On June 29 of last year, Bettye LaVette stood at a podium in Philadelphia's Bellevue-Stratford Hotel accepting a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Among the other recipients were far more famous folk, such as Otis Redding, Berry Gordy and Chubby Checker. But here was Bettye, who had toiled away in obscurity for four and a half decades, who'd scored a handful of R&B hits but never quite crossed over to the pop charts, giving her acceptance speech.
"I'm a rhythm-and-blues singer tonight," she told the audience. "I've always been a rhythm-and-blues singer. When several people I know were busy crossing over and not signing me because I couldn't cross over, I was a rhythm-and-blues singer. The difference is, I'm an extremely happy rhythm-and-blues singer."
They're hard to find, those extremely happy rhythm-and-blues singers. Pop history is littered with black artists who have been ground up and spit out by the music business, artists with all the attendant bitterness you might expect. And many of them have been far more successful than Detroit-bred Bettye LaVette.
Bettye LaVette, however, chose to bypass the bitterness. And — perhaps the result of some particularly good karma — 2006 was far and away the most successful year of her career. "I'm off for the month of December," she said in a phone interview a few weeks ago. "But I'd been working since March, the longest I've been working in the whole 45 years. This is the first time I've made this much money. I made as much money in July as I did in the whole 45 years."
LaVette says this with her trademark pluck and feistiness, the sound of a soul survivor who's managed to keep her smile.
A major catalyst for all this good fortune was Bettye's brilliant 2005 album I've Got My Own Hell To Raise, released on the critically heralded Anti- label (home to Tom Waits, Merle Haggard and Neko Case) and produced by Joe Henry, who is steering a mini-renaissance of rhythm-and-blues with such storied artists as Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples and Ann Peebles.
Hell to Raise finds LaVette, the 60-year-old soul veteran, exclusively singing material by woman tunesmiths, a wide-ranging group that includes Sinead O'Connor ("I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"), Dolly Parton ("Little Sparrow"), Fiona Apple ("Sleep to Dream") and Lucinda Williams ("Joy"). None of the disc's songs — which LaVette chose from a winnowed-down list of a hundred — is a traditional R&B number, which was part of the idea. The fresh material allows her sand-and-gravel voice to bite into the tunes with new verve and attitude. Henry had LaVette sing live with a studio band, over spare and gritty arrangements.
Thus Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero" gets transformed into an acoustic-guitar-driven slice of country soul; Roseanne Cash's "On the Surface" gets the slow, menacing funk treatment; Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different" bounces along on a classic Memphis groove. The album takes on a theme of sorts: Each song is a declaration from a strong, self-determined woman. "I chose songs that I thought I could sing very well," LaVette says. "Songs that spoke to me, songs with a black woman's point of view."
At the heart of LaVette's art is her ability to interpret, to inhabit, a lyric. "I have to do that because I can't sing," she says with typical self-deprecation. "If the story hurts me, I'll make it hurt you. I'm not a mellifluous singer."
LaVette was discovered at 16 in Detroit and released the single "My Man — He's a Loving Man," which made the R&B Top 10. From there, her career was beset by fits and starts, and featured singles released on a plethora of labels, large and small. In 1972, she cut an album for Atlantic that the company unceremoniously shelved. The disc was excavated by a French soul collector and released as Souvenirs in 2000, which served to introduce LaVette to soul enthusiasts around the world.
All the while, she was learning to sing — forced to, actually — under the stern tutelage of long-time manager Jim Lewis, a veteran of the big band era who constantly exposed her to masters like Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan. "He would lock me in his office and put things on for me to listen to," LaVette says with a laugh. "It was just so boring. One time I said, 'Shit, Sarah Vaughan can't sing,' and he stops on the freeway and puts me out of the car. I must've been about 20. I did become a much better singer, though. He's dead now 20 years, and in that 20 years, he's talked to me every day."
After she chose the songs for Hell to Raise, LaVette went to producer Henry's house "and sat on his floor at his knee and sang everything a cappella, because I don't play any instruments. He was my musical interpreter."
The team cut Hell to Raise in five days, but, once in the studio, not all of Henry's musical interpretations suited LaVette. "The first tune we did, 'How Am I Different,' we did four times," she recounts. "I'm not particularly fond of recording. I called 'em all in the control room and told 'em, 'I don't like what I hear. I have what I want to do in my head, but what's happenin' here with this tune — I'm fuckin' and y'all are screwin'.' They were stunned, their mouths just dropped."
After four-plus decades, issuing such blunt criticism comes naturally for LaVette — all in a day's work. "I think of [singing] as a professional job — it's a job for me," she says, then pauses as if interpreting a song phrase. "It's a wonderful job."