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Art Levine

Art Levine

Posted: August 5, 2010 03:29 PM

After nearly 50 years in show business, touring behind Interpretations, her stunning take on British rock classics and the best-selling album of her life, Bettye LaVette still brings the pain to every performance. And while concert tours are generally in a slump, she is giving some of the best shows to be seen this summer.

Mark these dates: On Friday and Saturday, she's coming to the Old Rock House in St. Louis and the Folly Theater in Kansas City, Missouri. Anyone who can stand to have their heart torn apart by the artistry that makes her perhaps the most emotionally powerful soul singer alive will not dare miss these shows.

The praise has been so overwhelming for LaVette since she emerged from years of obscurity following her one top-ten R&B hit in 1962 that at first it may all seem like hype. When you read the rapturous reviews greeting her new album, you might think that no one could live up to hosannas like this from The New York Times: "Ms. LaVette, 64, now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation's most vital soul singer. She uses every scrap, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator's sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song." Surely, it must just be baby boomer-driven nostalgia for an old-fashioned genre that's behind this renewed interest in Bettye LaVette or that led Robert Plant to choose her to open for him during his summer tour.

Then you see her possess the mike and her songs live on stage, as she did at a recent show at DC's indie rock showcase, the 9:30 Club, and you realize that the critics and musicians hailing her haven't quite captured the impact her singing can have on you. Looking a few decades younger than her age, fit and trim in black pants and a sleeveless black top with toned forearms to rival Michelle Obama's, she was introduced by her bandleader and pianist as "The Great Lady of Soul" -- and she quickly showed why she deserved that title.

By the time she did a slow ballad from her new album, George Harrison's "Isn't It A Pity," the qualities that set her apart from other singers became so apparent that the few hundred people in the usually noisy club were stunned into silence. With her throaty voice breaking with an intensity that the ex-Beatles' sweet, melancholy version never reached, she displayed something akin to emotional X-ray vision by finding the sadness and agony at the heart of the song, giving us something far more than can be found on the pop record we thought we knew.

Slowing the song down even further than the original version from All Things Must Pass, she started singing with dramatic, heart-wrenching pauses over a soft piano accompaniment, "Isn't it a pity, isn't it a shame, how we break each other's hearts and cause each other pain?" As she moved through the song, singing about "taking each other's love... forgetting to give back," her eyes squeezed tight in that expressive face framed by short-cropped dark hair, and she hit her right fist into her other hand at times to emphasize the words she did not want us to forget.

She sang the lyrics that reflected the song's underlying plea for understanding and kindness with a special power. After all, she is a black woman seen for years as too gritty for a white-dominated music industry, and she was raised in a Detroit neighborhood so segregated that her parents sold corn-liquor in a make-shift home bar to traveling gospel and R&B singers who couldn't get served elsewhere. "Some things take so long, but how can I explain when not too many people can see we're all the same?" she asked in song, and George's Hindu-inspired mysticism became transformed into something deeper for our time.

"If I like a song," she says in a phone interview a few days after the DC show, "I hear how I'd like to sing it." But that seemingly simple declaration doesn't explain the ineffable alchemy at work when Bettye LaVette takes a song, even one that's been immortalized on pop radio for decades, and turns it into a Bettye LaVette song that hits you in ways that you can't expect. One minute you're watching her sing, admiring her song craft and dramatic flair, and then before you're even aware of what's happened, you're choked up or teary-eyed over a song that you've heard for years in the background.

One critic's effort to put in words what might be called the LaVette Effect illustrates the hidden emotions she can stir up. Thom Jurek of All Music Guide attempted to explain the impact of playing the first three tracks of her Joe Henry-produced first album on the Anti label, 2005's I've Got My Own Hell To Raise, starting with a gospel a cappella version of Sinead O'Connor's, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" and ending that run with a heartfelt version of Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero" drenched in unimaginable pain: "One will be tempted to take the disc off right here; these three cuts are enough to take the listener into the small, unspeakable spaces in the mind and large terrains of the heart where emotion becomes nearly overwhelming, " Jurek observed. Singing that powerful doesn't lead to a normal positive record review or mere applause -- it almost creates for some listeners an existential crisis.

To the artist herself, her interpretative magic isn't something that can be explained in any kind of step-by-step way, but she approaches the music from the place where it all begins: the song itself, unencumbered by previous versions or anyone's expectations. As she recalls telling her producers and musicians before recording the British rock classics made famous by the likes of Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who: "Suspend your thoughts about these songs you've had for 30 years. You've got the notes in front of you. Play it like I'm singing it, no matter how you think it goes."

