Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Change Is Gonna Come: The Life and Music of Bettye LaVette

Imagine growing up with a jukebox and a future music legend in your living room. That was a typical evening in the childhood of Betty Haskins, who would go on to become acclaimed rhythm-and-blues singer Bettye LaVette. Employees at a General Motors factory, her parents moonlighted in the 1950s by selling barbecue sandwiches and corn liquor at their Michigan home. This attracted touring African-American gospel groups, such as the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Soul Stirrers, featuring a then-unknown vocalist named Sam Cooke. They could eat, drink and listen to tunes there; nightclubs were off limits for them during the era of segregation.

Half a century later, LaVette is on a roll. Her 19th album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, was released in early 2010, with cuts such as the working-class anthem “Salt of the Earth” by the Rolling Stones and “Nights in White Satin,” a Moody Blues primal reverie about loss. She also tackles Led Zeppelin alum Robert Plant’s “All My Love,” and spent July opening for him at eight of his U.S. concerts with current ensemble Band of Joy.

Although she’s been winning awards and regularly appearing on television since 2005, her career had not always flourished. The uneven path to success might seem surprising, given that she emerged at the beginning of a decade marked by Detroit’s wealth of talent. LaVette was 16 in 1962 when she signed with New York-based Atlantic Records rather than Motown, the local label of choice for so many of her contemporaries. The Supremes, The Temptations and other acts had already been part of Berry Gordy’s empire for a year.
Someone told her it was permissible, perhaps even desirable, to invent a stage name. So, she embellished the spelling of Betty and replaced Haskins altogether. In her new incarnation, LaVette turned out a hit R&B single, “My Man (He’s a Loving Man).” After other 45 rpm triumphs – “Let Me Down Easy” in 1965 and “Hey Love,” which Stevie Wonder wrote expressly for her – she toured with the likes of Ben E. King and Otis Redding.

As the 1960s progressed, however, several factors contributed to various setbacks for LaVette. After stints with other labels (such as Calla and Silver Fox), she returned to Atlantic. A much-heralded Muscle Shoals session in 1972 produced her first album for them, Child of the Seventies – which Atlantic refused to release at the last minute, never explaining why and demanding she return the plane tickets for a tour that had already been booked. LaVette attributes the incident to her “buzzard luck,” but there’s a long, sad history of black performers being cheated and humiliated by the music industry.

Another hurdle during this period: The Beatles and all that happened to show business in their wake. Nowadays, when Lavette performs numbers from Interpretations, it’s something of a bittersweet experience. “I tell my audiences that these are the songs of your youth but the nemesis of my youth,” she says, referring to the British Invasion’s eclipse of American sounds, “especially black music.” In the mid-1970s, Lavette took a break from the grind to join the Broadway and touring company casts of a popular revue about the Harlem Renaissance, Bubbling Brown Sugar. A lead role put her on-stage in a duet with Cab Calloway.

R&B beckoned again, especially in 1982 when at last a LaVette album became available for public consumption: Tell Me a Lie, recorded in Nashville. She continued to soldier on through the cruel vicissitudes of entertainment, but it wasn’t until 2000 that her Child of the Seventies finally saw the light of day – in France. An enthusiast named Gilles Petard had located the master and purchased the license from Atlantic; it came out in Europe as Souvenirs.

In 2004, LaVette nabbed the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year, for her disc A Woman Like Me. That was followed in 2005 by the breakthrough CD I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise for Anti-, the Los Angeles-based offshoot of a punk label that’s still her mainstay. This collection of songs from female composers such as Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor and Joan Armatrading ranks among several concept albums by LaVette. She is frequently called a soul singer, and even though the designation is repeated on her own website, she bristles: “Soul music is a complete white euphemism. In America, anyone who sings soulfully is a soul singer. I’m an R&B singer.”

As such, a sort of harmonic convergence was launched in 2007 when LaVette collaborated with an indie band, the Drive-By Truckers, on The Scene of the Crime. The production contained covers of work by Willie Nelson, Elton John and Don Henley, among others, and earned a Grammy nomination. Before long, the Blues Music Association tagged her as 2008's Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer, and she appeared on the televised Kennedy Center Honors belting out the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” Honorees Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend could be seen in the audience looking almost tearful.

LaVette is amused by the fact that “songs written by 20-year-old white guys are being performed by a 65-year-old black woman. ‘Nights in White Satin’ sold 800 million copies but nobody knows who wrote it. I think audiences have loved those old records from the ‘60s for so long but never really heard the lyrics. I embrace every word.”

The word in 2009 was ‘change’ when Barack Obama assumed the presidency. LaVette unveiled a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at the inaugural celebration in Washington, DC. Their selection? The 1964 classic “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, her family friend from the days of corn liquor and an omnipresent jukebox.

That unbroken circle of life also became apparent when LaVette recently performed in recession-battered Detroit and told the hometown crowd “I’m doing ‘Salt of the Earth’ expressly for you.”

“Salt of the Earth”

“Love Reign O’er Me”

“A Change is Gonna Come”

"Nights in White Satin”  (audio only)

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

No comments:

Post a Comment