Woulda, Shoulda… Finally Did

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Bettye Lavette is thankful for her latter day successes.

Chris Wells thinks they should have come 30 years ago.
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After all these years and a lifetime of adventures – the latter candidly related in A Woman Like Me, the autobiography, published by Penguin on Sept 27 – there’s not too much a mere journalist can say to Bettye Lavette that will truly shock her. But I think I near as damn managed it the other day, albeit by accident.

Had she considered, I asked as reverentially as possible, that her biggest successes had come in a different century to the one in which she had started out?

Her response had all the, ‘I don’t believe this muthafucka said that’ that she could pack into it.

“Ha-ha-ha! I hadn’t even thought about that! Oh my goodness… you make it even worse than it already is! Daddy?”

She’s calling across the room to her husband, Kevin Kiley.

“Daddy, you hear what he just said? I hadn’t even thought about that. Oh! OK… let’s just go on past that.”

I love Betty Lavette. A lot of people do, especially British soul fans. They’ve been into her for years – long before her recent run of appreciation and overdue success. She generously acknowledges her UK supporters in the book, citing Ian Levine’s 1990s Motor City project as a very welcome intrusion into her downtimes, noting the names of Dave Godin and David Nathan along the way, and recalling her weekender visits with some pride. Bettye’s status as a great vocal talent unfulfilled was one that would always appeal over here; our determination to locate [or relocate] and champion even the most obscure recordings has always been to our credit.

It took America until nine years ago to begin to afford Bettye the recognition she deserved, however. At 55 and with a series of album cancellations, under-promotions and a six-year recording hiatus behind her, she finally released an album that gave off some gravy. A Woman Like Me [produced by Grammy winner Dennis Walker] was released on Blues Express. The CD won the 2004 W.C. Handy Award for ‘Comeback Blues Album of the Year’, even though it wasn’t really blues, but R&B/soul. It was the culmination of three years of gentle upswing, after Bettye’s performances at several European blues festivals [notably in France, Germany, Italy and Holland] had led to her first ever live album, Let Me Down Easy: In Concert for Ben Mattijssen’s Munich Records, and her own discovery of a long lost reel-to-reel tape of some early seventies sides for Atlantic, originally intended to be an album entitled Child Of The Seventies but never released, led to their overdue first issue, in 2000, as Souvenirs on Art & Soul Records. [These were the Brad Shapiro handled sessions, legendary in soul circles, that had produced Your Turn To Cry.]

From then on Bettye Lavette’s stock as an undervalued and hardly sold soul vocalist has risen sharply, so that now, in her middle sixties, she’s a multi-Grammy nominated artist who sings for the President – at his pre-inauguration concert – frequently guests on national TV and has recorded four albums for indie label ANTI- Records which have garnered widespread praise and – at last – shifted some decent units: I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise [2005], The Scene Of The Crime [2007], Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook [2010] and her brand new release, Thankful N’ Thoughtful.

The last two have been covers albums; but it’s a funny thing with Bettye Lavette’s covers albums that somehow this doesn’t seem disappointing. Most times when one of our soul or blues heroes or heroines is suddenly championed by the Q magazine/Radio 2/Jools Holland crowd and, in America, the Grammy committee, our reaction is to say, ‘Yeah, OK – but where the fuck were you guys when he/she was making those classic originals?’ Bettye’s reworkings are often so compelling that we don’t seem to mind as much. Why does she think this is?

“I think people have given cover songs a bad name,” she responds, emphatically. “Nobody even talked about that when, say, Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole did White Christmas. It was just Bing’s version and Nat Cole’s version. Nobody called Nat Cole’s a ‘cover’ version. It was just his.

“Dammit, if you’re a singer, learn the damn songs and sing ‘em. If there is a great song out there, and you are calling yourself a great singer, make it your own. Everybody gotta write their own songs? Ridiculous.”

But not everyone can make a song ‘their own’. They only think they do. Bettye Lavette on the other hand…

“That’s the object!” she hurls back. “I’m selling me, not… Elton John – ‘cause he wrote the song and did it the first time. I’m trying to sell you me. That’s the way people always used to look at it. It’s part of the competition, trying to out-do one another.”

Doubters ought to listen to her new take on Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy on the new album. It’s nothing like the original.

