STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
The soulful R&B/blues singer Bettye LaVette says she wants to let people know that “I’m still alive, and viable and around.”
She lives up to that statement with “Worthy” (Cherry Red, 2015), her first album on her new label. It is a dynamic recording from the performer who is happy to still be doing what she loves.
We spoke by phone on Jan. 27, the date the album was released. It was to have been the first night of a 10-show run at The Carlyle in New York City, but she was snowed in at her home in West Orange, N.J. LaVette was about to celebrate her 69th birthday two nights later at The Carlyle. The New York dates were the beginning of a two-and-a-half month world tour, which stops at World Café Live in Philadelphia on Feb. 25.
“Worthy” reunited LaVette with Grammy Award–winning producer Joe Henry, with whom she shared the production duties; the two had first worked together on “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” (Anti, 2005). The liner notes for “Worthy,” written by Henry, describe his first meeting with LaVette and his “Come-to-Jesus moment,” after he initially declined her invitation to produce “Hell to Raise.”
It was that first Anti release that put LaVette on the map, so to speak, though she had been performing and recording since she was 16. Regrettably, Anti neglected to submit the album for Grammy consideration but they didn’t make the same mistake twice. LaVette’s subsequent albums “The Scene of the Crime” (Anti, 2007) and “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” (Anti, 2010) were both nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. And LaVette has taken home a number of other awards.
The 11 songs on “Worthy” are varied, with tracks penned by the likes of Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Randall Bramblett and Henry, among others. And if anything her age and experience enhances her vocal performances, while the overall production makes it sound anything but dated.
Ironically, Henry did not bring his song “Stop” to her for inclusion on the album; she brought it to him.
“When we got ready to do this (album) I said ‘Joe, I’ve got this tune that I’ve been trying to get them to let me record for 10 years now,’” referring to “Stop.” “And he said ‘I certainly will not stop you,’” (she laughed). “I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to do it with (Joe) because I was really trying to do it with whoever I was working with. I’ve been trying to do the tune ever since I heard it. Apparently no one understands it but Joe and (me).”
LaVette explained how the other songs were selected.
“Some of the songs I’ve had around. My husband and I keep an ongoing song collection. I’ve always kept a group of songs around that I would like to record at some point. When I hear songs that I want to do something with later or listen to again later (my husband will) put them in a file for me.”
LaVette began her musical career at age 16 in her hometown of Detroit. She has been performing and recording for more than 50 years.
“In 1962 (becoming a professional singer) was not a difficult thing to do. Two weeks before I had been [Betty Jo Haskins], a ninth-grade student and then I became Bettye LaVette.”
Thus, hers is certainly not an overnight success story. Nor is it a comeback.
“I don’t like saying that this is a comeback, because I’ve never been anywhere. It took me a long time to be heard of, that’s true. But I’ve never gone anywhere so I’m not coming back from anywhere. I’m (just) coming up from $50 a night to more.”
LaVette’s story is about not only talent but hard work, perseverance and adaptability.
“I know some stupid people in this business who walk around in ragged clothes and they’re still thinking something’s gonna happen. But nobody thinks that for 50 years,” she laughed. “So I wasn’t thinking this was gonna happen but I had taken my manager’s advice. I learned to be a good entertainer. I knew I was gonna work for the rest of my life. I just didn’t know (if) anybody was gonna know I was doing it.”
She added: “Somebody always wants somebody to sing somewhere. And the more I worked the broader I got, the more I knew. I’ve done every darn thing. I’ve recorded in Nashville, Memphis, L.A., New York, Chicago… all the noted places. And I’ve been in theatre, I won an Obie Award for a commercial. Whatever the gig called for that’s who I had to turn into. I learned to tap dance for Broadway. But none of my contemporaries have tap danced with Cab Calloway other than me. I’ve had to do everything. The success started 10 years ago but I didn’t.”
You can read more about LaVette’s fascinating life story in her book “A Woman Like Me” (Plume, 2012). The book has been licensed to become a film as well.
And catch her show at World Café Live while you have the chance, though it doesn’t look like she’ll be going anywhere any time soon.
IF YOU GO
What: Bettye LaVette
When: Wednesday, Feb. 25. 7:30 p.m. show; doors open at 6.
Where: World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia.
Info.: For more information, check www.philly.worldcafelive.com or call (215) 222-1400. More about LaVette at www.bettyelavette.com.