Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the great soul interpreters of her generation,” five-time Grammy nominee Bettye LaVette is a vocalist who can take any type of song – jazz or country, pop or rhythm & blues – and make it her own. LaVette’s commitment to artistry has earned the admiration of musical peers such as Jon Bon Jovi (“she doesn’t just sing the song, she lives in each of them”) and Bonnie Raitt, who praised her as “one of the most incredible R&B singers singing today…a force of nature.” Over the course of her remarkable, six-decade career, LaVette has sung for President Obama, published an autobiography, placed six records on the rhythm & blues charts, and starred in a hit musical. And, as proven by Blackbirds, her second recording for the legendary Verve label, she continues to scale new artistic heights.
Born Betty Jo Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan, LaVette moved at a young age to Detroit’s North End, where her neighbors included 1950s music stars such as Jackie Wilson. In 1962, at the age of 16, she stepped into a recording studio for the first time and the result was a top 10 rhythm & blues hit, “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man.” Released on Atlantic Records, a leader in African American popular music, the song made LaVette an overnight star. LaVette returned to the charts in 1965, with “Let Me Down Easy,” a haunting ballad that for years became her signature song. 1969 brought another hit, “He Made a Woman out of Me” – a classic of Memphis soul that showcased LaVette’s vocal timbre and masterful sense of timing.
After her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies, was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic in 1972 (it would finally be released in 2000), LaVette turned to the theatrical stage, appearing in a national tour of Broadway’s Bubbling Brown Sugar. In 1982, she signed with her hometown label, Motown, to release Tell Me a Lie. The album’s hit single, “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love),” brought LaVette a new round of critical and popular acclaim. By the start of the 1990s she had become a regular performer on the UK’s “northern soul” scene, where British music lovers made collector’s items of her 1960s singles. All the while, she was asserting herself as a contemporary artist: 2003’s A Woman Like Me won the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year.
The success of A Woman Like Me marked the onset of LaVette’s career revival. In 2005 she signed with ANTI- Records for I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of songs from female writers. Three ANTI- releases followed, along with several events that rank as career highlights. In 2006 she received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Then, in December 2008, LaVette delivered her rendition of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors, as the audience watched in astonishment. The following January, she performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi as part of Barack Obama’s inaugural celebrations.
Things Have Changed, an album of Bob Dylan songs produced by Steve Jordan, marked LaVette’s Verve debut in 2018. It received two Grammy nominations. Blackbirds, whose release will coincide with LaVette’s induction into the Blues Music Hall of Fame, represents a further step in her artistic evolution. Working again with producer Jordan, who also plays drums, and a group of celebrated musicians (Smokey Hormel on guitar, Monty Croft on vibes, bassist Tom Barney and veteran keyboardist Leon Pendarvis), LaVette delivers impassioned readings of songs associated with African American female vocalists of the 1950s. Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge,” which was suggested for LaVette by the original writer, Angelo Badalamenti, captures the defiance we associate with Simone while adding warmth and hopefulness. “Save Your Love for Me,” popularized by Nancy Wilson, reflects LaVette’s development as a vocal stylist who, through the warmth and precision with which she caresses each lyric, creates the kind of intimate mood once associated with smoky nightclubs and after-hours spots. Meanwhile, “Strange Fruit,” first performed by Billie Holiday, is a harrowing critique of American racism that still says much about the country today.
“I didn’t want to do it in any way that had been done before,” LaVette says of “Strange Fruit” – an explanation that speaks to her process for the album as a whole – “but I wanted it to be dramatic.” The ideal, she adds, is for “your interpretation to be as interesting as that original one.” To that end, LaVette chose songs that she could personalize into reflections of her own experience. Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird,” while anomalous in that it isn’t connected with a particular female vocalist, nonetheless fits into the project’s scope because it speaks for the struggles faced by these women – LaVette’s musical forbears – as they worked to build and maintain their careers. “All my life,” LaVette sings, shifting McCartney’s original lyrics into the first person, “I have waited for this moment to arrive.” In curating the songs for Blackbirds, LaVette has established a dialogue with the great women who preceded her while reaffirming herself as a vital, living presence.