Unlike the last album, which focused on British rock songs, the new album has no central theme. Or at least, it didn’t have when she set out. But since Bettye was choosing material for it at the same time as writing her book with David Ritz, she reports that her reflections on her own life, including 50 years as a professional singer, began to dictate what appealed to her as new material. The book is very forthright about her personal life, her upbringing in Detroit, her periods of struggle, when she took to turning tricks for a pimp who ended up nearly murdering her, and her long years of disappointment when one record label after another broke its promises and went back on carefully laid out plans for her career. Had she enjoyed writing it?

“It was completely different to how I’d expected,” she admits. “I thought it would be… well, like this – talking to you and relating some stories from over the 50 years of my career. It was very different.

“I have always said things like, ‘Well, I’ve known all those guys at Motown: I seen ‘em all drunk, or naked or broke, or all three at the same time’. That remark normally gets what you just did – it brings a chuckle and you move on. But David Ritz would jump right in and ask, ‘Which ones?’ And then he would say, ‘And what were you doing when they were doing that?’ So it was not like I thought it was going to be.

“I knew what I wanted to say, but the thing was, I was talking about a lot of these people before they became the kind of people they became, the kind of people who David’s used to writing about. He would take something flat that I said and make it more interesting by embellishing it with what he knew about that particular person. I would have to pull him up on that sometimes, because the person I knew was not always the same person he knew about. Marvin Gaye, for example: he was a different person to the one that David met later on. That was our only issue.”

The big musical disaster in Bettye’s musical career, as far as many soul fans are concerned, was the failure of Atlantic Records to release her Child Of The Seventies album in 1973. Whilst a couple of tracks did sneak out – Soul Tambourine and her killer take on Joe Simon’s Your Turn To Cry – the sudden brake applied to her career at that point was the most devastating of a series of similar disappointments. She recalls in the book how she – literally – crept under the dining room table and refused to come out.

She only recently found out why it happened.

“I understand that this happened during the period when [label co-founder] Ahmet Ertegun was concentrating on the European thing and Jerry Wexler, my champion at the company, didn’t want to go with that. I found out since Jerry died, ‘cause I met people at his memorial service. Before that, all I knew was in a phone call to me that said they had decided ‘not to go forward with the project’.

“I always knew it wasn’t Jerry Wexler ‘cause he was always a guy I could call. If I was broke, I knew I could call him and ask him to send me a hundred dollars, and he would.

“People ask me about Ahmet Ertegun though, and I can tell you that I am still mad at him for dying before I got a chance to tell him how I felt about it and show him that I could sing.”

There’s no doubt, having heard Souvenirs, that it wasn’t the music that was at fault.

“No, the music was fine. Had they modified it to stereo, I don’t know if the song would have been as big as Respect, but I think Your Turn To Cry would have garnered as much respect as Respect.”

Betty Lavette never gave up; not when Atlantic snatched from her a genuine chance to get right up there alongside some of those Motown stars she’d known since she was a teenager; not when country singer Bobbi Gentry stole a number one hit from right under her nose and crossed over her cover of He Made A Woman Outta Me before Bettye’s had made it to the top 20 R&B; not when Lelan Rogers’ fall out with his backer Shelby Singleton meant that her 1969 album for Silver Fox, cut in Memphis with the guys who became The Dixie Flyers and The Memphis Horns, scuppered yet another chance.

“Honey, I quit maybe 40 or 50 times… between telephone calls when they asked me to come and be Bettye Lavette again. But I always started again. So long as the phone would go, I would come back.

“Why? Because I do it really well and I do it better than I do anything else. And I’ve done it since I was a kid, so I haven’t had the opportunity to learn anything else. I like being Bettye Lavette.”

And the feelings you get now when some young hot-shot musician comes up and says they’re really into your stuff?

“It’s a lot of different feelings I get. When you have been doing something 50 years it can be complicated, what you feel inside. I feel… where were you guys when I needed you? I feel… it’s about damn time! I certainly feel prepared.

“Everything I had been looking for as a kid has just been dumped into my lap. All of my friends and neighbours got theirs a long time ago. Remember, I’m from Detroit, so I saw it happen to them. But all these things people are saying about me now… it’s too good. I could just sop ‘em all up with a biscuit.”

Further info: www.bettyelavette.com.

  • “Everything I had been looking for as a kid has just been dumped into my lap. All of my friends and neighbours got theirs a long time ago.”