Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the great soul interpreters of her generation”, Bettye LaVette is a vocalist who can take any type of song and make it completely her own. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 1960s and is still creating vital recordings today. To quote the late, great George Jones: “Bettye is truly a ‘singer’s singer’.”
She was born Betty Jo Haskins on January 29,1946, in Muskegon, Michigan. Her family moved to Detroit when she was six years old. Her parents sold corn liquor and her living room was oft-times visited by The Soul Stirrers, The Blind Boys of Mississippi, and many other traveling gospel groups of the day. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Bettye did not get her start in the church, but in that very same living room, where there was a jukebox, filled with the blues, country & western, and R&B records of the time. The “5” Royales, Dinah Washington, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Red Foley, …these were her roots.
By 16, Betty Jo had become enamored with showbiz. She decided to change her name to something more dramatic. She knew a local groupie by the name of Sherma Lavett, liked the sound of the name, and thus, Bettye LaVette was born. Singer Timmy Shaw brought her to Johnnie Mae Matthews, a notorious Detroit record producer. Bettye’s first single was “My Man – He’s a Loving Man”, in the fall of 1962. The record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The record charted #7 R&B and put her on her first national tour, with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, and another newcomer, Otis Redding.
After her second Atlantic single failed to chart, she asked for a release from her contract. She then recorded a single for Detroit’s Lupine label, which also failed to chart. Bettye then went back to New York and became the featured singer in the Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford Review, where their Small’s Paradise shows became the talk of the town. Her association with Don and Dee Dee spawned her next big record, for the Calla label. “Let Me Down Easy”, written by Dee Dee Ford, was an atmospheric masterpiece. Bettye’s pleading voice, set against the moody string arrangement by Dale Warren produced a record that is on many “greatest soul songs of all time” lists. It went #20 R&B in 1965 and led to an appearance on the television show, Shindig. It also put her on a tour with The James Brown Review.
She then went back to Detroit for a one off single on Big Wheel and four singles for Ollie McLaughlin’s Karen label. In 1968, Kenny Rogers heard her cover of his group’s “What My Condition My Condition Was In”, and suggested to his brother, producer Lelan Rogers, that he record her. This led to her signing with Silver Fox, and a trip to Memphis, where she made a string of records with a then unknown studio group, who went on to become known as The Dixie Flyers. The recordings were augmented by The Memphis Horns. The first release, “He Made a Woman Out of Me”, went #25 R&B, even though it was banned by some stations due to its risqué content. In 1970, the follow-up, “Do Your Duty”, went # 38 R&B. She recorded a number of other songs for the label, some of which were issued on 45. The LP that was to come, never did, reportedly due to a falling out between label head Shelby Singleton and Producer Leland Rogers.
In 1971, at the suggestion of her manager, Jim Lewis, she entered a national talent competition, and won a Clio Award for 2 versions of the Schaffer Beer Commercial. She also released one single, “Never My Love/Stormy” on TCA records, a label which she co-owned with her keyboard player Rudy Robinson and her manager, Jim Lewis.
“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. 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.” – Rob Bowman
In 1972 she was once again signed to Atlantic, this time through its Atco subsidiary. She recorded one single in Detroit, “Heart of Gold” which failed to make a dent on the charts. After two recordings in LA that were unreleased at the time, they sent her down to Muscle Shoals Sound where under the guidance of producer Brad Shapiro and accompanied by the famed Muscle Shoals Sound studio band, she cut what was going to be her first released full length LP. The Memphis Horns were dubbed on, as well as strings at Criteria Studios in Miami. The recordings were mastered and readied for release under the title Child of the Seventies. A publicity tour was booked, but at the last minute Bettye was called and told, “We have decided not to go forward with the project. Please return the plane tickets”. She was never given an explanation and the devastation stayed with her for years to come. However, a 45 from the sessions, “Your Turn To Cry”, was released and ranks high on the lists of most “deep soul” collectors.
