There's a space in American music where country meets soul, where elements of blues, folk, pop, jazz, gospel and R&B melt in seamless alchemy, where genre boundaries are ultimately not very meaningful. For my money, the best of that music is rooted somewhere around two or three in the morning, when all is quiet, one's emotional guard is down and the musicians are able to drive the voodoo down, getting at the essence of what it is to be human.
This is a space that is all too rarely accessed in most contemporary recordings, yet it is a space that Bettye LaVette returns to again and again on "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise". The result is a record of majesty, richness and depth, of naked, raw, visceral emotion, a record that will raise the hairs on the back of the neck of any fully alive, blood pumping, breathing human being. It is also a record that reflects the wisdom and musical acumen acquired over a forty-three year career by a song stylist par excellence.
Who is Bettye LaVette you ask? The simple answer is Ms. LaVette is one of the greatest soul singers in American music history, possessed of an incredibly expressive voice that one moment will exude a formidable level of strength and intensity and the next will appear vulnerable, reflective, reeking of heartbreak. Unfortunately, it says much about the vagaries of the popular music industry that, although LaVette has been recording for over four decades, up to this point she has remained criminally unknown.
Bettye LaVette, aged 26, in 1972.
Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946, LaVette grew up in Detroit. Despite the palpable level of emotion and fire breathing intensity that permeates the essence of her vocal art, LaVette is one of the very few soul singers who did not get her start singing in the church. "Discovered" at the age of 16 by the legendary Motor City music raconteur Johnnie Mae Matthews, LaVette's first single was the insouciantly swinging "My Man - He's a Loving Man". Recorded initially for Northern in the fall of 1962, the record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The net result was a Top 10 r&b hit that just missed the pop Hot 100 and would be eventually covered by both Tina Turner and Ann Peebles.
LaVette next hit the charts with the Dee Dee Ford penned "Let Me Down Easy" in springtime 1965. Released on Nathan McCalla's Calla label, LaVette's version of "Let Me Down Easy" was a starkly atmospheric record with the singer's emotionally-strained voice pitted against a haunting string chart by future Stax arranger Dale Warren and biting lead guitar fills courtesy of Nathaniel Stokes. Bettye recut the song in 1969 for Ollie McLaughlin's Karen label and to this day "Let Me Down Easy" remains the feisty singer's theme song, serving as a climactic, gut wrenching showstopper night after night on her incendiary gigs.
Over the next three-plus decades LaVette cut a string of consistently strong singles for Big Wheel, Silver Fox, SSS, TCA, Atco, Epic, West End, Motown and Bar/None. Among her more notable recordings were the sultry Top 30 chart entry "He Made a Woman Out of Me" (later covered by Bobbie Gentry), the disco club hit "Doin' the Best That I Can", "Hey Love", written expressly for Bettye by Stevie Wonder, and covers of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "What Condition My Condition Was In", the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends", Joe South's "Games People Play", Erma Franklin's "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart", Free's "The Stealer", Joe Simon's "It's Your Turn to Cry" (called "Your Time to Cry" when originally cut by Simon), Neil Young's "Heart of Gold", Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors", and Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes".
As the above list of covers makes manifest, Bettye has always had big ears and a wide open mind, preferring to fulfill the role of a song interpreter, rather than attempt to write her own material. "I'm a better editor", insists the diminutive singer. "If you make a statement, I can make it a stronger statement. And, if you write a story, I can make it a stronger story. But, I rarely think of a story I ever want to write myself."
Bettye's near mystical ability to get inside a song's lyric, melodic line and harmonic implications, in the process invariably making anything she covers her own, stems from the tutelage and guidance of her late manager Jim Lewis. A veteran of the big band era having played with the screaming and stomping Buffalo-based Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Lewis managed LaVette for ten years beginning in 1968 and constantly harped on her to listen to master song interpreters such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, pointing out the intricacies of phrasing and timbre manipulation that are part and parcel of the sonic art of any truly great vocalist.
