Bettye LaVette (born Betty Jo
Haskins, January 29, 1946) was born in Muskegon, Michigan, and raised in
Detroit. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she did not begin singing in the
church, but in her parents' living room, singing R&B and country and western
music. She was signed by Johnnie Mae Matthews, a local record producer. In 1962,
aged sixteen, she recorded a single, "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man", with
Matthews, which became a Top Ten R&B hit after Atlantic Records bought
distribution rights. This led to a tour with rhythm and blues musicians Clyde
McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, and then-newcomer Otis Redding. She next
hit the charts with “Let Me Down Easy” on Calla Records in 1965. This led to a
brief stint with The James Brown Revue. After recording several singles for
local Detroit labels, LaVette signed to the Silver Fox label in 1969. She cut a
handful of tracks, including two Top 40 R&B hits: “He Made A Woman Out Of Me”
and “Do Your Duty”. The Memphis studio musicians on these recordings have since
become known as The Dixie Flyers. In 1972, she signed once again with Atlantic/Atco.
She was sent to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama to record what was to be
her first full-length album. Titled Child of the Seventies, it was produced by
Brad Shapiro and featured the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, now known as The
Swampers, but Atco chose not to issue the album.
She released two more fab albums for Anti-Epitaph ("Interpretations", "Thankful & Thoughtful"), one for Cherry Red ("Worthy") and her latest is an all Bob Dylan songs album entitled "Things Have Changed" released on Verve in 2018.
"Tell Me A Lie" (Motown 1982)
Right In The Middle (Of Falling In
"Not Gonna Happen Twice" (Motorcity 1991)
1 Not Gonna Happen Twice
"Nearer To You" (Charly 1991)
He Made A Woman Out Of Me 2:33
"The Very Best Of" (Motorcity 1996)
1 Good Luck
"Let Me Down Easy In Concert" (Munich 2000)
My Man 4:50
"Souvenirs" (Art & Soul 2000)
Actually the first (albeit late) release of the unissued Atlantic album (i.e. what could have been her first LP in 1973)
1 It Ain't Easy
"A Woman Like Me" (Blues Express 2003)
Serves Him Right
****While most of the attention concerning LaVette's discography centers around her stunning comeback beginning with her Anti/Epitaph debut "I've Got My Own Hell To Raise" in 2012 LaVette had already made what should have been her comeback album in 2003. It's her most straight-forward Soul Blues release featuring some strong covers ("Right Next Door", "The Forecast") and some new numbers co-composed for this album by former Robert Cray-bassist/producer Dennis Walker ("When The Blues Catch Up To You", "It Ain't Worth It After Awhile", "Serves Him Right"). It's all about LaVette's timeworn voice and expert phrasing though.
"I've Got My Own Hell To Raise" (Anti 2005)
I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got 2:11
**** With a raspy alto exploding with emotion Bettye LaVette must have "buzzard luck" for her not to be better known. Of course that could change with this potent stew of sandpaper R & B, folk, soul & gospelish blues. Be forewarned this isn't saccharine sweet soul music replete with horns and an unremitting groove. In fact at times it's jarring and cacophonous but never boring. The material is drawn from an eclectic assortment of female singers but Lavette turns each track into her own. A torchy acapella version of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" kicks things off before giving way to a jagged rendition of Lucina Williams' "Joy". Producer Joe Henry was behind Solomon Burke's dramatic comeback album "Don't Give Up On Me". Spare, dusky and traveling on a gravel road Henry's production is sympathetic and unobtrusive. LaVette's the centerpiece rather than studio wizardry. She can migrate from a gritty, manic number like "Joy" onto a delicate piano ballad like "Down To Zero" (written by iconoclast Joan Armatrading) and "The High Road" with ease. Henry strips away the chamber-pop pretensions of the unctuous Fiona Apple's "Sleep To Dream" down to a bluesy root and brings out the R & B in Aimee Mann's literate pop/rock confection "How Am I Different?". Don't call it a comeback- she's been here for years. In fact in 2003 she already won the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Of The Year with "A Woman Like Me" but expect a lot of press on this one. It's not what I wanted personally from LaVette at first, which would have been a more traditional soul record, but as a critic I can still objectively admire it's rough beauty. It gets better with each listen
"Child Of The 70s" (Rhino 2006)
