For LaVette, long-overdue change comes
> Soul singer’s years of struggle yield to appearances in biggest musical spotlights
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.