photo: Earl Douglas
Bettye LaVette is a true soul survivor.
Despite scoring several Top 10 R&B hits dating back as far as 1962 and recording and touring with James Brown, Otis Redding and Ben E. King, labels didn’t quite know what to do with her. Child Of The Seventies, an album she recorded for Atlantic Records and featuring The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (which backed Aretha Franklin on most of her seminal recordings), languished in the vaults for nearly 30 years (it was finally released in 2000 until the title Souvenirs). Only hardcore R&B heads and Broadway fans (she did a six year run on the hit musical ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar’) knew just how good she was, and she almost faded into obscurity. It was only through relentless touring and electrifying live shows that she caught the attention of Anti Records President Andy Maulkin. Her 2005 release, I Got My Own Hell To Raise, introduced her to a new generation of fans and her 2007 follow-up, The Scene Of The Crime marked her return to Muscle Shoals. Her performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors was the evening’s highlight. Kennedy Center Honoree Pete Townshend called it his favorite moment of the gala and he later remarked on his blog that ‘Barbra Streisand turned to me to ask if I really wrote it’.
It was her incredible performance from the gala that is the genesis of her latest CD, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Whereas recent songbook treatments basically put a singer’s voice on top of the very arrangements that made the songs hits in the first place, ‘Interpretations’ takes the approach that these are simply just another set of songs (albeit great ones) and LaVette puts her personal stamp and perspective on them.
To put it bluntly, when Bettye LaVette sings your song, it’s not yours anymore.
The sold out crowd at New York’s Highline Ballroom quickly found that out. Backed by a tight quartet, LaVette and the band took songs that you thought you knew front to back and twisted them inside out. “The Word” (by The Beatles) and “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” got funked up with a gospel thrown in. Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love” and Ringo Starr’s “It Don’t Come Easy” sounded like backwoods countrified R&B. Given what’s been going on in the world, LaVette’s aching take of George Harrison’s “Isn’t It A Pity” and “Salt Of The Earth” – with updated lyrics to include those with HIV – was more of a plea for sanity rather than a mournful laments.
But what makes Bettye LaVette such a dynamic presence is her ability to deliver raw, pure emotion. She sang “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down” in the Lotus position and the audience hung on every word. But it was during her version of “Wish You Were Here” that the audience was moved to tears. Dedicating the song to her old friends Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding, this new arrangement features the last verse as the intro before going into the full song. The result make the composition all the more mournful and it really highlights LaVette’s world weary, but soulful voice. Overall, it was a tour de force performance.
Interpretations is in stores now. Bettye LaVette will be on The Late Show With David Letterman on June 23rd and be touring with Robert Plant in July. Do yourself a favor and support one of America’s best singers.