“I call this my fifth career,” soul singer Bettye LaVette told the audience at The Hamilton Live recently, “because it’s stopped and started so much.”
Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946, she began her recording when she was just a teenager, in 1962. Over the years, she’s endured the failures of record labels and other career mishaps, only to achieve real breakthrough success around the turn of the century. The start of that “fifth stage,” she noted, came with a song written producer Dennis Walker, best known for his work with blues artist Robert Cray: “A Woman Like Me.”
Over a six-decade career, Bettye has recorded a performed a remarkably eclectic range of material. Her roots are in R&B which, she explained, “is derivative of blues, but is not blues.” Early on, she moved to Los Angeles, where she befriend R&B icon Della Reese, even borrowing money from her; the two met through a mutual friend, Mack Rice, who wrote the classic hit “Mustang Sally.” On her Feb. 16 show at The Hamilton Live, she performed Della’s “Blues for the Weepers,” as well as Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge” and Dinah Washington’s “Drinking Again.” A remix of her own “Let Me Down Easy,” originally recorded in 1964, recently charted. Other songs that would fall into the broad category of R&B from the set included “You Don’t Know Me At All,” and “Either Way We Lose,” which was written by producer Steve Buckingham for her little-heard Motown album.
As great as the soul and R&B songs are, what really sets Bettye’s show apart is the diversity of material. Noting that Lucinda Williams has been ill, she performed a dynamite interpretation of her killer song “Joy.” (In late 2020, Williams had a stroke; she is currently scheduled to be back on tour in late spring and early summer, opening for Bonnie Raitt.) John Prine’s “Souvenirs,” from his eponymous 1972 album, came later in the set; Bettye told a great story about getting to hang out with him a few years ago at the Grammys, before he passed away, complete with some delightfully grouchy bits about the younger and their “blue hair.” Lest you think this isn’t diverse enough, the last number of the main set, before the encore, was Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream.”
Watch Bettye LaVette perform live for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert on YouTube:
Bettye lifted the title of her CD I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, which is made up of songs exclusively by written by women, from it. Bettye also did an entire record of Dylan interpretations, Things Have Changed; she opened her set with the title cut, and later performed “Ain’t Talking.” Introducing the latter, she told the audience, “I said I would never go on stage wearing glasses and I would never go to bed smelling like Ben-Gay.” While she was working on the album, she found that the density of the language finally forced to accept glasses; while she was waiting for her final pair, she had to wear a set of temporaries that were so dark they made her “look like Blind Lemon Jefferson.”
The title cut of the the latest record, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird, came in the encore. Early in the set, she welcomed the audience to the “beginning of the world tour for my new CD, which is now three years old.” The CD, she noted, “came out the week” the pandemic began in America. She also landed, rather unfortunately, a commercial for Corona beer, which only aired once. When she first heard McCartney sing “Blackbird,” Bettye said, “I thought he was singing about me.”
To end the evening, Bettye and her band performed a rousing cover of Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lot of Shaking Goin’ On.” Even with six decades of hard road behind, Bettye is still going strong as ever, in fine voice, and full of attitude and energy.