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.

Continue reading for more on Bettye LaVette...

She would prepare for a take the way I picture De Niro getting into character for a film. It occurred to me that Bettye was very much a method actor and her attention to every minute detail of a lyric is nothing less than astounding.

-Patterson Hood


Building on her buzz, LaVette's booking agent invited Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti- Records, an imprint of Epitaph, to come watch her perform.

Bettye LaVette
"My agent booked a show and asked Andrew to come and he did. He came in the dressing room, and he has this huge afro and he's almost seven feet tall. He had on this dingy t-shirt and no socks and these fluffy loafers, I thought, 'Oh my God, as bad as I need a record [deal], and this is who I impress?'," recalls LaVette, who is still amazed, "That this young guy could even hear me."

Kaulkin came straight from his table into the dressing room and said, "I want to do a record with you." LaVette continues, "He had never heard any of my records. He didn't know who the heck I was but, by the same token, I had never heard any of his records, and I didn't know who the heck he was either. And I looked cuter than he did and had just done a good show, so at that point, in the dressing room, I had more going for me between the two of us."

"I had never heard of Epitaph. I had never heard of Anti-. I had never heard of him or any of the artists on the label. I know how long I had been doing it [and] he didn't look old enough to have done it that long," adds LaVette. "When I did find out who he was, and about the company, well, it's like your grandchildren sitting down and saying, 'I don't want to be with my friends, I want to spend the whole day with you, grandma.'"

LaVette says from that moment on Kaulkin has been "The Bettye LaVette Brain."

"This is the smartest guy, in terms of this business. I believe the last time I had anything to do with this business in any major way was almost all of his life ago," she says. Kaulkin suggested that LaVette record an entire album of compositions by women songwriters for their first project, an idea LaVette originally opposed.

Kaulkin & LaVette by Kevin Kiley
"I just don't have a clue," she laments. "He thinks of the greatest things for me to do, and gives me so much leeway to do them. When he came up with the idea for the all-woman thing, I said, 'Well first of all, I'm not sitting around listening to no broads sing all day long, trying to find those songs. So, you listen to them.'" Kaulkin sent LaVette 100 songs of which she chose ten. "He thought I was going to choose maybe 30 or 40, maybe 50. I said, 'No, there's just not that many songs that I want to sing.' Out of any ten, there may be one that I want to sing, but not necessarily. I think if people chose their friends and people more selectively like that, it would work out a little better," offers LaVette, a master of the lost art of reinterpretation. "I choose the songs that I want to sing, that I can interpret best, and that really have something to do with me, or at least something that I want to speak on."

When LaVette sent Kaulkin the ten songs that she wanted to do for the new album in their original form, he wasn't sure they would go together. LaVette told him, "They will when I sing them. I'll be the tying force - they'll sound more alike when I sing them." Kaulkin trusted LaVette's artistic vision and the result, 2005's critically applauded I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, spoke for itself.

"[Andrew] says, 'You rock!' and I say, 'I don't, Andrew. I roll.' He's wonderfully smart and he believes me, and if I say I can sing it, he believes me at first."

Returning To The Scene

Finally, LaVette was experiencing long deserved success, but she wasn't done yet. It was time for her return to The Scene of the Crime. Kaulkin's next idea was to pair LaVette with a working band to record an album. Turns out that one of the players from the 1972 Atlantic sessions, bass player David Hood, had a son named Patterson of the legendary (in some circles) Drive-By Truckers.

Bettye LaVette
Patterson Hood recalls receiving the call from Kaulkin, "Having grown up worshipping the great soul albums and always wanting to get to work with one of the legends, I jumped at the chance to get to work with her. I had found an import of the 1972 album and was also a huge fan of her Anti- debut." Hood explains that Kaulkin's vision was to create "a sort of Exile on Bettye LaVette Street." Except, LaVette is no fan of the Rolling Stones and having worked so hard for so long for her time in the spotlight, she wasn't about to share it with a bunch of "young upstarts like myself and my band," recalls Hood, who set out to select songs for LaVette to sing and experienced even less success then Kaulkin. "Having established that we wouldn't be co-writing together, I sent her around fifty songs to listen to and batted a big zero, as we didn't record a single one of them," moans Hood.

