Long before VH-1 ever came up with the concept of Behind the Music, Bettye LaVette was living the eventual template for that channel’s series about the rise, fall and (sometime) resurrection of an artist’s career. Currently in the midst of enjoying what she’s calling her “fifth career,” LaVette has gone through her share of hard times, as was chronicled in 2013’s A Woman Like Me: A Memoir, the autobiography she worked on with noted author David Ritz that is in the midst of being crafted into a film project.
And while she’s far from a household name, LaVette is enjoying a latter-day renaissance in her career that’s got her out on the road in support of last year’s Worthy, a collection of covers that’s reunited her with longtime producer and friend Joe Henry. On it, LaVette mixes in songs by storied songwriters like Bob Dylan, Jagger/Richards and Lennon/McCartney with lesser-known names like Beth Nielsen Chapman, Mickey Newbury and Randall Bramblett. It’s all part of LaVette’s most recent journey that’s found her career get kick-started with plenty of support from her musical maven manager husband Kevin Kiley, who was by her side when Anti- Records label head Andy Kaulkin decided to take a chance on the sultry singer and paired her with producer Henry.
The duo scored out of the gate with 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of covers that found LaVette putting her imprint on songs by a broad cross-section of female artists including Sinead O’Connor, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann and Joan Armatrading. Her ability to tackle material clearly out of her rhythm and blues wheelhouse found LaVette recording similar projects like 2007’s The Scene of the Crime, where she was backed by insurgent country rockers Drive-By Truckers and produced by that band’s founding member Patterson Hood. That fearlessness of wrestling with different genres LaVette credits to her late manager Jim Lewis.
“My Jerry Wexler was Jim Lewis. He and I started working together when I was about 23. And he had an awful, awful, awful time with me until I was 33 because I have always thought I knew what to do, but I didn’t. It was he who said that I should learn songs and while I might never become a star, you can become a great singer if you learn how to sing a great variety of songs really well,” she said
“And he forced me to concentrate on that first and now it’s become a thing where I always did like a lot of songs but when I got ready to put a show together, it would be strictly rhythm and blues songs. And he would say I should sing this [non-R&B] song and I’d say that no one was going to want to listen to me sing that and he’d just constantly shove these songs down my throat. Then for a couple of years there, I was able to work with no record, no agency, no anything because I knew so many songs and he could put me into so many gigs.”
It’s a lesson that paid off when she was asked to perform The Who’s “Love, Reign o’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors for honorees Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. It was the first of a number of high profile performances that included the duet on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at 2009’s We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.
That same year in April, the sexagenarian songbird shared the stage with Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at Radio City Music Hall for the David Lynch Foundation’s “Change Begins Within” benefit concert promoting teaching Transcendental Meditation to children in inner city schools.
Being center stage and a love of music came early on for the Michigan native born Betty Jo Haskins, who ran in the same circles as future Motown star Diana Ross.
“I remember singing in my home, which had a jukebox in it and I knew all the songs on it,” she recalled.” My family sold corn liquor and chicken sandwiches and I would stand on top of the jukebox and roll my stomach up and down in time to the music and sing the songs—all of them—anyone you pushed.”
Local record producer Johnie Mae Matthews eventually signed the budding young artist to a contract in 1962 at the tender age of 16 . Before long, LaVette was on the road with a rhythm and blues revue headlined by Clyde McPhatter and rounded out by a number of legendary names including James Brown, Barbara Lynn, Ben E. King and a then-unknown Otis Redding. Always confident in her abilities, the young singer wound up only being impressed by established superstar McPhatter.
“James Brown and Otis Redding were just bigger Bettye LaVettes. They are those people now but they weren’t those people then,” she said with a raspy laugh. “It was exciting. I was on the road and I was 16. But it wasn’t like being on the road with Otis Redding. He was just somebody else who sang that nobody had ever heard of. And James Brown, all blacks had heard of him but nobody else. Clyde McPhatter was a huge star. The first time I saw Otis Redding was at rehearsal where everybody was assembled and he and I thought I was the cutest one there.”
A handful of R&B hits like the 1962 Top 10 “My Man—He’s a Living Man” and 1965’s Top 20 “Let Me Down Easy” eventually led to LaVette getting signed to Atlantic/Atco in 1972. When the label sent her down to Muscle Shoals to cut Child of the Seventies, which would have been LaVette’s debut, it was mysteriously shelved with no explanation. What followed was decades of playing cheap one-nighters and even a six-year stint in different companies of the musical revue Bubbling Brown Sugar.
“[I would sing] for $50 a night in various little places,” she recalled. “A couple of times in England but nothing really consistent. No label. No manager. No agency. Nothing. Every gig that I got was because someone got a phone number from some other person.”
It would be fans like French collector/label owner Gilles Petard (who licensed and reissued Child of the Seventies as Souvenirs) and Dutch national Ben Mattijssen (who released a live show from Utrecht, Holland as Let Me Down Easy—Live in Concert) that helped put LaVette on the radar of show bookers at the Rosebud Agency and label head Kaulkin. Fast forward to 2016 and LaVette has celebrated her 70th birthday on Jan. 29. Despite living a life that should have by all rights left her broken and defeated on the side of the road, LaVette holds her head high, readily laughs and is endearingly defiantly confident about what she brings to the table.
“Our mantra is what’s done happened but you don’t know what’s gonna happen. Lord knows, you couldn’t have told me that I was going to find a husband and get a Grammy nomination when I was 55,” she explained. “I may have to work with somebody else that’s younger and bigger, but it won’t be something of my choosing. I’d like to be considered amongst my peers, and while they’re all richer than me, that’s all they are, is richer than me. They’re not better than me and most of them are not older than me.”
Bettye LaVette will be appearing on Feb. 12 at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd., Greenvale. For more information, call 516-299-3100 or visit www.tillescenter.org.