For LaVette, long-over­due change comes

> Soul singer’s years of strug­gle yield to ap­pear­ances in big­gest mu­si­cal spot­lights

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Music - By Bob Mehr


For Bet­tye LaVette, “The Great Lady of Soul,” it has been a year of hard-won change and long-over­due recog­ni­tion.

On Tues­day, LaVette will per­form, along with O’Jays singer Ed­die Lev­ert, at the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum’s Free­dom Awards gala.

The an­nual cer­e­mony, at the Can­non Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, will honor the life and work of for­mer NAACP chair­woman Myr­lie Evers Wil­liams, bas­ket­ball great Julius “Dr. J” Erv­ing, and the Dalai Lama.

For the Michi­gan-born LaVette, the op­por­tu­nity to ap­pear at such events has fi­nally made her decades of pro­fes­sional strug­gle worth­while.

A teen vo­cal tal­ent in the early ’60s, LaVette en­joyed some suc­cess with early sin­gles like “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man” and “Let Me Down Easy,” but failed to re­ally break as big as her Detroit soul con­tem­po­raries.

Af­ter her ca­reer stalled with an un­re­leased al­bum recorded in Mus­cle Shoals, Ala., in the early ’70s, LaVette spent the next 30 years play­ing small gigs and sup­per clubs, be­fore fight­ing her way back to promi­nence.

Since she made a ca­reer come­back in 2003, LaVette has en­joyed both a crit­i­cal and pop­u­lar resur­gence, with a se­ries of stu­dio al­bums and high-pro­file con­cert ap­pear­ances

How­ever, for LaVette, the crown­ing mo­ment came this past Jan­uary when she per­formed at the in­au­gu­ral party of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, singing a duet on Sam Cooke’s civil rights an­them “A Change is Gonna Come” with pop star Jon Bon Jovi.

With some 800,000 peo­ple watch­ing live at the foot of the Lin­coln Memo­rial and mil­lions more view­ing on tele­vi­sion, it was, as you might ex­pect, a pretty heady mo­ment for the 63year-old LaVette.

“I’m stand­ing there at the feet of Abra­ham Lin­coln, and there were more peo­ple watch­ing me in that one mo­ment than had prob­a­bly ever seen me in my whole 48-year ca­reer — which is the length of the pres­i­dent’s life,” says LaVette.

Given her well-doc­u­mented strug­gles, the mo­ment was un­ex­pected in many ways.

“There was a point where I thought there would never be any­thing hap­pen­ing in my ca­reer again. But I still thought I’d prob­a­bly be a star be­fore we’d have a black pres­i­dent,”

she says laugh­ing.

Soon af­ter the in­au­gu­ral, LaVette went into the stu­dio to record the Cooke clas­sic, as well a hand­ful of other ma­jor tracks penned by African-Amer­i­can artists, in­clud­ing Bill Withers, Th­elo­nious Monk, Duke Elling­ton and Jimmy Reed. The re­sults were re­leased as a spe­cial dig­i­tal EP, A Change Is Gonna Come Ses­sions, in July.

“The (inau­gu­ra­tion) was the first time I’d ever sung the song be­fore in my life,” says LaVette of the Cooke tune. “And I cer­tainly would not have thought of record­ing it, con­sid­er­ing that vir­tu­ally every­one I’ve known in my en­tire life has, but I think it came out nicely.”

The EP serves as a stop­gap un­til the release of LaVette’s next full length, due in early 2010. She has just wrapped work on the disc, her third LP for the hip Los An­ge­les bou­tique la­bel Anti-records.

Fol­low­ing on the heels of 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise (fea­tur­ing songs by con­tem­po­rary fe­male writ­ers) and 2007’s Scene of the Crime (which brought her back to her old Mus­cle Shoals stomp­ing ground), LaVette says her forth­com­ing al­bum is a an­other con­cep­tual af­fair, and per­haps her great­est mu­si­cal de­par­ture yet, but she re­mains mum on the specifics.

“It’s so dif­fer­ent I can’t tell you,” she says, chuck­ling. “What­ever con­cepts I’ve ap­proached be­fore, they weren’t as dif­fer­ent as this one.”

An­other ac­co­lade for LaVette came re­cently, when the Stax Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Soul Mu­sic asked her to be one of the artists fea­tured in a new exhibit high­light­ing the work of pho­tog­ra­pher Ja­cob Blick­en­staff.

The exhibit, which opens at the mu­seum in early Novem­ber, will fea­ture im­ages of a host of soul stars, and fi­nally makes LaVette an honorary mem­ber of the Stax fam­ily.

“You know, I couldn’t get a deal with Stax back in the day. But I knew ev­ery­body there when it started. It was a great pain for me not to be able to get them on the phone, or (record) with any of my friends. So for them to call me now, well I was very sur­prised and very flat­tered. I have ab­so­lutely no busi­ness be­ing there … but I kinda do,” she says, laugh­ing. “And I’m go­ing to be there fi­nally.”

For LaVette, the re­wards of the past few years have been many, none more grat­i­fy­ing than the op­por­tu­nity to be her­self.

“I’ve had to be many Bet­tye LaVettes wait­ing for my name to be called. I’ve had to learn how to tap dance, how to sing with just a pi­ano in a club that seated 60 peo­ple. I’ve had to learn to open for a huge star where there were thou­sands of peo­ple scream­ing who didn’t want to see me,” she says. “But now, I’m get­ting to a place where all th­ese things are hap­pen­ing, and peo­ple are com­ing to see Bet­tye LaVette. So I can fi­nally be me.”

Bet­tye LaVette, who will per­form at the Na­tional Civil Rights Mu­seum’s Free­dom Awards on Tues­day, sees her hard-won suc­cess as the op­por­tu­nity to fi­nally be her­self on­stage.

This past Jan­uary, LaVette per­formed at Pres­i­dent Obama’s in­au­gu­ral party.

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