1975 brought a brief stint with Epic, where “Thank You For Loving Me” went #94 R&B. The follow up, a version of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors”, as good as it was, failed to chart.
In 1978 she cut a disco record, “Doin’ The Best That I Can” with a 19 year old producer, Cory Robbins, for the West End label. Bettye wanted a release from her contract, and they agreed to it if she signed away all of her rights to the song. She did, and weeks later, The Walter Gibbons re- mix hit #13 on the Disco-Dance charts, selling over 100,000 copies.
In 1979 she was asked to appear in the touring company of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar in the role of Sweet Georgia Brown. She learned to tap dance and was hired. She worked with both Charles “Honi” Coles, and Cab Calloway while with the show. It was here where she learned more about staging than she had ever known. She stayed with the touring company for almost four years.
In 1982, Bettye got a call from Motown president Lee Young, Sr. She was signed and sent to Nashville and recorded the Tell Me A Lie album. Produced by Grammy Award winner Steve Buckingham, the studio players were augmented by The Memphis Horns. Two 45s were released, the first of which, the Sam Dees penned, “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)”, went to #35 on the R&B charts. It also allowed for another television appearance, this time on Soul Train. However, a corporate shake-up removed Lee Young, Sr., and her first released LP was never promoted properly. It failed to chart.
In 1989, Bettye recorded Not Gonna Happen Twice for English DJ Ian Levine’s Motor City label. Although most of the instrumentation is synthesized, her vocals were, as always, impeccable.
Most of the 90s were spent doing local gigs in and around Detroit with her long time Music Director and keyboard player, Rudy Robinson. 1997 saw a wonderful, but unauthorized, release of Bettye’s version of Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes”, on cassette only, by the Bar/None label.
All the while, Bettye was a cult favorite in soul circles, especially overseas.
Her resurgence in the 21st Century is an amazing tale of perseverance. In 2000, French collector/label owner Gilles Petard, while searching the Atlantic tape vaults, came up with the long-thought-lost tapes to the 1972 Child of the Seventies Atco LP. He licensed the tracks and released them in France on his own Art & Soul label as Souvenirs.
At the same time, Dutch fan Ben Mattijssen recorded Bettye at a live show in Utrecht, Holland and released Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, on the Munich label. These two CDs, released almost simultaneously, created a renewed interest in Bettye, and showed that she was still in excellent voice.
In 2002, thanks to Shanachie Records’ president Randall Grass, Bettye was introduced to Grammy Award winning producer, Dennis Walker. Dennis got her signed to fledgling label, Blues Express, and they made her “comeback” CD, A Woman Like Me.
In late 2002, John Goddard, owner of world famous Mill Valley Records decided to give himself a birthday party. Being a fan of Bettye’s recordings, he contacted Bettye and asked if she would come and perform at his party. He told her that he would make sure that everybody who was anybody in the area would be there. Amongst the many famous musical guests was Mike Kappus, president of Rosebud Booking Agency. Although she hadn’t had a record out in years, his belief in the power of her live show prompted him to sign her for bookings.
After signing with Rosebud, A Woman Like Me was finally released in 2003. Bettye won the Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year as well as the Living Blues Critics Pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004.
After her contract with Blues Express expired, Mike Kappus helped her look for a new label home. He invited ANTI- Records president Andy Kaulkin to see one of her shows. On the strength of her live show, Kaulkin asked Bettye to sign a three record contract.
For the first project, Kaulkin paired her with Grammy Award winning producer Joe Henry, and suggested an album of songs written entirely by women. The resulting CD, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, was on many critics’ “Best of 2005” lists. Due to an unfortunate error, the CD was never submitted to the Recording Academy for Grammy consideration.
In 2006, she received a well-deserved Pioneer Award from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Her second ANTI- album, The Scene of the Crime, was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios with alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers. On it, she transforms country and rock songs written by Willie Nelson, Elton John, and Don Henley, among others, into devastating mini-dramas. The title of the disc references the now infamous Child of the Seventies LP, which was also recorded in Muscle Shoals. The Scene of the Crime was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and landed on numerous “Best of 2007” lists.
