As Bettye LaVette describes to Radio 2 Shift's Tom Allen, "When something takes almost 50 years to happen, no one thing, prayer or nothing else, no one thing would change it." She is referring to her music career, and how after years of struggle, the 66-year-old R&B/soul singer has finally found some success, a journey that she shares in her new book, A Woman Like Me.
"I quit every six months, but as soon as another deal would happen I was right back into it," she says. "I wasn’t aware that I was becoming better and better, but I was."
Indeed, over the past decade LaVette has solidified herself as a skilled singer and performer, growing comfortably into her soulful and expressive voice, and into her role as a masterful song interpreter. With the collection of songs on her new album, Thankful N' Thoughtful, the singer takes on tunes by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Sly and the Family Stone and the Black Keys.
The teenage chart-topper
When she was 16 years old, LaVette recorded her first single, "My Man He's a Loving Man." The song became a hit, which took her from a Grade 9 classroom to sharing the stage with R&B star Clyde McPhatter. The experience would normally be described as exceptional, but in 1962 Detroit, it was commonplace. "Every third person was either writing songs or singing," LaVette laughs. "I was going to say that it hadn’t happened to anyone on my block, but it had."
LaVette gives off a no-nonsense vibe over the phone, and is open to reflecting on the past. She freely uses the word "baby" like an affectionate punctuation mark, and at one point a cat can be heard in the background. Turns out there are two kitties roaming around, Otis and Smokey, named after the soul greats Otis Redding and Smokey Robinson.
Despite her early success, LaVette never quite found the same level of fame as Redding, Robinson or others. "My recording came out before most of them, before 'Respect,' before the Supremes, before the Temptations. When I started to die, they continued to get bigger. Suddenly the people I could pick up the phone and call I couldn’t anymore because I wasn’t moving with them, they were becoming bigger and bigger and I wasn’t." LaVette admits, "it was extremely difficult and embarrassing.”
"I was very close with Marvin Gaye and Solomon Burke, who I did get to work with and see again before he passed away," she continues. "They always ask me, 'Is there anybody you’d like to sing with?' but they’re all dead. I just had so many stops and gos, by the time I would get close to going somewhere, all of it would dissipate."
Try, try again
During the '70s, LaVette honed her craft, working with her late manager Jim Lewis, to whom she dedicates the book.
"I doubt I ever go onstage without thinking of him, especially when I really don’t feel like doing it," she says. "He used to tell me, 'You asked to join.'" He also imparted to LaVette that "if you never become a star, be good at what you do.” So when singing and performing opportunities came up, LaVette had the training, confidence and ability to take them on and really showcase everything she learned from Lewis.
Nine years ago, LaVette recorded what she considers to be her first real album – 2003's A Woman Like Me, which is also the title of her book. She was finally receiving acclaim, awards and making connections with the right labels and producers.
Now in her 60s, it's a little harder for LaVette to get up and go to a different city every day, but there is an important reason to keep going. "I have never made any money," she explains. "All of my friends are rich. I’d like to be at least comfortable before I die."
"I’ve spent all my time on this so I virtually know how to do nothing else," LaVette continues. "So I keep doing this because now I’m being afforded the opportunity to do it in many places I’ve always dreamed of being, and on the level I’ve always dreamed of doing."
Thankful N' Thoughtful
On her brand new record, LaVette teams up with record producer Craig Street, known for his Grammy Award-winning album Come Away With Me, by Norah Jones.
"He's noted for weird sounds," LaVette describes, "so you hear those sounds and you think that it isn’t me that’s going to sing, it’s going to be someone much younger."
Like all great song interpreters, LaVette surprises us with her choices. Two notable selections on the new disc are "Dirty Old Town" by the Pogues and "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. Balancing out the hits are some hidden gems.
"A couple of young ladies that haven’t been heard from much," says LaVette, revealing the source of the gems. "Female writers from Nashville, because in this business those are the most brokenhearted people in the entire world. They always appeal to me, I love broken hearts."
"Those country and western writers write fantastic lyrics, on all of them [my CDs] I’ve had at least one pure country song," LaVette continues. "But of course when I sing it, it’s rhythm and blues no matter what the song, even if it’s a classical tune. For a long time, say if you become famous as a rhythm and blues singer, people don’t expect you to do anything else. They think it’s a real big deal that Rod Stewart is doing standards. If he’s a damn singer, he should have been singing them all the time."
You can stream LaVette's new album on CBC Music here.
Stream Bettye LaVette's new album, Thankful N' Thoughtful
Bettye LaVette's 'favourite female singers' playlist
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