LaVette laughs at this recollection, "Patterson's been saying he sent me 50 songs and I threw them back at him. So I've been telling people he did not. He only sent me 40. When I hear a song, I know whether it applies to what I want to sing. It's like choosing someone that you want to go to bed with. That's why no one can choose a song and give it to me. It would be like choosing someone for me to go to bed with."

Once the songs were selected, everyone involved in the project convened in Muscle Shoals. LaVette and her husband met Hood at Swampers, the lounge in the Marriott Hotel made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama." Swampers is covered nearly wall-to-wall with photographs of the many greats who came to Muscle Shoals to make records back in the '60s and '70s. Hood arrived late because he hadn't expected to see LaVette that evening and his ringer was turned off.

"They had sat there at the bar for a little while before I got there to pick them up. Tired from their trip down from New Jersey and no doubt having a cocktail or two, surrounded by black and white photos celebrating a musical legacy that she was a part of," Hood says. "It was surely duly noted that there was no photograph of Bettye LaVette on the wall of Swampers and with the addition of a couple more cocktails there just might be hell to pay."

Continue reading for more on Bettye LaVette...

When I hear a song, I know whether it applies to what I want to sing. It's like choosing someone that you want to go to bed with. That's why no one can choose a song and give it to me. It would be like choosing someone for me to go to bed with.

-Bettye LaVette

Photo by Elizabeth Fladung

In retrospect, looking at those pictures might have been the perfect catalyst for The Scene of The Crime.

"It's so different now," LaVette says. "I was telling my husband that I don't know how I would be able to maintain the passion and the sadness of all the things that inspired all the songs that I've done over the years because my heart and my soul is in such a settled place right now. I'm just so completely satisfied with the way everything has turned out."

Bettye LaVette & Drive-By Truckers by Kevin Kiley
Recording began the next day. Longtime DBT producer David Barbe and Hood would handle the production, while a combination of Drive-By Truckers and several Muscle Shoals veterans would provide musical backing. Spooner Oldham was hired to play Wurlitzer and piano on the whole record and just like 1972, David Hood would play bass on several songs. Patterson recalls the freewheeling nature of the sessions, saying, "I had an overall list of songs and a basic time frame outline but otherwise everything was up for reinterpretation. We had learned the basic structures of the songs themselves but everything else was up for reinvention and reworking."

Hood says that as the sessions got underway "word seemed to spread across the music community about what we were up to and soon more and more of the original Muscle Shoals players began to show up to check it out or pay respects. Veteran session legends Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins both came by to listen to what we were up to. Bettye hadn't seen either one of them in 35 years but soon they were catching up on old times like dear old friends. Rick Hall, who founded and still owns FAME came by almost daily, and was both encouraging and a source of great old stories. One night after a session, Bettye ended up hanging with Kelvin Holley, who plays with Little Richard and The Decoys, which also features my dad on bass. The next day he was there strapping on a guitar and playing on a song."

Beyond the great players, stories and food, the real highlight of making this record happened whenever LaVette sang.

Bettye LaVette
"David set her up with a microphone in a booth in the hopes of capturing good live takes during tracking. A safe majority of the album's vocals came from what would normally be the scratch track," Hood says. "On the final day of recording we set aside plenty of time to redo anything that needed it and she ended up knocking all of that out in about two hours. This was my favorite part of the entire project, as I wasn't busy doing anything else and could watch a master at work. She would prepare for a take the way I picture De Niro getting into character for a film. It occurred to me that Bettye was very much a method actor and her attention to every minute detail of a lyric is nothing less than astounding."

LaVette enjoys performing much more than the recording process, and downplays the experience. "It was nothing exceptional. It was recording," she comments. "For me it was no unique experience. The only unique thing was that I recorded with his father 35 years ago. Recording is not one of my favorite things to do. I try to do it as quickly as I can, and most younger people today try to make it take as long as it can possibly take."

