Bettye LaVette has one of the most passionate voices in all of popular music. The award-winning, much-celebrated singer brings her soulful sound to the Toronto Jazz Festival on June 24th.
The Detroit-raised rhythm and blues singer has made a name for herself doing soulful covers, but, as she says “I'm not noted for any particular kind of song, which has left me the liberty to sing any kind of song I want. If I want to swing a jazz song, I will.” This fall sees the anticipated release of a new album as well as autobiography,.
LaVette has garnered critical and commercial praise for her powerful covers of classics from a broad range of genres. NPR wrote of her cover of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” (taken from the her album The British Rock Songbook) in July 2010:
LaVette was schooled in the tradition of soul music, and her restraint can't disguise the fact that she's so heartbroken over humankind's inability to learn from its mistakes that she achieves an almost transcendent serenity.
It’s this ability to be both grounded and spiritual, gritty and transcendent, that has earned LaVette a whole new generation of fans who appreciate her innate ability to channel a motherlode of pain, longing, and ultimately, survival and triumph.
Unlike many of her soul music colleagues, LaVette didn't get her start singing in church. Her first hit was "My Man - He's a Loving Man" in 1962, a record that brought her to the attention of Atlantic Records, and landed her a slot touring nationally with Ben E. King and fellow then-newcomer Otis Redding. Subsequent hits included "Let Me Down Easy", "He Made A Woman Out of Me", and "Doin' The Best That I Can." She's toured with The James Brown Review, had a song written for her by Stevie Wonder ("Hey Love"), recorded with the legendary Dixie Flyers, and performed in the touring production of the multi-award-winning Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, for which she learned to tap dance. In 1997, she recorded a gorgeous, aching version of Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes" and in 2002, recorded A Woman Like Me, garnering her the prestigious W.C. Handy Award "Comeback Blues Album of the Year in 2004.
With the release of I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raisein 2005 (through Anti Records), LaVette came to the public’s notice in a big way. Her raucous, rich sound -operatic in its passion, dirty-blues in its pain -found a wider audience through her strong, sexy cover versions of songs by ten different female singer/singwriters, including a gorgeously strong take on “Joy” (by Lucinda Williams), a fierce, feisty version of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep To Dream” (from which the album derives its title), as well as a thoughtful, quietly angry take on Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different?".
LaVette's next album, The Scene of the Crime, received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album, and made many critics' “Best of 2007” lists. She received a Blues Music Award in 2008 for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer, and in 2009, performed at the Inaurual celebration concert for then-President-elect Barack Obama. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, her third record with Anti, was released to widepsread acclaim in May 2010.
The New York Times wrote that Bettye LaVette "now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation's most vital soul singer. She uses every scrape, shout and break in her raspy voice, with a predator's sense of timing, to seize the drama of a song."
Navigating the musical mazes of despair she favors in her repertoire isn’t a challenging task; like any good artist, she lets the sounds show her the way. “For that brief moment, it's like going to a funeral, there's… I don't have to put myself in that mood,” she says, her rich caramel voice humming in contemplation. “When I hear those chords and say those words... I feel pitiful. They're hurtful song. So for that moment, I feel like the audience feels, and... " She pauses. "How I am able to let the moment go, I don't know how I do that. Maybe just having the attention span of a child. I hear party music and I go right to the party!”
LaVette was late to the party, however -or, more accurately, the party was late to find her. She toiled for years plying her craft; past audiences, apparently, just weren’t used to a woman sounding the way LaVette does. “When I was younger and had this manager trying to make a “good” singer of me, I thought he wanted me to sound like Sarah Vaughan or Ella Fitzgerald,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I can't sound like those people!’"
She sees her popularity as being part and parcel of a larger tract of aggression becoming more acceptable in a wider society. “Now the world is more accepting of a woman sounding like Louis Armstrong," she notes. "And now that women have cheated, and killed, and cut a guy's balls off, they're more prepared for me. I'm another kind of woman, but for a long time I wasn't accepted in the women's club. I wasn't bawdy and sleazy, but I wasn't quite ladylike either.”
That “not-quite-ladylike” sound manifests itself in LaVette’s malt-liquor-and-cigarettes sound -she's anything but the big-eyed, baby-voiced girl-woman singer -but it doesn't match her appearance. The singer, stunningly svelte and attractive with a short hairdo a broad smile and always performing in fashionable high heels, confesses, “I've always wanted to look sexy! I don't get mad at guys when they flirt with me!" She lets out a throaty laugh. "I set myself in a position (appearance-wise) where, men like it; women hate it.”
This winking, willful provocation extends itself to her live performances, which have the singer living a number of roles throughout every number, but cosntantly maintaining a strong, sexy, deeply magnetic presence. That presence was keenly felt when she covered The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. That evening, she says, opened the door to a much broader, more mainstream appeal. “It was a great introduction," she remembers, "and I made Pete Townsend cry!”
“When I was younger, I had to find out all these things about me,” LaVette notes. “My book is dedicated to the man who told me, 'You may never be a star but least you can learn how to be a really good singer.' He forced me to do that. I was able to do whatever the gig called for. Right now, today, if the gig doesn't call for one of these kids to do whatever their hit record was, they can't do the gig!”
LaVette, who is touring this summer, plays both festivals as well as smaller venues. Her regular live dates include a yearly month-long residency at the noted New York jazz spot The Caryle Hotel, where she sings two of her favorite jazz standards, “Lush Life” and “Round Midnight.” She’s comfortable moving between genres, be they rock, blues, jazz, or big band. “They're just songs,” she says simply.
That straight-forward attitude is echoed in the approach she takes in the studio. She instructs musicians she’s working with to “just look at the notes, play the way I'm singing it, not the way the record went, or the way another singer went -just play it how I'm singing it. Go toward what I'm doing.” It took years to develop that confidence. But her style has developed in a way that allows her to sing, with authority, both the rough-eged rock songs of the present, alongside the more sensitive, soulful material from the past. And, at this point, there isn’t any one song (or artist's canon) she is dying to cover. “I’ve sung everything I want to sing," she states. "I'm not discovering things in this business, not anything now, but if i did any of these young peoples’ songs, it would be more interesting for them -whereas singing “Lush Life” makes me more interesting.”
Confident, determimed, cocksure of her abilities: Bettye LaVette knows who she is, and isn’t apologizing for it.
“I fear no one, and I’m not holding on to anything except what I know I can do," she says simply. "I’m not holding on to an opinion or anything - only what I can do. I’m in a really good place, it’s all working, and I feel good about it!”
Bettye LaVette plays the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square on Saturday, June 24th, 8pm. The Big Sound opens.