“In between drinks, I did a lot of crying.”
Unthinkable though it may be for a performer of her calibre, that’s how veteran R&B songstress Bettye LaVette sums up the near 40 years she spent virtually unknown to the public. Despite recording her first single, 1962’s My Man, He’s A Loving Man, at 16, shelved albums, scrapped tours, and vanishing label execs kept this heroine of Soul criminally unsung for four decades, relegated to her Detroit garden where she trimmed hedges between local gigs.
It wasn’t until 2005 that LaVette saw some of that hard-earned praise for her Anti-Records debut, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, a 10-track set on which she mercilessly grinds classics by Joan Armatrading, Lucinda Williams, and Fiona Apple into the gritty, gut-wrenching testimonies of a weary old woman taking one last, begrudging stab at stardom.
The album achieved widespread critical acclaim, spawning her self-coined ‘Who The Hell Is She?’ tour, the nine-year whirlwind circuit which has brought her from Cape Town to Canberra in support of Hell to Raise as well as her subsequent ANTI- releases, 2007’s The Scene Of The Crime, 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, and 2012’s Thankful ‘N’ Thoughtful.
A self-professed live performer, in concert, Bettye LaVette’s stage presence is arresting, her voice as razor-sharp as her biting wit; the singer’s very obvious bitterness fueling her exquisitely poignant delivery, not to mention hilarious and touching stage banter: “If you are making up for 40 years of lost time,” the singer joked with her audience at 2013’s Montreal Jazz Festival, “they let you say a lot of stuff.”
“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.”
With wisdom borne from 50 years of struggles both personal and professional, the songstress’ repertoire is vast: a master interpreter, LaVette is equally at ease tackling Bob Dylan’s“Most of the Time” as The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” her performance of which, at the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, brought Robert Daltrey and Pete Townshend to tears.
To quote James Taylor, “Bettye LaVette’s voice is like a beacon in a world of artifice.”
With an instrument of heart-breaking emotive power seen only in the mightiest of Soul alum, all bets are on Bettye LaVette to carry on the torch lit by her predecessors Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding. And after a hard-fought fifty years in an unforgiving industry, it’s a task she willingly accepts.