"I was 19, 20 and 21", muses Bettye. "None of my friends wanted to hear these old dreary songs. He made me learn 'Sophisticated Lady' and 'Lush Life'. Those are two of the most difficult songs to sing in the world". He said, 'You have to think about developing your phrasing.' I'm like, 'I don't need no phrasing. I got a record in the charts and I can dance and my booty's big.' He really had to beat me down - never gave me a compliment, never applauded when the audience applauded. Eventually as I got older, I realized how much he really did love me and what he really did think of my voice. He helped me so much. Made me take vocal lessons, made me take staging. I said, 'Don't nobody need all this stuff at the joint I'm going to work this weekend.' He said, 'But you don't know where you're gonna go. You don't know when you're gonna need it.' He just instilled so many things in me that are coming back to help me now."
Despite the wealth of quality recordings that Bettye cut over the years, only six of her forty-fives managed to chart r&b and none of them broke into the pop Top 100. Rather than enjoying the sustained success that by right should have been hers, her career has been haunted by what she refers to as "buzzard luck." In 1972, on her second go round with Atlantic Records, LaVette headed down to Muscle Shoals with the Memphis Horns and producer Brad Shapiro to cut her first full-length album. The recordings were mastered and readied for release under the title "Child of the Seventies" before the powers-at-be at Atlantic mysteriously pulled the plug, unconscionably shelving the record for nearly thirty years before French soul collector Gilles Petard licensed the recording from Atlantic and released it in 2000 in France on his Art and Soul label under the new title Souvenirs. Soul fans the world over were stunned by what was clearly a heretofore unknown masterpiece.
It wouldn't be until 1982, twenty years after her debut forty-five, that Bettye finally saw the release of her first album, the Steve Buckingham-produced Tell Me a Lie. Cut in Nashville, again with the Memphis Horns, and released by Motown, the album's lead single, the Hi-influenced "Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)", clawed its way to #35 on the r&b charts. Save for a stunning cover of Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes", issued on cassette by Bar/None in 1997, and a handful of recordings for Ian Levine's Motor City Soul label, that was the end of Bettye's recording career until her storied comeback after Petard's decision to release "Souvenirs". Subsequent CDs have included the live "Let Me Down Easy - In Concert", issued by the Dutch Munich label, and 2003's "A Woman Like Me", released on Blues Express. The latter helped Bettye win the coveted W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for "Comeback Blues Album of the Year" as well as the Living Blues critic pick as "Best Female Blues Artist of 2004".
The buzz that has surrounded LaVette in soul circles in the last few years caught the attention of Anti Records president Andy Kaulkin. Realizing LaVette's gifts as a master song stylist, Kaulkin suggested that the ebullient singer cut an album where all the songs were written by women songwriters. Bettye's original response was, "Hell no!"
"I didn't want to do it at all", she exclaims. "I just felt that woman would write songs that would be too pitiful and they wouldn't be exactly what I wanted to say."
Once Bettye was onside, the arduous process of selecting repertoire began. Opinionated and exacting to a fault, Bettye sifted through over 100 songs suggested by husband and record collecting maven Kevin Kiley, producer Joe Henry and Kaulkin before settling on the ten gems that eventually found their way onto this CD.
"I pretty much know me", explains Bette. "I don't really like to sing things that I wouldn't say. If I sing it, I would more than likely say it. I had to call on a lot of different places for this CD."
The songs that made the final cut are interesting as LaVette taps into country (Rosanne Cash's "On the Surface", Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" and the obscure Bobbie Cryner's "Just Say So"), rock (Lucinda Williams' "Joy", Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream", Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got" and Joy of Cooking keyboardist Toni Brown's "Only Time Will Tell Me"), and the singer-songwriter tradition (Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero", Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different" and Sharon Robinson's "The High Road", the latter written expressly for Bettye).
Interestingly, none of them were rhythm and blues or soul songs. "I want everything that I know in my voice to be heard", responds LaVette. "You can't pick all the inflections up in a straight ahead rhythm and blues song. I feel I've completely mastered rhythm and blues because it is so straight ahead. These kind of songs I haven't really had a chance to do."
