want to be released from my contract.’ That was the first major mistake I made in my life.”
Though LaVette would release a few singles in the ‘70s, including the minor disco hit, “Doin the Best That I Can,” a second serious shot would elude her. She was singing three sets for $50 a night back home, resigned to her fate when, in 1999, a French music collector would discover her unreleased debut album in the Atlantic Records vault. (They’d claimed it’d been lost in a fire.) He licensed it and released it in France in 2000, the same year a Dutch label released a live concert album.
Then in 2003, Shanachie Records general manager Randall Grass—unable to convince his bosses to sign LaVette—put her in touch with Dennis Walker, who produced A Woman Like Me. It won a WC Handy Blues award as Comeback Album of the Year.
“Dennis had got a deal with this little unheard-of record company, Blues Express, and had money to do this recording but no artist, so [Grass] put this together,” says LaVette. “It was a friend here, one in France and one in Holland. It wasn’t necessarily by accident. All these people had been trying to help me, but they had never been in the position to. It was a perfect storm because nobody planned this. But it all came together.”
The Handy win attracted the attention of ANTI- Records, who, in 2005, paired her with producer Joe Henry for an album of songs by female artists, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. It made many critics year’s-best lists, and LaVette’s career’s been on a steady upswing ever since.
An amazing song interpreter, she’s released albums exploring that Muscle Shoals soul sound of her debut (2007’s The Scene of the Crime, recorded with members of the Drive-By Truckers) and 2010’s Interpretations: The British Songbook, which was accompanied by a tour with Robert Plant. Her latest, last year’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, explores dark roots on heart-stoppingly powerful tracks by Neil Young, Black Keys, Tom Waits and Patty Griffin.
LaVette picks her songs like someone to date, she says, “because I become intimately involved with my songs.” She pores over 250 songs for each project, all but a handful of which she’s never heard before. (She’s more movie buff than music lover.) “It’s the melody that first hooks you,” she says, “and then I’m often disappointed because the lyrics don’t stand up to the melody. I am very staunch about the lyrics—always have been—but the melody is what attracts me.”
She’s not quite Adele, but LaVette’s on the verge of broad-based success. (Perhaps singing the theme song for new AMC drama Low Winter Sun will help.) Still, she harbors bitterness toward late Atlantic Records mogul Ahmet Ertegun for shelving her debut.
“Many years later, a European writer asked, ‘What was the deal with Bettye LaVette? She was a great singer.” And he said, ‘The cream always rises,’” LaVette says with a fierce chuckle. “I hate that motherfucker because he fell down the steps and died before I could kill him.” From her, that’s just the kind of unfiltered passion we’ve come to expect.
Tues., Jan. 7, 8pm. $30. With St. Paul and the Broken Bones. World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. philly.worldcafelive.com
Floetry’s Philadelphia story