Bettye LaVette: Powerhouse Song Interpreter Goes Soul Deep
By Robert Burke Warren
Legendary R & B vocalist Bettye LaVette, a 52-year veteran of the concert stage, wants to set the record straight about her reputation as a superlative song interpreter; when she appears at Helsinki Hudson on Saturday, January 11, she will not “inhabit” her material.
“I don’t inhabit the songs,” she says, laughing. “The songs inhabit me!”
LaVette considers her unusually emotive power a mixed blessing. While it has brought her worldwide fame, the ability to go deep, which makes for riveting performances, takes a toll. “I’ve tried to think about something else when I’m singing,” she says, “but I can’t. It makes me so damn mad. I have no control over it. For some reason I go somewhere else. Sometimes I want to be able to sing it really sad and not be sad, but I have to get sad for that moment. It makes me absolutely angry.”
LaVette’s been angry a lot in her 67 years, and justifiably so. Her 2012 memoir, A Woman Like Me, recently optioned by Alicia Keyes for a possible biopic, is a harrowing tale of ultimate triumph over a dizzying string of disappointments and hard luck, interspersed with just enough tantalizing tidbits of success to keep our heroine inching ever forward. LaVette’s remarkable story includes albums recorded for Motown and Atlantic, among other labels, a six-year stint in the late 70s Broadway hit Bubbling Brown Sugar, and family life (she’s now a grandmother), but it also features recurrent poverty and dashed hopes (plus very juicy gossip on her fellow Motown artists Diana Ross and “Little” Stevie Wonder). It is certainly the only memoir to open with a pimp dangling the protagonist by her feet from the 20th floor of a Manhattan apartment building, and ending with that same protagonist singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at a president’s inauguration (Barack Obama’s, of course).
“It’s just what happened to me,” LaVatte says. “I don’t think of it as inspirational. But I do hope someone can look at my story and be both inspired and forewarned about several things, how things can go.”
Her career turned around when ANTI- Records, home of Tom Waits, Eddie Izzard, Neko Case, and a slew of similarly hip artists, released her acclaimed 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, produced by Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry, and featuring tunes penned by Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton and Aimee Mann, among other noted women songwriters. Broader exposure ensued, and this brazenly original song stylist, capable of investing material with new light and gravitas, finally got her due.
“People began looking at me contemporarily and not nostalgically,” LaVette says. “It was great to not be a revival-type thing. ANTI- looked at me as new.” Her 2006 ANTI- album, The Scene of the Crime, co-produced by LaVette and recorded with Drive-By Truckers at historic FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, garnered a Grammy nomination and continued the upward trajectory that carries on today. While she once scrounged for gigs, LaVette now routinely tours the world.
Attendees to LaVette’s Helsinki Hudson performance can expect a wide array of musical styles; she’s recorded disco, country, pop, soul, rock and roll, R & B, blues and Tin Pan Alley classics. She can slay an Elton John song, then turn on a dime and deliver a haunting rendition of the classic “Cry Me A River” or Sinead O’Connor’s spare “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” or her grooving original “Hustlin’In the Motor City,” the theme to the new AMC series Low Winter Sun.
“I don’t think in genres,” she says, “because I know when I sing it, I don’t have to change it, I know I’m not gonna sound like Loretta Lynn or anybody else when I sing. I’m gonna sound like Bettye LaVette. When I love a great melody, I can’t let it go.”
Helsinki Hudson audiences, no doubt, will feel the same about Bettye LaVette.
Saturday, January 11th, 9 PM
405 Columbia Street
Hudson, New York 12534