LaVette says she bonded with Patterson Hood during the sessions. "My daughter is Patterson's age. It was kind of like being with her," she says. "He gave me just as much trouble. He probably thinks I'm a mean, mean old woman – just like she does [laughs]."

Hood adds, "The days we spent together in Muscle Shoals are a bit of a blur but the following anecdote stands out. It was Saturday afternoon and we had just recorded Ray Charles' 'Call It Love' and were about to try a take of Willie Nelson's 'Pick Up My Piece.' She and I had just disagreed about something or another and I had settled in the assistant chair next to David, who was engineering the session. The song began and a hush filled the control room as we all realized we were hearing something very incredible coming through the monitor. All of us sat there stunned, listening to the take play live [exactly what you will hear on the record]. After the jaw-dropping performance, Bettye came bounding into the control room listing all of the things that were wrong to her about the completed take. Barbe, cool as a cucumber, didn't say a word and motioned for me to do the same. He just pushed play and let the take fill the room. By the time it was over Bettye was in tears - and she wasn't alone - and everyone agreed that something magical had just occurred."

LaVette recalls, "I only do things for a few takes. I don't sing things over and over and over. I don't do that. I know how I want to sing the song, and much to my gratitude and the graciousness of the Truckers, they realized right away that I wasn't going to change anything. So, they adjusted to what I was doing and I'm so grateful to them for doing that. I think they sound totally different and I think they sounded just the way I needed them to sound for this thing and I'm just grateful to them for that because being as old as I am I don't know how far I could bend."

Continue reading for more on Bettye LaVette...

In 22 years of playing in bands and a lifetime of being obsessed with music and art, I've never heard anything like it. Witnessing it's recording - stripped bare to just piano, bass and a slight hint of pedal steel and that voice, that terrifying and magnificent voice - shook all of us to our cores and continues to every time I hear it played. I may be prouder of those four and a half minutes than anything I've ever been involved with.

-Patterson Hood on "Talking Old Soldiers" off Scene of the Crime

Photo of LaVette and Hood by Kevin Kiley

Hood was determined to write one song with LaVette, but she would have none of it, saying, "Patterson, everybody can't write. Maybe you can write, but everybody can't write." Hood is not one to give up easily. "I set out to co-write at least one song with Bettye and from the first day began writing down little things I would hear her say in the studio," explains Hood. "Bettye is a walking encyclopedia of amazing stories and great sayings and soon I was attempting to capture that defiant voice in a song that would somehow sum up her story. Finally, after a particularly good day of recording, I played her the song I had written and was shocked and amazed when she agreed to record it. She then took my finished song and completely reworked it - don't tell me you're not a writer! - and the result is 'The Battle of Bettye LaVette,' which we recorded shortly before finishing the album."

Bettye LaVette
LaVette's version of this varies slightly. "He brought me the song, and I didn't like it," she says, laughing. "He took the one line that I told him that my mother said – 'Close shooting don't kill no birds' - and he said, 'Just the things you been saying to me this week, just write some of those down.' He was so mad at me [laughs]. He said, 'Well, write the damn song yourself.' He was sitting up in the control room. I was sitting on the floor. I was just determined to write the song. Since I was writing about something I knew, all I really had to do was connect it together. I knew what happened; I knew what I wanted to say and most of the things that he wrote I had said in conversation. He was talking about David Ruffin being one of the voices that he really liked from that whole era and I said, 'Shit, I knew David Ruffin when he was sober.' It wasn't really writing. I just had to connect the dots. Patterson told me, 'You can't write, but you can connect.'"

Whatever the process, Hood got his desired result - an instant classic. While the song is the most up-tempo on the album, LaVette and Hood agree that the album's tour-de-force and true gravitational center is the old Elton John song "Talking Old Soldiers."

"The song, a strange oddity of a track in it's original form, is transformed by Bettye into both a defiant statement of her survival and an exorcism of the demons brought on by years of mistreatment and indifference from a musical industry that prefers cookie-cutter formulas to artistic genius," observes Hood. "To call it one of the most profound performances in the history of soul music is an understatement. In 22 years of playing in bands and a lifetime of being obsessed with music and art, I've never heard anything like it. Witnessing it's recording - stripped bare to just piano, bass and a slight hint of pedal steel and that voice, that terrifying and magnificent voice - shook all of us to our cores and continues to every time I hear it played. I may be prouder of those four and a half minutes than anything I've ever been involved with."