The resulting record reflects the wisdom of age. In the same way that Bob Dylan's masterful Time Out of Mind dwelt on adult cares and concerns, on "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise", Bettye LaVette sings from the point of view of a mature woman, confident, wise and secure. That is not only reflected in the lyrics of the particular songs she chose to record, it is part and parcel of the way she phrases each line, in the timbral inflections she uses to shade every word and, yes, in her own lyric substitutions.
For example, "Joy" has new lyrics that reflect some of LaVette's own life experiences while Bettye brings a completely different attitude to the lyrics of "Little Sparrow". In the latter case, Bettye's lyric changes affected the accompanying music parts. "There was just too many words in Dolly's original lyric that I wasn't going to say", opines LaVette. "They just didn't work right coming our of my mouth. So when I started to say things like, 'I ain't no sparrow,' I had to have something funkier to go with that. Instead of where she sang, 'But, oh I'm not a little sparrow,' I'm saying, 'Hey, I ain't no sparrow.' That's a whole 'nother attitude so you got to have music to accompany that."
Over the course of the recording Bettye wrote copious notes about each song, ultimately transforming her approach to the lyric and melodic line for each while simultaneously transforming the arrangement that the musicians developed around her vocal. Familiar songs such as Armatrading's "Down to Zero" consequently took on whole new meanings. Lyrics such as "One more question before I pack?/When you fuck it up later do I get my money back" in Mann's "How Am I Different" suddenly came to the fore whereas I had never noticed them in the original.
While my favorite song changes daily, the album's most moving track has to be Cryner's "Just Say So". As was the case with all the sessions for the album, producer Henry had Bettye cutting the song live "on the floor" with the band. After five run throughs before lunch, Bettye felt that she was losing the gist of where she wanted the song to go. Reminded by her husband that she has always worked off the keyboard player in her band, Bettye asked former Prince side kick Lisa Coleman to go back to the studio and work on the song with her. When guitarist Chris Bruce came back a little early, hearing what Lisa and Bettye were going for, he picked up an acoustic guitar in place of the electric he had been playing earlier. As the rest of the band joined in, Bettye used the mixing box located in her vocal booth to one by one cut every instrument out except Bruce's acoustic guitar. Convinced that in this case "less is more", Bettye decided to cut the song with just Chris' acoustic for accompaniment.
The result is too beautiful for any words that I can muster as Bettye reaches deep inside herself and the song for a level of intimacy rarely achieved on disc. Listen to the last twenty seconds where she repeats the words "say it" four times before concluding the song with the melismatic " Just say so." This is a long way from Cryner's country-imbued original recording. It is mature music making by a vocalist at the absolute peak of her powers, totally in command of her voice, her vocal technique and her emotions. It's the work of a song stylist who, after forty-three years of developing her art, has reached the level of a Sarah Vaughan. It's the heartfelt musical story of triumph over adversity, neglect and damn buzzard luck. It's the sound of an American vernacular musical treasure.
I started this essay stating that Bettye LaVette was a soul singer. I am going to end it by reasserting that this is still the case. In fact, it was only after listening to this record multiple times over a number of days that it slowly dawned on me that there are no actual soul compositions on the record and the band certainly isn't a soul band, and yet the record is so unremittingly soulful.
"I'm a soul singer", concurs Bettye. "If I did an aria, it would be being done by a soul singer. I don't know how to sing any other way. If it's me and my singing you like, this is what I'm singing today."
The result is a blessing to us all.
Rob Bowman, Anti- Records
With boxer Joe Louis, David Ruffin & Issac Hayes & Detroit Mayor Coleman Young.
With The Dramatics, Ty Hunter and with Cab Calloway in "Bubbling Brown Sugar".
"There is a quality about Bettye LaVette’s style, delivery and entire persona that can perhaps only best be described as “Soulful Determination”: a worldliness that comes from bitter-sweet experience and which in turn produces bitter-sweet irony. But, despite it all, it is a delivery that is the subtle range that Soul music covers, and Bettye LaVette, with her remarkable vocal range and stamina, is one of its finest accomplished exponents."