Bettye LaVette: The High Priestess of R&B, Too Long Ignored

Unashamedly aged, rough, ragged and under absolute control, Betty La Vette could find depths of longing and desperation in a lyric that the songwriters probably didn't even know existed.
06/20/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

I've thought a lot about what it means to be Afro-American, i.e., born to the culture of American descendants of African slaves. We Americans, black and white, have been taught to reduce it to a set of personal ticks (speech patterns, handshakes, musical taste) and socio-economic caste. Yes, black Americans are taught in the same schools, read the same texts, watch the same media as whites; and we have never held ourselves in sufficient esteem to codify our culture and teach it to our children free of the majority's blood-splattered filter, as have Jews, some Asian cultures and others.

This used to be easier. When I was younger and the remnants of legal segregation still stood like the architecturally spectral twin tower remnants against the background smoke of devastation, when we had our own music that the majority often ignored and mostly attended our own schools, sheer immersion helped us recognize and reinforce our cultural distinctiveness. No, we never had the luxury of freeing ourselves from the toxins of the majority's view of us, but we had refuge from it within a society that the most privileged of us could consider equal to, but separate from the majority's.

Now, we swim in a bigger pond. The levies around our sub-cultural world shattered in the sixties for the better and the worse. Our cultural ether blended with that of the mainstream and the result was inevitable; we were diluted. The majority world overtook the best of ours. We adapted to it. The most obvious examples of our cultural uniqueness now worked for the majority, and not for us. The music grew more generic, the singers less honest, less unique and more emptily histrionic. The writers largely disappeared because venues became less interested in our peculiar worldviews now that we--the "black problem"--had been neutralized. We now mainly speak with the polite vagueness and platitudes of the "op-ed columnist," or the cloying emptiness of the self-help entrepreneur.

When it comes to music I have clung to jazz as one of the few outposts where--and this may sound odd--what I recognize in my soul as of me appears. Abbey Lincoln helped me through the 90s. With collections like "The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born," and "Metamorphosen," Branford Marsalis proved himself a master. An extraordinary young player like Jason Moran gives me hope for the future.

Then someone comes along and reminds me of what we can do in other forms. Bettye LaVette has been around since she was a teenager in the early sixties, largely ignored. She never, as she put it, "crossed over." Opportunities were lost, missed, unrecognized or unfulfilled. Then, in 2005 she released "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise." The great Joe Henry produced. The songs came from a slew of fine female writers: Aimee Mann, Dolly Parton, Joan Armatrading, Lucinda Williams. Immediately, that voice slapped you. Unashamedly aged, rough, ragged and under absolute control. On the song "Just Say So," she proved that she could find depths of longing and desperation in a lyric that the songwriters probably didn't even know existed.

She then released the brilliant "Scene of the Crime" with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section. The first words she sings are "I've been this way too long to change now," and goddamn! Real instruments slash in the background (Spooner fucking Oldham plays the organ for god's sake) instead of today's studio mixing board wash. This is the nastiest, dirtiest blues you are gonna hear. This is what singers like Janis Joplin dreamed they can be. This is music for folks willing to travel down the devil's own road because they suspect that God went thatta way. She takes Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" and deconstructs, reconstructs and reinvents it into something simply devastating. Not since Lena Horne chewed, spat and then licked up the remains of Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young" have you witnessed such a work of musical alchemy.

That is, unless you happened to catch The Kennedy Center Honors presentation with Pete Townsend among the honorees. She walked on the empty stage, a slim figure, a simple gown draping it, and then the piano played a simple descending figure, and she moaned and growled "only love can make it rain like when the beach is kissed by the sea. Only love can make it rain like the sweat of two lovers laying the fields" You felt the silence in the hall. Rapt attention would be paid. There was nothing else but this voice and this music, an intensity almost hard to bear because it obviously held such truths for the singer, and for the rest of us. "Love," she begged, "reign over me..." with a need that would shame a junkie. She turns the bridge into a blues etude and then she begs, pleads and finally demands, exhorting the sky to do her bidding, "Love, reign o'er me." Pete Townsend sat in awe, as did we all. (Video here)

This performance closes LaVette's latest and perhaps greatest. Called "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook," (releasing May 25th) she takes tunes from The Beatles, The Moody Blues, George Harrison and others and performs her magic. There's nothing of the archival about these performances. She is appropriately disrespectful of the original and respectful of her audience to make these her own. Sometimes, she does so to such an extent that it takes repeated listenings to wipe the originals from your head. She strips the oft-covered "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" of what every other singer has kept as its melodramatic highpoint. That's not what she's after. She's digging a deeper truth out of it. It's astonishing to hear what depths can be found in these songs; Ringo Starr's "It Don't Come Easy" a country-blues lament; The Stones' "Salt of the Earth," without its snarking irony; The Beatles' "The Word," a churchy revival with a 70s-era chucka chucka guitar.

The pacing here is astonishing. Each song adds to the one preceding it. If find myself living this record. LaVette inhabits these tunes, wraps her skin around them like some kind of song-eating monster. There's something so deeply human going on here that it's incantatory, so distinct that it's indelible. So true that it dares to be ugly sometimes. So right that it can cause you pain.

There is something distinctly of me going on here: an Afro-American woman doing with a foundation in rhythm and blues what only such a woman could do. And what she does is gut-wrenching. This is the magic that music can make, and magic comes at a cost. If you're looking for some disposable, distracting background, keep going. It's not here. This is the tent in the carnival it kind of scares you to enter. It's the gypsy woman who, from the look in her eye, you fear knows too much and might tell you something you dread to hear. You are entering the presence of Bettye LaVette, the High Priestess of Love and Death, and she demands that you honor all aspects of each. She demands, and delivers, nothing less of herself.