Bettye LaVette Returns to the Scene

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By: Forrest Reda

Forty years I kept on singing
Before the money started rolling in
There was a time when I would call it luck
If I got me a gig, for fifty bucks
Now I got all these big decisions to make
Never thought that success would be hard to take

-From "The Battle of Bettye LaVette"

The Early Days

Bettye LaVette
Five years ago Bettye LaVette knew every one of her fans all over the world personally. In a voice that is slightly softer over the phone, but just as distinct as her singing one, she says, "Baby, I thought I was going to die in total obscurity."

This was a far cry from the promising start to her career. In 1962, she put out her first single, "My Man – He's a Good Man," a Top 10 R&B hit. She was 16 years old. LaVette's singing career quickly blossomed. She toured with luminaries like Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, Otis Redding and James Brown. Her pal Stevie Wonder wrote "Hey Love" for her to sing.

LaVette was drawing large crowds at nightclubs all across the country. By 1972, she was poised for her commercial breakthrough. She had recently been signed to Atlantic Records and the label brought her down to Muscle Shoals to record the album Child Of The Seventies. Home to legendary studios including Florence Alabama Recording Enterprises (FAME), Muscle Shoals was truly "The Hit Recording Capitol of the World" producing classics like "Brown Sugar," "Wild Horses," "Mustang Sally," "When A Man Loves a Woman," "I'll Take You There" and many others. LaVette was a peer of the emerging stars at Motown and Atlantic and it was her time to shine.

Studio logbooks indicate that the record was made in three days. It ended up sitting "lost" inside a vault at Atlantic Records for 30 years. No one really knows why.

The Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood calls it one of the great mysteries of the Soul Music Era.

"The record they made was an excellent soul record, a classic even, except that instead of being released, it was put in a vault at Atlantic Records, where it stayed and collected dust for about three decades," says Hood. "If you ask ten people why you will get ten different answers. Listening to it now one is struck with just what a special record it is. It sounds among the best of the great classic soul albums, except that instead of familiar hit after familiar hit these are somehow tracks that time forgot. It wasn't even released until over a generation later."

As the country sank into the throes of disco and her career was completely derailed by a misguided label that refused to release her record, LaVette did the only thing she knew how to do – she sang the blues. She spent six years on Broadway performing with Cab Calloway in the hit musical, Bubbling Brown Sugar and subsequently worked the lounge circuit, performing wherever she could - often in Detroit, the city she grew up in - playing three sets a night for $50 and "sweating all my clothes out that I bought while I was doing Bubbling Brown Sugar."

While the music scene had changed in America, LaVette developed a loyal following in Europe. "In each country these people would put a little show together and I'd come and they'd give me three or four hundred dollars and fly me there and take care of me," she says. While the industry wasn't helping, her friends were - paying bills, mortgages and car notes. This was the nadir of her career and the only thing that kept LaVette going were the words of her late manager, Jim Lewis, who told her at the very beginning, "Learn to sing so you can just feel good inside yourself, you have something that may never make you any money, you may never be a star, but you are damn good at it."

"Feeling that way really sustains you after a while. Because when records don't sell and you can't get gigs you have to find some solace inside yourself. While everyone is saying, 'We do not like you,' YOU know that you are really good" offers LaVette.

Redemption Song

Bettye LaVette by Elizabeth Fladung
Bettye LaVette seemed destined for obscurity. The only proof LaVette had of the Child of the Seventies session was a 7 1/2" mono recording. It was the digital revolution, combined with the friendship of a French fan that would ultimately set the wheels in motion for her reemergence. Digital processing was being used to re-master all the old records in stereo. One of LaVette's friends worked for Sony in New York and brought the infamous lost Atlantic album up to stereo.

LaVette sent it to her friend, Gilles Petard, a French music collector, who was convinced it was a lost classic. Petard flew to New York to ask Atlantic if he could look through their warehouse. The record company had previously said the album was lost, but Petard insisted and he found it. Later that year, Petard sent the newly packaged album to LaVette as a Christmas present, renamed as Souvenirs.

Another fan-friend in Germany had recently recorded a live CD, and the two got together and released them at the same time for what Bettye calls, "maximum re-release exposure." With her profile in Europe gaining momentum, LaVette entered the studio in 2003 to record her first album in over two decades. A Woman Like Me (Blues Express) was recorded with Robert Cray producer Dennis Walker and earned LaVette the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year in 2004.

LaVette had three visible, viable albums out simultaneously after a very long dry spell, all graced with her picture. "People who had followed me all those years knew all these different little things, but I had never had an album with my picture on it," she said.

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