LaVette is able to identify with the song because, in many ways, it's her story. "I was in Detroit last week at this bar that I'm modeling the 'Old Soldiers' song after. It's called the Locker Room. Just to be able to go there and buy everyone a drink for the first time - and I've hung there for 15 or 16 years - is wonderful," says LaVette. "Everybody knew me there. Sometimes a stranger would come in and say, 'Didn't you used to sing?' Or they would ask me sometimes, 'Didn't you used to be Bettye LaVette?' I'd say, 'I'm still singing. I just don't have a job!'"

I asked Bettye about the memories conjured to the surface by this song, and for the first time in our conversation she was at a loss for words, simply saying, "'Talking Old Soldiers' says it all."

These days there's so much going on
I don't think nobody really wants to know
I may be just an old has-been to some
But I know how it feels to grow old

The Sweet Sound of Success

Bettye LaVette by Elizabeth Fladung
LaVette doesn't think of her recent success as revenge on a music industry that did her wrong. She's just happy to be able to give back to the people that have helped her along the way.

"I've been singing 46 years, and I haven't been able to do anything for my friends and family," laments LaVette. "I certainly hope I'll finally be able to make some money, but if I don't make any more than I'm making right now I will have finally at last had my picture on the cover of the hometown newspaper, been able to send my grandchildren an allowance and that will be good."

"I can stand on heels as high as Beyonce's and fit into a size six and sing harder than most of all my contemporaries and many of the youth. This is very, very good for me. If I do it but another week, it's very good."

By not only surviving but thriving and staying true to herself and the mojo of soul music, Bettye LaVette sounds just as good in 2007 as any singer out there. Scene of The Crime is a remarkable album from a special lady.

"It's been so long now. So many people who have been with me for so many years now have a little power now of their own and they can do things, and it's making it more viable and more feasible for them to do it, because they know whatever they do has a better chance of selling," she comments. "So, everybody is doing everything to try and bring me to the people, and I'm so grateful. I am just so grateful."

Patterson Hood, the newest member of LaVette's entourage reflects on the new album and the importance of making it.

"It's 35 years after Bettye first came to Muscle Shoals to make the record that somehow did define her career, and she has returned to the scene of the crime to take it to another level. We all learned some things about ourselves and made an album that transcends any genre. I am eternally proud and thankful that I was able to be there as a witness and participant. Next time I visit home, I plan to take a photo of Bettye for Swampers to hang on their wall."

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HoodooVoodoo Tue 10/9/2007 09:25PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Was this the lasy on that sitcom called "227" back in the day?

debora starstarstarstarstar Tue 10/9/2007 10:13PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Perseverance pays off... great to be reminded of this truth. Congrats to Bettye and to those who believed in her talents. Thanks for the thorough story... she deserves the recognition....

onearmguitarist starstarstarstarstar Wed 10/10/2007 09:31AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


This is a great story! The last two albums have been nothing short of great. I saw her this summer on a double bill with Mavis staples in a botanical Garden, I did not expect that much and left absolutely blown away! Buy her records and if she comes to your town go see her show. You wont be diddapointed. Rock on Bettye!

O.P. starstarstarstarstar Wed 10/10/2007 12:32PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

What can one say about Bettye LaVette? During the '70s, at every party, I'd make tapes for dancing -- LaVette was always on those tapes. Not a party went by without someone asking, "who's that singing?" I'd say "Bettye LaVette." "Where can I get her records?" I kept checking the record stores -- nothing. Suddenly, she was back! Welcome home, Bettye and I know that you are enjoying this sweet to win.

mhc10 Thu 10/11/2007 03:19AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

This is a killer album, however I watched an interview with her on the Drive By Truckers website and she seem to be an ego maniac Diva, who is finally given her day. It really turned me off about her.

canoftunapudding Thu 10/11/2007 10:09AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

she is way too old to be naked