When Bettye LaVette strode onstage as part of a musical tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend during last December’s Kennedy Center Honors, she knew that, as she puts it, “90 percent of the people didn’t know who I was.” By the time she’d finished tearing through a heart-stopping rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” it was obvious that 100 percent of the people wouldn’t ever forget her.
LaVette begins a two-night stand at Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley on Tuesday, September 1 that is among the must-see shows of the year. She’s one of the fiercest, finest soul artists in the business.
Talking to her a few months ago, I asked LaVette if she’d been able to catch a tape of that Kennedy Center broadcast—which included the sight of Townshend in ecstatic admiration, mouthing words of praise from the balcony as if LaVette could hear him, and fellow honoree Barbra Streisand looking pleasantly stunned.
“Now, do you really believe that isn’t my favorite part of the footage?” LaVette cackled in response. “I already know how the song went. But that’s my favorite part of the footage. That was the culmination of many tears. You know—the times that I’ve seen them on television and wished that I could’ve been seen in that setting. Aretha Franklin was sitting right there in front of me. If I never sing anything else, I am cool with it.”
LaVette grew up in Detroit, began her career as a teenager with a couple of hits (including “Let Me Down Easy”) in the 1960s but spent decades wandering through an entertainment industry that didn’t quite know what to do with her. A female voice with a serrated edge was too hard to handle. She tried Broadway, recorded disco. Finally, her 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise turned the tunes of women songwriters (Sinead O’Connor, Dolly Parton) into soulful personal statements. Her 2007 CD The Scene of the Crime opened with the proclamation “I’ve been this way too long to change now.” She meant it.
“I feel now, as things go along and change—and I’m looking at them clearer now because I’m not looking through teary eyes—that it’s turned out to help me that I didn’t sound like everybody else,” LaVette told me. “Whereas then I needed to sound a little more generic or I needed to be all the way on the other side like Billie Holiday. Berry Gordy felt my voice was too gruff for a woman for the Motown sound. It was hard—Stevie Wonder and David Ruffin were over there and everybody had to be a little smoother.”
But it was LaVette’s excoriating power that the producer of the Kennedy Center show appreciated when he heard her cover Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” on a YouTube video from The Tonight Show. He asked her to sing for The Who, the success of which led to another prime gig: performing at President Obama’s pre-inaugural concert—a duet with Jon Bon Jovi to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (“There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/but now I think I’m able to carry on”).
“I was singing as much to myself as the event—or testifying, more or less,” LaVette recalled, then laughed at the enormity of it: “I was being seen by the largest audience that I had ever been seen by in my entire life if you put the whole 48 years together. My career is the same age as the new President. So much was going on for me that had happened before Bon Jovi had been born.”
You can download the Cooke classic and five others that LaVette recorded recently for iTunes. But you have to hear her live—she digs down deep inside each song, every word, and sweats her way back out. It took a while to get her band to see the benefits of such blatant drama.
“When you’ve got a bunch of guys who work in bars every night—well, it’s kind of like trying to get a guy to wear makeup,” she explained. “But then when they see me doing it and they see how the people react, they want to be a part of it. I say, You have to live in the moment. You have to get into that physically and let that happen to you, whatever it is I’m singing about—let it happen to you.”
It looks like it takes a lot out of LaVette.
“Oh, it absolutely does,” she agreed. “And I’m little, too! You should see me now. I look like I’ve been rode hard and put up wet. We just came from a grueling tour. And now that my reputation is preceding me, I almost have to come with that energy whether I have it or not. But it’s good. I’ve wanted people to know that I could do this for so long. And I have so many people yet to introduce myself to. I feel absolutely like I’m still saying, Hi, my name is Bettye LaVette.”
Here’s that career-changing Kennedy Center performance: