Bettye LaVette has quietly carved out a 40-year career of soul and is enjoying a rebirth of her singing career.
This year 2004, The Blues Foundation selected the 58-year-old LeVette's "A Woman Like Me" as Blues Comeback Album of the Year.
In a phone interview, she said, "I'm actually a child of rhythm and blues. I've only been recognized as a blues singer over the last year or so."
Growing up in Detroit, LaVette went to high school and lived down the street from kids like Smokey Robinson who were eventually to become the legends of Detroit's Motown Records label. She cut her first record at 16 for Johnnie Mae Matthews, an important figure in the rhythm and blues scene in Detroit.
The record, "My Man He's A Lovin' Man," was only out for a short time before Atlantic Records in New York bought the rights and released it on their label. "My first single came out two years after integration started and the music industry was very segregated at that time," LaVette said. "Black radio played none of those pop things and white radio played no rhythm and blues stuff." Through the years, she recorded for Atlantic, Motown, Epic and many other labels, but her singles never reached the pop Top 100.
"My records never made it to the top, she said. "So I turned my attention to developing my style of singing and becoming the best performer I could. I probably look different and sound different than all of my contemporaries. I really don't think I would be this talented if I had become a big star when I was younger." LaVette did go out on her first tour to promote that first song with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King and Barbara Lynn and at the time, newcomer, Otis Redding, who she dated for awhile.
She would soon be on tour with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.She kept recording for Atlantic in Detroit, and after leaving that label, she recorded for many others during the '60s and '70s. During this period, LaVette appeared regularly in nightclubs and top theaters like the famed Apollo in Manhattan. She found plenty of work in Europe where American soul stars are very popular.
Atlantic Records then put together the album "Child of the 70s." It was to be released on Atco, but it was shelved. "They told me they were not going to release my album for quality control' reasons," LaVette said. "I was devastated. I crawled under a table and didn't want to come out. At the time, they had Aretha Franklin, who was huge. So if I'd been in their position, I probably would've wanted to put every dollar behind her, too. But it took some time for me to deal with all of that.
"In a way, I think it worked out for the best. If I'd had a hit record 30 years ago, I would never have had the experiences I did, like working in musical theater, which made me the more complete artist that I am today.
LaVette received an offer to star in the Broadway musical show "Bubbling Brown Sugar" opposite Cab Calloway."I had more fun doing that then anything I've ever done.It required a great deal of talent. It called on me to do things that I didn't ever know I could do. I had known for a very long time that I could sing rhythm and blues songs but I had no idea that I could tap dance.
When a chance to hit the big time appeared in 1979, thanks to a disco hit called "Doing the Best I Can," she couldn't take advantage of it because she was in the middle of a five-year starring role and national tour of the musical. When Diana Ross left Motown in 1982, the company offered LaVette a record contract that produced the album "Tell Me A Lie," which had one the hit song, "Right in the Middle of Falling in Love." LaVette flew to Los Angeles to appear on "Soul Train" with Smokey Robinson to promote the record. When the masters of the old Atlantic album, "Child of the 70s", were found, they were re-mastered and released in 2000 as "Souvenirs," by a French record company, Arts and Soul.
She flew to Holland in 2001 and recorded the "live" album, "Let Me Down Easy In Concert" for Munich Records,"Now, LaVette has a new record company (Blues Express), a brand new band and a CD release, "A Woman Like Me," produced by songwriter, Dennis Walker, a multi-Grammy award winner who is well known for his work with B.B. King and Robert Cray.She presented an award at the Annual R&B Awards in New York City the year, and joined Isaac Hayes, George Clinton and Mary Wilson in a group performance.
She was named Number One Artist Deserving More Attention by Living Blues magazine and her rendition of "Real Real Gone" on the August CD release "Vanthology: A Tribute to Van Morrison" is one of the highlights of the album.
LaVette said, "Everything that has ever happened to me in my career that would be considered bad is starting to turn into something good."
Article originally published in the Chico, CA Press