On a recent afternoon in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Bettye Lavette sat at her kitchen table, a glass of chardonnay and a weed vape pen in front of her. As her favorite oldies played in the background – the Soul Stirrers, the Drifters – she told a story about one of the many industry giants who offered to boost her career. This one happened to be Pharrell Williams, who she ran into at an event on Long Island a few years ago. “He comes up to me and said, ‘I can produce you,’” Lavette recalls. “I said, ‘No, you can’t!’”
Most artists would jump at the offer of working with one of pop’s biggest hitmakers, but Lavette had reason to be skeptical. Broken promises have been a common theme during what she calls her “57-year-hustle.” There was the time, in the late sixties, when a producer told her he was going to make her the next Aretha Franklin, or the time Atlantic Records sent her to Muscle Shoals to record a big-budget album of what she was told would be “wall-to-wall hits” – but then shelved it. “Buzzard luck” is how she likes to describe these career-stalling mishaps – a label head getting fired, a manager getting robbed, another manager getting killed by the mob. “Every conceivable thing that could happen,” she says, cracking a smile. “And I didn’t get a chance to cause any of it!”
But lately, Lavette’s luck has been changing. It started happening around 2008, when, at age 62, Lavette was invited to the Kennedy Center to pay tribute to the Who. Her chilling, stripped-down version of “Love Reign O’er Me” brought Pete Townshend to tears, and went viral. Lavette had spent decades doing this sort of thing – taking a classic song and breathing new life into it with drama and imagination – see her 1972 cover of John Prine’s “Souvenirs.” The Kennedy Center Honors performance helped her get an invitation to perform at Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration (“The greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” she says). In the years since, she’s won several lifetime-achievement awards and settled into her role as an unparalleled interpreter of popular song, a Sinatra-like figure of the rock era, transforming material by everyone from Led Zeppelin to George Jones into her own tormented personal statements.
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Lavette’s latest album, Things Have Changed, featuring all Bob Dylan covers, which came out earlier this year, may be her best. Dylan covers albums have been a career move since the Sixties, when Joan Baez, Odetta and the Hollies put out their own, but Lavette manages to find new revelations in his catalog. She tackles Eighties deep cuts like “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “Emotionally Yours.” When she does sing famous Dylan tunes, like “It Ain’t Me Babe,” she takes extreme liberties. One highlight is “Ain’t Talkin’,” the closing track on 2006’s Modern Times. Lavette trimmed the lyrics by more than half. “I wanted ‘Ain’t Talkin’ to be sassy,” she says. “I thought, if you ain’t talkin’, then shut up! I mean, how are you going to say ‘I ain’t saying nothing’ and then keep saying it 84 times?” She turns 1964’s “Mama You Been on My Mind” into a grief-stricken torch song about her late mother. “I got so involved,” she says of that recording. “I really just changed the meaning of that song. I thought the words were too identifiable to me for them to be about what he wanted it to be about. I can’t think of a chick that deserves all of that, other than my mama, or his mama.”
Lavette says she didn’t mind reinventing the classic material. It probably helped that she doesn’t consider herself a particularly big Dylan fan. “The songs had to belong to me,” she said before the album was released. “I don’t tribute-ize anyone, I don’t cover nothing.”
Here in the Jersey suburbs, Lavette lives with her husband, Kevin Kiley, an antiques dealer and musician whom Lavette affectionately refers to as “daddy.” Kiley helps boost her spirits when her thoughts turn dark; a few years ago, when she was dissatisfied with the state of her career, Lavette came home to find that Kiley had refashioned a glass case in their home into a shrine to her career. He had gathered every album she’d ever recorded, a pioneer award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, and medals commemorating the three Grammy nominations. “I just sat there on the floor and cried,” Lavette says of seeing her life’s work gathered in one place. “I can’t believe that I’ve done that in this time.”
Nightlife has been part of Lavette’s life as long as she can remember. When she was a kid growing up in Detroit’s North End, her parents ran a juke joint out of the family home. After they got off work, they opened their doors to the city’s bustling black population, selling corn liquor and barbecue sandwiches. Visitors included the country’s biggest gospel stars – the Pilgrim Travelers, the Dixie Hummingbirds – who would enjoy listening to Lavette sing and dance along to the jukebox. “By the age of two, I could grind to the music,” Lavette wrote in her 2012 memoir, A Woman Like Me. She started thinking seriously about music at 13, after her family moved to a home directly across from Smokey Robinson, who was about to blow up on the local Motown label. “Smokey was a teenager, and he was black,” Lavette says. “So I thought, ‘Hey! I can dance, I’m cute and I can sing.’”
“Becoming a singer,” Lavette says, “took me a week.” She says this happened one Friday afternoon in 1962, when she met the local R&B singer Timmy Shaw. He introduced her to Johnnie Mae Matthews, the pioneering black female producer, songwriter and label owner known as the Godmother of Detroit Soul. Lavette recorded Matthews’ “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” which found its way to Atlantic Records giant Jerry Wexler. He loved it, and by the following week, the single was out. Listeners may have been surprised to learn that Lavette was only 16 – the upbeat track was suggestive, Lavette delivering her lines with a sensual maturity that felt at odds with the youthful innocence of her Motown contemporaries. “Berry Gordy didn’t think I was the sound of young America, and I wasn’t,” she says. “I was singing ‘my man,’ not ‘my boyfriend.’” But those lyrics were a perfect fit for Lavette, who by then was already married and had given birth to a daughter.
“My Man” became a Top 10 R&B hit, sending Lavette across the country touring on R&B revues with fellow emerging singers like Ben E. King and Otis Redding, both of whom, she’s said, she became romantically involved with. “Even though I’d just turned 16,” Lavette wrote later, “after recording ‘My Man,’ I instantly turned 21.”
