A SOUND of Her Own

Bettye LaVette is a bona fide survivor. Though the Detroit native scored her first hit at age 16, she endured decades of heartache thereafter. Yes, she toured with Ben E. King, Otis Redding and James Brown, performed on Broadway with Cab Calloway, and cut records for esteemed labels Atlantic, Epic and Motown. But LaVette suffered her share of indignities, too. Her heralded debut full-length, Child of the Seventies, was shelved by Atco Records mere days before its 1972 release. Her 1982 Motown LP met the same fate when label president Lee Young Sr. was fired. In 1978, LaVette signed away the rights to her 1978 disco single, “Doin’ the Best that I Can,” only to see it sell 100,000 copies the next month.

Things finally improved for LaVette after the turn of the century, when soul fanatics and longtime fans helped resurrect her career. She won a W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Artist of the Year; for Anti-Records, she recorded four heralded albums, earning two Grammy nods and headlining at Barack Obama’s inaugural concert and Kennedy Center Honors for The Who in 2008. Now, the 71-year-old LaVette has a new three-album deal with Verve Records, an ass-kicking memoir, and the success she deserves. Her Ponte Vedra Concert Hall show, with local musician Billy Buchanan, is Thursday. We spoke to her recently and she happily riffed on all three subjects.

Folio Weekly: The first leg of your 2018 tour is billed as the Bettye LaVette Duo. How does performing in such an intimate manner benefit you?
Bettye LaVette: I’m trying to turn my book, A Woman Like Me, into a one-woman show. I’ll get to perform songs I don’t get a chance to do with my band a lot—maybe because they’re songs I used to do for $50 a night, maybe because they’re songs I recorded a long while ago. I try to cover the whole 57 years when I’m on stage. But I’ve always said that a voice is all you need to sell a song. My manager, Jim Lewis, taught me a long time ago to learn a song a cappella for myself first—that way, even though I can’t play an instrument, I can explain it to anyone.

In your book and in interviews, you speak openly about financial struggles, both past and present. Have things gotten better?
I am making more money than I ever have in my life, but it’s also costing me so much money to tour. If I didn’t have five people traveling with me, I’d be rich! [Laughs.] But, yes, I can finally have the things I want. I’ve got to be the oldest living person with a new record contract for the biggest record label in the world. For an old broad, I’m pretty happy right now.

You’re famous for covering others’ songs. How do you pour so much of yourself into works by other artists?
It starts with that one key word: cover. I don’t start out with that premise. I don’t cover songs; I’m a song interpreter, a song stylist. I don’t listen to the radio. I’m not a music enthusiast. But I’ve collected songs over the years. Sometimes it takes me years to record them. I’ve got maybe 100 more left I want to record. The main thing that draws me to a song is the melody, followed by the lyric. What amazes me is when people sound like other people. That’s like copying somebody’s argument.

The new 2018 album is all Bob Dylan songs.
And you’re probably just as shocked as I still am! It was … a built-in part of my deal with Verve. After I found out how difficult it was going to be, it became interesting. I’m really excited for people to hear how unusual it is.

You’ve worked in many different musical genres. Do they intersect for you, or do they each still sound different?
They sound different to me, but not for me. My Motown album was different than anything Motown ever recorded. My sound hasn’t changed at all—it’s only blown up. When I did a disco record, I sounded like I do now; when I did a country record, I sounded like I do now. With my first record, 1964’s My Man, all I wanted was to get on American Bandstand. I had everything going for me: I was cute, I was a teenager, my record was out on a big label and in the charts … But when I sang, it was too salacious for a 16-year-old. For a long time, the way I approached my songs was a hindrance. When everybody was trying to sound like a little girl, I knew I was in big trouble—I sounded too much like James Brown, even when I was a girl! I don’t conform to any sounds. I’ve just done my best to have people structure the prevailing sound around me.

Did you believe the music industry would catch up to you?
I had resigned myself to the fact that it was never going to happen. But again, [manager] Jim told me when I was 17, “I cannot guarantee you will be a star. But if you learn how to sing a wide variety of good songs and sing them well, you can do this until you die.” I believed that—I knew singing was all I was ever going to do. Never even entertained doing anything else. I just didn’t think I’d ever make money doing it.