In 2008, she received a Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer. In December she performed a critically acclaimed version of “Love Reign O’er Me” at The Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute to The Who.
In January 2009 she had the honor of performing “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi for President elect Barack Obama on HBO’s telecast of the kick-off Inaugural Celebratory concert, We Are One. In April she shared the stage with Sir Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr at Radio City Music Hall for David Lynch’s Change Begins Within benefit concert.
In June 2009 a 6 song EP, Change Is Gonna Come Sessions, was released as a download only. It consisted of songs that were all composed by African American songwriters.
In May 2010 her 3rd ANTI- CD, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook was released to rave reviews. The concept was conceived by her husband, music maven Kevin Kiley, who was inspired by the critical acclaim that she received after her performance of “Love Reign O’er Me” at The Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. As the title implies, she re-invents songs from the British bands who were initially influenced by American R&B music. Bettye co- produced the record along with Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens, a relationship born at The Kennedy Center Honors and the We Are One events. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album. In 2010 she also received a Motown HAL (Heroes And Legends) Award.
In 2011 she was asked to appear on An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Chaka Khan. Her performance of “Love Me Still” with Herbie Hancock, brought tears to Chaka’s eyes. The show received an Emmy Nomination.
In late 2012, she teamed up with Grammy Award winning producer Craig Street, for her fourth ANTI- CD, Thankful N’ Thoughtful. A limited edition EP, More Thankful, More Thoughtful, was released for Record Store Day. 2012 also saw the release of her auto-biography, A Woman Like Me. It was co-written with David Ritz, author of many books on R&B legends, including Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. It has been variously described as “engrossing”, “riveting”, “hair-raising” and “only suitable for the over 18s”.
In 2013 she appeared in the main title sequence of the AMC series Low WInter Sun performing the series’ theme song, “Hustlin’ In The Motor City”. In typical Bettye “buzzard luck” fashion, the show was cancelled after one season.
In 2015 Bettye signed with Cherry Red Records. She re united with Joe Henry, and together they co-produced Worthy, for which she received her third Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. She also received the Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society.
In 2016 she received the Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation.
She was also inducted into The Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, and received the Unsung Heroine Award from the National R&B Music Society.
In late 2016, her friend, photographer Carol Friedman, pitched Bettye the idea of doing an album of all Bob Dylan songs, with Grammy Award winning producer, Steve Jordan at the helm. Carol sold the idea to Verve Records, and in 2017 Bettye was signed to her first major label since 1982. The resulting album Things Have Changed was born. In 2019, It was nominated for 2 Grammy Awards, one for Best Americana Album, and the song “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” for Best Traditional R&B Performance. It also received a Detroit Music Award for Outstanding National Small/Independent Label Recording.
2020 saw the release of Bettye’s sophomore Verve album, Blackbirds. It consisted of primarily songs by black female singers from the 50s & 60s that were inspirational to her when she started her career. Once again, she teamed with drummer/producer Steve Jordan. She was also inducted into The Blues Hall Of Fame and received a Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Female Artist.
In 2021 Blackbirds received a Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. It also received a Detroit Music Award for Outstanding National Small/ Independent Label Recording Bettye also received another Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Female Artist. She also appeared on The Kennedy Center At 50 PBS Special in 2021, and made her first appearance at Farm Aid.
She has appeared on Shindig, Upbeat, SOUL!, Soul Train, National Public Radio’s World Cafe, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me, and performed a Tiny Desk Concert. She has appeared in a Mississippi Public Broadcasting series, Blues Divas, and is in a film of the same name, both produced by award winning film maker, Robert Mugge. She has appeared several times on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Tavis Smiley Show. She has also made appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Lopez Tonight, Austin City Limits, The Prairie Home Companion, The Artist’s Den, Good Morning America, and The Today Show.