“This is my fourth career,” Bettye LaVette, the soul singer, jokes as we begin our interview ahead of her residency at New York City’s Café Carlyle.
LaVette was a sixteen year old from Detroit when she cut her first single, 1962s My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man. Jerry Wexler, the famed head of Atlantic Records heard it and got behind the promotion and it became a minor R&B hit. In fact, it’s still beloved by Northern Soul fans, a highly sought after early highpoint of a career that, remarkably, didn’t take off until about 10 years ago when, after bouncing around the music business for decades, LaVette connected with famed producer Joe Henry for the album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005.
An interpreter of songs in the truest sense of the word, the album began a new chapter in LaVette’s career. She remade songs by everyone from Fiona Apple to the Rolling Stones, brought down the house with Love Reign O’er Me when the Kennedy Center honored The Who, appeared at President Obama’s 2009 inaugural and stole the show at the David Lynch Foundation’s concert featuring a reunion of none other than Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, also in 2009.
I caught LaVette at the Carlyle the day after her sixty-ninth birthday. The upscale, intimate venue was the perfect place to showcase up close her unmatched phrasing and intense voice. Featuring songs from 2010s stellar Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook and her other recent, excellent albums alongside her brand new album Worthy, LaVette brought down the house.
I spoke with LaVette about a week before her Carlyle residency began, in a conversation where she happily discussed her long history in the music business and all the ups and downs she experienced along the way, as well as her unmistakable gift for getting inside a song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I saw you at the David Lynch Foundation concert with Paul and Ringo and I told you afterward that I thought you stole the show. On top of Obama’s inaugural and the Kennedy Center tribute to The Who the late 00s were a remarkable time for you. You’d been around for more than 40 years at that point. Did it feel like things were finally falling into place?
Bettye LaVette: Oh no, no, no. I didn’t at all. I didn’t see it instantly. I certainly consider the President of the United States to be bigger than the Beatles, but each one of those events was very special. I was just fortunate. I always look at it, or I’ve come to look at it like recently, as just a bunch of things I was fortunate enough to be a part of. Over my career I’ve had a whole gang of things that happened to me that were very, very bad. When I recount them to people they say, “What, what?” But if I recounted things to you like doing the Kennedy Center, which then got me the inaugural thing, you’d also say, “What?” They happened the exact same way. Those remarkable events were just a few in a very long career. But there were a whole bunch of other things going on, like records selling in Europe (in the 2000s). There was a lot going on that pulled things together. It wasn’t any one singular thing. But still, 800 million people saw the inaugural festival.
Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s a big moment, isn’t it?
Bettye LaVette: You know, I would think that was my biggest moment. The next one was the Kennedy center. Then the Radio City thing. I think all of those things…because they were so big…I didn’t have one big thing happen like selling a billion records or winning Star Search or whatever. I had a lot of things that were smaller happen. I had a bunch of things happened to me that added up to one big thing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, I think that’s a testament to the fact that over the years you built a career amongst musicians and people who have good taste and knew who you were. Those things built on each other over the years and created opportunity, too.
Bettye LaVette: They certainly have. That’s exactly how it happened. That is one of the components. The things that are being built each time one of my records sold. Certainly the Northern Soul crowd – and their love of Let Me Down Easy – have done a yeoman’s job. That brought me into contact with a little record company in Holland, which got me another little one. I had these three records come out at the same time and, if you put them all together, they still wouldn’t be big enough. But because they all happened at the same time, it let everybody in two or three segments know that I was still alive and I was recording. A whole gang of little things happened, but they had been years in the making. Almost everybody in every one of those things happened because of somebody who has known me for almost 20 years.
Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s interesting that you bring up the Northern Soul thing. That was where I really discovered you, via your older music.
Bettye LaVette: I’ve seen music grow in various generations, but Let Me Down Easy is the only thing I’ve ever seen that the same people kept buying over and over.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Hey, you gotta love those die-hards.
Bettye LaVette: Indeed.