The full story of many a musical comeback typically involves years spent working outside of show business. Jazz singer Jimmy Scott served as a hotel clerk before being rediscovered in the 1990s. Solomon Burke, the "King of Rock & Soul," ran a chain of mortuaries. But not Bettye LaVette. In the four decades between her 1963 Top 10 R&B debut, "My Man—He's a Loving Man," and her new album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti), LaVette struggled, but she never punched a time clock.
"I started doing this professionally at 16 years old," says LaVette. "I never learned anything else." Nor did she feel the slightest inclination to sling hash, cut hair, or take up stenography when her bookings grew slim. She was determined to be a star, again, eventually. She could wait, and keep inching forward. "I didn't think in terms of, 'Oh, the bills must be paid, no matter what.' I'd think, 'Oh, I ain't got no gigs... well, the bills won't get paid.'"
Thanks to Hell to Raise, the collection agencies lay off LaVette now. But you can hear the hard times as well as hope in her renditions of its 10 selections. "The hurt comes out, certainly, in all of the songs," she admits. Her throaty singing style can be brash, yet it is never inflexible; she calls to mind fiery peers like Tina Turner and Millie Jackson, as well as edgy blues dynamo Esther Phillips and outré funk diva Betty Davis.
From the album's powerful opener, an unaccompanied rendition of Sinéad O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," to the defiant finale, "Sleep to Dream," LaVette embodies the idea of great singing as interpretive storytelling, applying her skills to selections by Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, and Joan Armatrading. Though it took more than 20 years, by her estimation, to grasp the basics of her craft, today she focuses closely on the lyrics and melody, not vocal pyrotechnics.
"I came from a generation that concentrated on the rhythm," she explains. "So it took me forever to figure out what my manager meant when he was talking about phrasing." But in the long run, she was glad she found out. "He always said, learn how to sing right, and you'll be able to sing the rest of your life... whether or not you ever record again."
The Hell cut that perhaps best reflects LaVette's arduous journey is her interpretation of "Just Say So," originally recorded by country singer Bobbie Cryner. Although essentially a love song, lyrics like "If I'm wasting my time/Just let me know" can also be read as an assessment of LaVette's troubled state of mind after decades skirting the edges of success. "Just four or five years ago, I was asking close friends, 'Should I quit?'" she admits.
It didn't help that her 1962 Motor City contemporaries, like Smokey Robinson and Mary Wells, had earned millions and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, while she was still out working the club circuit. "Out of our whole group, I was the only one who did not succeed, which was extremely frustrating." For every brush with the limelight, like her 1978 disco ditty "Doin' the Best That I Can," she suffered a setback of equal or greater significance, such as a decision by Atlantic Records in 1972 to shelve her should-have-been-classic Muscle Shoals full-length, Child of the '70s. (The album was finally released, as Souvenirs, by a French label in 2000.)
Of course, now that her perseverance has paid off, LaVette is faced with more work than ever. "Unlike the rest of my peers who have been brought out of the crypt, and who have been doing something else, I've just been [performing] the whole time," she says. "And I am tired. I am almost 60 years old. I wear four- and five-inch heels, I thrash across the stage. I weigh 120 pounds, and I sing as if I weighed 175."
"I'm getting ready to go on the first promotional tour that I've been on since I was 17, and it is a gig that a 17-year-old should be doing," she concludes. But she isn't complaining. "I am relieved that it doesn't look like I will die in obscurity. I won't have to go door-to-door, saying, 'Hi, my name is Bettye LaVette,' and do a show on everyone's porch!"firstname.lastname@example.org