She took that approach to her remarkable performance in 2008 at the Kennedy Center Honors of the Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me" that put her on the map for the music industry. The invitation-only guests inside the hall, and later a broader TV audience of millions, saw this unknown singer steal the show from performers like Beyoncé. She had been preparing her entire life for the chance to show the world just what she could do, and she was more than ready to seize the moment when the show's producers gave Bettye LaVette her shot.

She'd seen the singers she knew from Detroit and those early 60's package tours, Otis Redding and Aretha, David Ruffin and Etta James, go on to become superstars while she was left behind amid the litter of crumbling record deals, minor club dates and albums few had heard. Yet she kept on singing for all those years, and as she found work in the touring company of the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar or played to devoted fans overseas, she never stopped growing as an artist, her voice deepening with a new power that was light years beyond the high-pitched teenage girl who cut her first hit at 16, "My Man-He's A Lovin' Man."

She got her chance at the Kennedy Center Honors almost by happenstance. Her booking agent, the sort of professional representation it took her years to obtain, called the show's producers and suggested her as a singer in the tribute to one of the honorees, George Jones. But that segment was already booked, yet the curious producer, Mike Stevens, looked up her performance on YouTube of Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow," and was taken with what he later described as the "world-weary, moving and thoughtful elements" in LaVette's voice. He felt that LaVette, although an unknown with no ties to the Who, could serve as a way to connect their rock and roll with its R&B roots.

Stevens suggested the relatively obscure power ballad, "Love, Reign O'er Me," from Quadrophenia. As LaVette recalls, "I don't hear the song the way Pete Townsend plays it. I hear it differently." To her, she found her way into the song in part through her theatrical training: "It's like a character in a production not chosen by me." Indeed, her approach to her songs is like that of a Method actor, summoning her real emotions and memories to fully inhabit the songs she sings. "It's not a contrived thing," she says. "It's happening right then and there." And like the stagey actors who generally preceded Marlon Brando and the emotional honesty he pioneered, after seeing LaVette, it seems that most other singers' versions of songs, no matter how pretty their voices or showy their bravura turns, don't really penetrate to the raw emotion of a song in the way that LaVette does.

It's as if she's somehow dug into the feelings that moved the composer to create the song in the first place, the song he intended, rather than limiting herself to the song that was finally recorded. That sort of genius fully justifies the comparisons her acolytes and publicity material make to great interpretive singers beyond the soul tradition, such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf.

So after years of performing, she felt confident enough in rehearsal before she went on the stage at the Kennedy Center to ask the musical director to change the key of the song to fit her voice, and even added a few minor words and exclamations like "Lord" to turn the song into an unforgettable soul ballad. With Barbra Streisand seated next to Peter Townshend in the box seats, draped with the medals of the country's highest cultural award, they watched as the announcer said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Bettye LaVette." She walked out in an elegant dark glittering dress, starting softly, her hands together: "Only love can make it rain..." But she sang with mounting intensity, her hands rising in a dramatic plea, ending with the aching cry, "Love!" Townshend later told her afterward that her performance made him weep, and at the end, you can see Barbra Streisand turn to Townshend and ask in wonderment, "Did you write that song?"

You can see that performance for yourself here, and it was a centerpiece of her show in the nightclub in Washington, too, mesmerizing the audience:

The overwhelming response to the song helped lead her, with the prodding of her husband Kevin Kiley, an antiques dealer and record collector, to recording the album of British rock songs, co-produced by Mike Stevens. That was a twist on the original British invasion of the 60s, when young white rockers covered the R&B songs of artists they revered, crowding the original performers off the airwaves. The bitter irony of all this is still keenly felt by LaVette. As she told the crowd at the 9:30 Club, some born long after these upheavals, others who remember the hits from radio, "For some of you, these are the songs of your youth, but for me, they were they were the nemesis of my youth."

She saw first-hand for too long how only the most cross-over oriented artists, like the polished Supremes and other acts on Motown, could get airplay on white radio. "It was hard, very hard, when these people who inspired the young rock musicians were starving," she says. She even recalls being on a tour with some Motown stars and a young Otis Redding after "These Arms of Mine" became an R&B hit in the early '60s, but before he became a superstar. "We stopped in Washington, D.C., but Otis and I didn't get to go on to the Apollo or the Dick Clark TV show," she says now. She half-jokingly calls her voice more Wilson Pickett than Dionne Warwick, but by the time "gruffer" voices, as she dubs them -- both male and female -- became more acceptable to mainstream audiences, other stars with that sound had eclipsed her.

Yet she didn't change her style -- or her determination to convey the hard truths of each song she sings with every ounce of her soul. Near the opening of her set, over a swamp blues groove, she sang out in her husky contralto a theme that's governed her roller-coaster career: "I've been this way too long to change now, you're going to have to take me like I am," a song from 2007's Scene of the Crime.

