Clip: Bettye LaVette rises from obscurity to raise hell
Bettye LaVette rises from obscurity to raise hell
September 25, 2005
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
Throughout her long and winding career, soul singer Bettye LaVette has used
a slick trick to emphasize the beat: She tells her drummers to watch her
behind. Apparently the hip-shaking has paid off; the vocalist from
Muskegon, Mich., has made one of most evocative records of the year with
"I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," out Tuesday, the same day LaVette
headlines a show at the House of Blues.
"I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" (Anti-) is a collection of 10 tunes by
female singer-songwriters, and LaVette turns them inside out. She delivers
a stunning a cappella version of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I
Have Not Got," which kicks into a raw cover of Lucinda Williams' "Joy."
Other highlights are a visceral take on Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero"
and an eerie, bass-driven interpretation of Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow."
The minimalist record was produced by alt-country singer-songwriter Joe
Henry, who also stripped away the excesses in Solomon Burke's disc "Don't
Give Up on Me" (2002) for Anti-. LaVette's studio band includes Doyle
Bramhall II on guitar, Lisa Coleman (of Prince fame) on keyboards and Earl
Harvin on drums.
"The thing I liked about Joe Henry is that he didn't try to lead me
anywhere," LaVette said in a feisty conversation from her home in West
Orange, N.J. "I first sang 'Little Sparrow' with the [original]
arrangement. They thought I was going to sing it like that. When I got to
the studio, the guys were playing what they learned on Dolly Parton's
rendition. You can't quote me on all things, but I told them there is a
difference between f-----g and screwing. I said, 'Don't you see? You all
are screwing.' I had never confronted a band that way before in my life. I
thought they'd hate me, but they all cracked up.
"I also told the drummer what I've told every drummer for my entire career"
-- and here she sang the "Little Sparrow" bass lines -- "boom, boom boom
boom -- just watch my butt. I had to act out parts or tell them how I felt.
Joe never said to me, 'The band likes this, what do you think?' It was,
'This was the way she was singing -- think of something to go with what
LaVette, 59, was born Betty Haskin to factory workers Frank and Pearl, who
also sold corn liquor out of their house in Muskegon. Among their customers
were the Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones and Chicagoan Sam Cooke.
"After their shows, they would come to our house for corn liquor and
barbecue sandwiches," she recalled. "We had a big jukebox in the living
room. On top of this jukebox, I stood with my dress pulled up, rolling my
stomach up and down. I would do this while singing songs that came on the
jukebox. My mother said I never tried to talk. I just started singing those
songs. She also wanted me to talk like a baby, but I'd say stuff like,
'Pearl, where are we going?'"
When LaVette was 3, the family relocated to Detroit. LaVette is diminutive,
but her raspy delivery packs extraordinary power. "Think how long this has
taken," she said. "That power could come from anything. Anger, menopause,
drunkenness, relationships. I've got all those things working for me. No
one thing could make me sing as loud as I do, but I'm glad I learned what
it is. I used to scream, and it all would be gone. If there is a bright
side to my 44-year struggle, it is that I have been allowed to study my
craft and be good at it."
At 16, LaVette had her first hit with "My Man, He's a Lovin' Man" for the
tiny Detroit label Lupine. The single was picked up by Atlantic Records. "I
had never seen anyone onstage until I was onstage myself [at Mister Kelly's
in Detroit]," she said. "I was never in any talent shows. There wasn't a
church thing, so I was never in a choir. I had seen people on television,
but my family didn't go out."
"I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was recorded to tape -- old-school style --
in three days. It was cut in the same meticulous way that LaVette made her
Lupine recordings. "I told Joe, 'Honey, the reason we came up with Pro
Tools is because this [recording to tape] is not fun," she said. "I thought
these people were trying to kill me. Joe said, 'The magic will all come
together at one time.' I said, 'Joe, honey, I brought the magic with me.' "
Despite magical hit singles such as 1966's "Tears in Vain" (with Marvin
Gaye on piano) and 1970's "He Made a Woman Out of Me" (popularized by
Bobbie Gentry), LaVette didn't release an entire album until 1975. She has
recorded for 14 different labels, and her more than 20 singles have been
embraced by '70s Northern soul fans. In 1972, LaVette thought she had
scored her breakthrough with the album "Souvenirs," recorded with Wilson
Pickett producer Brad Shapiro at Muscle Shoals Studio, but Atco (a division
of Atlantic) shelved the project. (In 2000, "Souvenirs" resurfaced as a
After decades in obscurity, LaVette was rediscovered last fall when Mike
Kappus of the Rosebud booking agency in San Francisco saw her sing at a
private birthday party in Mill Valley, Calif. Kappus told Ry Cooder about
LaVette, and Cooder contacted Anti- president Andy Kaulkin. "I had no
record [label], no manager, no anything, except that I've been working all
these years," LaVette said. "Just me and my [four-piece] band. I worked
around Detroit. I'd come to Chicago and play Rosa's. There wasn't enough
money for me to travel far."
After LaVette signed with Anti-, Kaulkin sent her 99 songs composed by
women, including Rosanne Cash's "On the Surface" and Aimee Mann's "How Am I
Different," both of which landed on the album.
Going in, LaVette did not know of Henry's Grammy-winning work with Burke.
"But they had never heard of me, either," she said. "The great thing is
they signed me because they liked me -- not because I had this record in
1902 or whatever. I was thrilled because everything that is happening with
all my contemporaries, like Mavis [Staples], is based upon what they did
before. This was based upon what I did that night at Mill Valley."
A key detour in LaVette's career occurred in 1978 when she did the musical
"Bubbling Brown Sugar" with Cab Calloway on Broadway. She appeared in
touring companies for the next six years.
"On Broadway, you have to make everything bigger than life," she said. "If
I had never done Broadway, I probably would just stand still and sing the
song. On Broadway, I walked differently. I held my body differently. If you
hold your arms up, they can't just be up. They have to be out!"
LaVette recalled that Calloway was "cantankerous" and didn't like most of
the young people in the cast. But he liked LaVette because she respected
the musical roots of "Bubbling Brown Sugar." She elaborated, "That was the
kind of show business I wanted to be in, but it was all over when I was
coming up. I wanted to work at The Cotton Club [in Harlem] and sing all
those old songs and wear those old gowns. He liked my attitude towards that.
"I'll tell you, if any of those records I made had sold, I never would have
had the opportunity to become this talented. I would have been leaning on
the hit records. But I had nothing to lean on but me -- so I had to make me
When: 9:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Back Porch Stage, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
Phone: (312) 923-2000