But Lavette had trouble recreating the success of “My Man.” After she moved to New York, the home of Atlantic, her relationship with label president Wexler went sour. Convinced that she wasn’t being promoted properly, she walked out of her contract at age 18 – a decision that still pains her to this day. “Asking Jerry Wexler to be released from my contract without knowing where to go? I absolutely regret that,” she says.
“Somehow she got lost in the tail end of the soul era,” said Ry Cooder. “Perhaps she was just too ferocious for white taste.”
Lavette’s next chance came in 1965, when she released the noir-soul stomp “Let Me Down Easy,” a track James Brown was so jealous of, he allegedly forbade her from closing with it when they were on the same bill. But despite becoming a Top 20 R&B hit, the song never crossed over to the pop chart, which by then was dominated by the upbeat sounds of Motown. “Somehow she got lost in the tail end of the soul era,” longtime fan Ry Cooder once said of Lavette. “Perhaps she was just too ferocious for white taste. But she certainly is and was the greatest female soul singer, in a hardcore vein.”
The period that followed was one of Lavette’s lowest points. “The song I was singing was called ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ and believe me, I was singing to myself,” Lavette said in her book. Her relationship with the Mob-connected label that released “Let Me Down Easy” fizzled out. She became involved with a pimp and even briefly turned to prostitution. “I was a great groupie, but a horrible hooker,” she later wrote. Things started looking up in 1972, when Atlantic Records told her they wanted to re-sign her. They paired her with big-name producer Brad Shapiro, who brought her to Muscle Shoals to record Child of the Seventies. The album is considered a lost country-soul masterpiece, but for reasons that were never made clear to Lavette, it was shelved and remained unreleased for more than 30 years.
Lavette has never been religious. “My story,” she once wrote, “is one in which Jesus will not be making an appearance.” It’s one of the many ways in which the Detroit native has always felt like an outsider. “I gotta be the only rhythm & blues singer in the world who didn’t grow up singing in church,” she says.
One line of thinking that Lavette has never bought, not for a second, is the idea that everything happens for a reason. “I’ve tried to reason with that – it would make me feel so much better – but nope,” she says.
So how does Lavette explain her recent success? She says she became better with age. “It took me 25 years to learn how to sing,” she says. While for much of the Sixties she was merely trying her best to imitate her favorite voice Etta James, she started rethinking her approach to singing in the late 1970s, when she earned a role in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Bubbling Brown Sugar. The Broadway experience transformed Lavette as a performer. “It made me more versatile and broader,” she says. “I look different than all of my contemporaries on a stage. I know exactly how far my hand is reaching out when I reach. I know not to point. All of that comes from theater direction.”
“What Bettye does is extremely theatrical,” says Andy Kaulkin, the head of ANTI- Records “She is a dramatist. It’s not like she is up onstage simply singing songs; they are theatrical set pieces.” Lavette also thinks the hardships in her life found a way into her voice: “As things started to happen to me, I began to bring those feelings to the songs I was singing,” she says. “Now, what you hear when I sing is everything that happened.”
During the Eighties and Nineties, Lavette paid the bills with local bar and nightclub gigs. Whenever she returned to Detroit after an unsuccessful stint – in Muscle Shoals, in Memphis, in New Orleans, but most often in New York – she had to learn a new repertoire to be successful on the local club circuit. She learned whatever was on the charts at the time: Paul Simon, the Bee Gees, Anita Baker, Cyndi Lauper. Lavette’s many decades worth of experience gigging the nightclub circuit has made her critical of the quick routes to fame in the age of overnight sensations and television singing competitions. “You do not want to win some Star Search competition and then run into me drunk in a small bar with just a baby grand piano,” she says. “It won’t be a good thing.”
By the Nineties, Lavette had amassed a wide-ranging repertoire that she began fully showcasing to the studio when she signed with ANTI-, which released a series of Lavette’s critically acclaimed albums in the 2000s. She spends little time with original recordings, instead focusing on how she’s hearing the song in her head. “I try to get away from them as soon as I can,” she says. “You can’t cover songs, you can only cover records. Songs are just words on a piece of paper until somebody sings them.”
In her latest act (“my fifth career,” she calls it), Lavette has turned a number of rock’s most recognizable anthems into haunting first-person testimonials. She sings Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” as a tribute to her ex-husband’s struggle with multiple sclerosis. She turns “Wish You Were Here” into a tribute to her late Motown compatriots David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. For Things Have Changed, she printed out Dylan’s lyrics, listened to his original once or twice to get a basic sense of the melody, and improvised from there. More often than not, she will tweak the lyrics and melody to her liking. “Sometimes I will hear something in the melody of the song that is so sad, it makes me want to make the whole song sad,” she says. “I want the song to be the way I would say it to you if I were just saying the words.”
It’s not lost on Lavette that part of her magic is the way in which she reclaims the black rhythm & blues roots of the white-rock era. She ponders whether there may be a certain catharsis her white contemporaries feel when they hear her versions of their songs. “When I sing these songs back to them, I wonder, is that the way they heard them?” she says. “Not being black, they couldn’t present them that way, but maybe that’s how they heard them in their heart?”
Over the years, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John and James Taylor have sung Lavette’s praises. Keith Richards joined her in the studio to play guitar on Things Have Changed. “When you hear a voice like Bettye Lavette’s, there’s a sense of transportation…a certain freedom of movement and emotion that is rare,” Richards recently said. “How did Bettye Lavette slip through the net for so long?”
But today, Lavette is wondering, once again, if, at 72, her time has finally come. She’s finding it harder than ever to trust the lifelong cynicism she’s built up over the years. “It’s very hard to excite an old woman,” she says, before cracking a smile and pinching her fingers together. “But I’m this close to being excited.”