She brought a special intensity to that song onstage and to that album, produced by the Drive-By-Truckers' Patterson Hood, cut in the same Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals where she recorded in 1972 an album for Atlantic that was supposed to be her breakthrough recording. But the Atlantic label never released that record, devastating her and setting her adrift for years in the margins of the music industry. Looking back at it today, she says, the album now viewed as a lost soul music classic faced obstacles that thwarted its release: recorded in mono, LaVette was also overshadowed by Atlantic's R&B star, Aretha Franklin, and, she surmises, "my voice was too hard to accept."

But then, decades later, a French soul music collector and label owner re-released it in 2000, followed by a Dutch label's new live recording of her in Europe, spurring her rediscovery here. She started winning attention in America with the release of a studio album, A Woman Like Me, that won her the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 as "Comeback Album of the Year." "That's the first time I ever won anything," she ruefully said when introducing the bluesy title song during her show.

Onstage and in an interview with Oregon Music News (where this article originally appeared), she talks about that emergence, almost lightly, as "coming out of the crypt." It's a comeback that eventually brought her to such heights as singing at those Kennedy Center Honors, appearing before millions on late-night TV shows or singing Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" to President Obama on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with Bon Jovi. But now, she says, the relief she feels at winning acceptance for being the singer she really is -- without compromises -- overcomes the bitterness of having been forced to scramble for $100 gigs in those darker times before she was recorded again. "I'm glad I'm being recognized for my voice, and it's not for dancing or telling jokes or a particular song," she says. "I had to decide for myself that I could sing, because no one would tell me that."

There was an exception to that, of course: a cadre of loyal fans, here and especially abroad, who kept the faith and helped her out as she moved from label to label, even recording one album for Motown in the 1980s. But she never had the hit her fans and producers expected for the great Bettye LaVette. "I always had a core of fans so small that I had each one of their telephone numbers," she says. "They paid the rent, they paid for airplane tickets to places I needed to go." But she never stopped singing, never gave up.

But with the help of a record executive fan of hers whose own small label wouldn't sign her, she eventually won an American record deal on a San Francisco-based blues label. That followed the release of her long-hidden '72 soul classic and the live album cut in Europe, which led her to being recorded by a Grammy-winning producer for the award-winning blues album released in 2003.

But it was musician and producer Joe Henry's sensitive recording of her in 2005 for the Anti label, with songs written by female artists, for I've Got My Own Hell to Raise that first brought her the wide critical acclaim she always deserved. "LaVette puts her stamp on a collection of songs by women composers... with stunning results," Variety said. On that album, she occasionally took a few liberties with a song's lyrics so she could better express herself, as she did with her stomping version of Lucinda Williams' "Joy": "I moved to New York and was looking for my joy. They had no right to take my joy and I want it back....I went to Muscle Shoals looking for my joy. They took my joy and I want it back," she sings. "Joy! Joy! Joy!" she shouts with a harrowing bitterness over all that she lost.

But in performance, she briefly exited the stage before her encore by singing a far more inspiring song, "Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)" that she co-wrote. It is in, on the surface, the story of her rocky life in the music business, but it's more than that: the triumph of a woman who has at long last achieved a dream. "I was singing R&B in '62 before you were born and your mama, too," she sang. "I knew David Ruffin when he was sober, sleeping on my floor, before he crossed over. All my friends on the Grammy show, I was stuck in Detroit trying to open doors. Record deals kept falling apart: One with Atlantic nearly broke my heart." Her voice stretched that final note of the verse, breaking with distress.

"Before the money came!" she then sang out with a sly exultation, smoky hints of Eartha Kitt, purring with satisfaction, in her voice. "For forty years, I kept on singing," she sang over a pulsing backbeat, then swung her arm around for emphasis, "before the money started r-o-l-l-i-n-g in!" At that, the crowd whooped and hollered for her, but maybe also for themselves, cheering for every buried dream in their own lives that they're holding onto against the longest odds, knowing that if Bettye LaVette could persevere, perhaps they could, too. "All these years, I kept my style, I wouldn't cross over, so it took me a while -- before the money came!" Raunchy blues guitar pumped up her energy and the crowd's, too. "I got so much to say, I'm so damn proud I was built this way," she crowed near the end of the song.

They were glad to hear everything she had to sing about, but at the end, she left them with something far more rare instead: the sound of an aching heart, now filled with gratitude. A total hush fell over the crowd as she sang the final verses of Sinead O'Connor's a cappella masterpiece: "I have everything that I requested," she cried out, "and I do not want what I have not got." She then put the microphone down on the wood floor of the stage, and walked off, knowing that she had given everything she could of herself to the audience that had never seen anything quite like a concert by Bettye LaVette, the Great Lady of Soul.
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This article originally appeared in the Northwest's leading all-genre music website, Oregon Music News.