It Ain't Easy
"Scene Of The Crime" (Anti 2007)
I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take
Me Like I Am)
"A Change Is Gonna Come Sessions" (Anti 2009)
1 Change Is Gonna Come
"Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook" (Anti 2010)
The Word 3:37
"Thankful N' Thoughtful" (Anti/Epitath 2012)
"More Thankful N' Thoughtful" (Anti/Epitath 2012)
1 Long Time
"Worthy" (Cherry Red 2015)
"Things Have Changed" (Verve 2018)
Things Have Changed
****1/2 LaVette has time and time again proven she is an innovative interpreter of other person's songs. One such person is Bob Dylan. She crushed Dylan's "Unbelievable" on her 2015 LP "Worthy" and "Everything Is Broken" from 2012's "Thankful N' Thoughtful". Those turned out so well LaVette has logically decided to mine the Dylan catalog for an album's worth- songs that span 43 years from 1963's "The Times They Are A-Changin'" all the way up to "Ain't Talkin" from Dylan's acclaimed 2006 album "Modern Times". It's a smart set of picks with only two ubiquitous hits ("Times Are A-Changin'" and "It Ain't Me Babe") It's no surprise the results are excellent. Her recent foray into the "British Rock Songbook" (full title: "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook") was revelatory. On "Things Have Changed" her phrasings are often unpredictable and disparate. I've always loved the straight ahead, broad melody of "Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight" (from Dylan's 1983 effort "Infidels"). It's a very sing-able refrain. In LaVette's (and producer Steve Jordan's) hands it is transformed into a stripped down piano ballad and LaVette alters the hook. She sings "Don't Fall On Me Tonight" late, as in not immediately after the bridge as Dylan (and Aaron Neville for that matter) sang it. At first I found it unnerving but the more I listened the more I appreciated the new detour into an unknown cavern the song was now leading. By the way Jordan, who himself played with Dylan, employed other former Dylan sidemen including guitarist Larry Campbell, bassist Pino Palladino and Leon Pendarvis on keyboards.
"It Ain't Me Babe" is again stripped down to percussion, bass, electric piano and subtle guitar licks. It may sacrilegious but this is how this song should have been done from the jump. LaVette does away with the nasally refrain and instead croaks mightily just at the right syllables. It's no longer Folk but a muscular kiss off song. "Political World" (from "Oh Mercy") employs an entirely different arrangement and laidback rhythm, perhaps unnecessarily (with guest Keith Richards). Can't warm up to this one. "Ain't Talkin'" stays faithful to it's source melodically only with sinister violins courtesy of The Firey String Company, accordion and barely audible keyboard bass as the backdrop. It's a stunner.
Sometimes our heroine plays it straight. The title cut, which always struck me as a sequel to "Times Are A-Changin'", was Dylan's last "hit" single. Dylan's version was from "The Wonder Boys" movie and charted #58 in the UK. LaVette and Jordan wisely keep the hypnotic thump of the original with a tasty lead guitar line added. Meanwhile the sole parishioner from Dylan's so-called "Gospel period" is a rocking take on "Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)" found on 1979's "Slow Train Coming". The track has been resurrected as a superior being indeed. LaVette sticks to the phrasing but Jordan & Co. deliver fire and brimstone backing. One of the highlights easily.
Being I'm a child of the 80s two of my many favorite Dylan albums are the aforementioned "Infidels" ("Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight") from 1983 and 1988's often-maligned "Empire Burlesque". Well, surprise surprise "Empire" is represented by two ace cuts. Dylan's bitter "Seeing The Real You At Last" is given a somewhat pedestrian reading but the gorgeous ballad "Emotionally Yours" is another story. The song had already been covered back in 1991 when The O'Jays took it to #5 on Billbaord's U.S. R&B Songs chart. Well as good as that version was LaVette slays on her version. That weathered, almost-too-soulful-for-it's-own good voice of hers really soars on this one. The track opens with acoustic guitar and piano and slowly builds with Bettye's voice rising to a crescendo of raspy power and then gliding back down for the fade out. That's the Bettye LaVette formula. Slow burning grit and raspy power. There's no one more Soulful recording today.
"Blackbirds" (Verve 2020)
Hold No Grudge 5:00