Although it is still not a given that your average music fan is already familiar with Bettye LaVette, she is now no longer a diamond in the rough. LaVette has been all over the place recently, with a Grammy nomination for her last album and blow-away, standout performances at the Kennedy Center Honors Ceremony for The Who and the The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, so this digital-only EP comes at an interesting point in her career.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the back story of LaVette, here is a condensed (albeit still quite long) version; ushered into a recording studio at the age of 16 by a local producer in 1962, she scored a Top 10 hit with “My Man – He’s a Loving Man” when Atlantic Records bought the record and put some muscle behind it. Musically untrained (she had never sung in church or in school before), LaVette was blessed with one of the rawest, most powerful soul voices of all-time. She wails, moans and groans with such an intensity of motion that sh makes every song she sings her own. However, instead of going in the pantheon of the greatest singers of all-time with Aretha Frankin and Tina Turner, LaVette doggedly searched for success for the next 40 years. With stints on dozens of labels, a bevy of released and unreleased singles, an aborted album recorded in Muscle Shoals, and a few years spent singing on Broadway she achieved only a few minor successes, most notably on the Calla label in 1965 (“Let Me Down Easy” — her signature tune) and in the 1980s when she signed to Motown and hit the charts with “Right In the Middle (of Falling in Love).”
In the 1990s, LaVette had mostly given up recording and touring and was making a living playing the club circuit in Detroit and the surrounding area. However, the turn of the century brought a renewed interest in LaVette, starting with a French record collector uncovering the shelved Muscle Shoals album and giving it a US-release. Suddenly LaVette was back in fashion, with the shiny A Woman Like Me produced by Dennis Walker (of Robert Cray) followed by two records for the highly diverse, artist-driven Anti label (the first with Joe Henry producing and featuring only female songwriters, the second with members of the Southern rock band The Drive-by Truckers and some former session players in Muscle Shoals). In recent years, LaVette has been a consistent presence on the festival circuit as well becoming a successful, touring act.
Which brings us up to the present. After decades of suffering through one horrible record deal after another, LaVette has finally achieved a degree of success. Since her last record, she has made two high-profile TV appearances that absolutely astounded her audiences (see below).
Now, for the current record in question (which I seemed to have sidetracked quite a bit from)–its quite good, like almost everything LaVette has put to tape. If there is anyone that sounds as good singing “Change is Gonna Come” as Sam Cooke, it’s Bettye LaVette. Featuring strong, sympathetic musicians who put the singer front and center (like all of her recent full-lengths), the style comes off as minimalist, piano-led forays into (alternatingly) R&B and jazz. The title cut will quite a bit of attention given her performance of it at the Obama Inaugural and the innate power such a well known song has. However, the other standouts are, somewhat surprisingly, two of the jazz standards featured here — “God Bless the Child” and “Lush Life.” Both have lyrics that are incredibly well suited to LaVette, and, freed from the structure of pop and R&B, LaVette can fully show off her interpretive talents in an incredibly appealing way. The musicians, who often seem to be painting by numbers through the more straightforward numbers like “Change” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” (although they still sound quite good), really get inventive and intense on the jazz numbers as well.
Anyway, the bottom line is this an excellent LP by one of the most amazing singers alive. If you haven’t heard of her before, it’s worth getting to know her.