Bettye LaVette had only one Top 10 R&B hit — “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” recorded in 1962 when she was 16 — but unlike many other singers of her generation who threw in the towel because they were unable to sustain such success, she never stopped performing.
“As long as I’ve been in the industry, somebody has asked me to record or come and sing somewhere,” the Michigan-born vocalist, just back from a European tour, says by phone from her home in New Jersey. “It just wasn’t often enough, and it wasn’t big enough.”
Since signing with Anti- Records in Southern California five years ago, LaVette has again been attracting national attention, and she reached an international television audience of millions with her stunning duet with Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” at President-elect Barack Obama’s January 18, 2009, inaugural celebration. And her new CD, “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” released May 25, has drawn more critical acclaim than any other recording of her 48-year career.
“Ms. LaVette, 64, now rivals Aretha Franklin as her generation’s most vital soul singer,” Jon Pareles wrote in the May 24 issue of the New York Times. She has performed on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “Late Night with David Letterman” in recent weeks, and she’ll be on “Good Morning America” on July 6 and is also slated to appear on “The Tavis Smiley Show” early this month.
On “Interpretations,” LaVette applies her unique, emotionally intense touch to tunes associated with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Moody Blues, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Elton John and others. “We need leaders, but we get gamblers instead,” she moans over a gentle horn cushion during the Stones’ “Salt Of The Earth,” adding, as she alters the lyrics even further, “Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter whose empty eyes gaze at reality shows, and a stream of gray-suited grafters give you a choice of cancer, HIV, or who knows.”
“The way things are coming together now, I can connect with all my groups of people,” says LaVette, who will perform at 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 14, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. “I have a whole group of people from the ‘60s who are all-black. Then I have a whole other group of people from when I was doing ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar’ (in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s), who don’t know anything about my records. I have a whole other group from the gay community who knows me from the one disco record that I had, ‘Doin’ the Best That I Can.’ People know me from when I worked locally around Detroit and New Orleans.
“With the inaugural thing, I’ve been able to reconnect with my black audience and join them with the young audience and the European audience and the white audience. It’s beginning to look like a real audience.”
Send comments and story ideas to Lee Hildebrand at LeeHilde@aol.com.