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What's so good about Bettye LaVette?
What makes a singer stand out? When does it become clear that a particular singer has got the goods? I find it a bit hard to describe, but if I was to try, I would say for me, it's the quality of the voice. The certain something which, from the first note to the last, grabs my attention and gives me shivers. Whatever this certain something may be, Bettye LaVette has got it.
Bettye LaVette was born Betty Jo Haskin in Muskegon, Michigan. By age 16 she was actively pursuing a career in show business. She changed her last name to LaVette and, over the next ten years, recorded a number of hit singles and toured with musicians like Ben E. King, Otis Redding and the James Brown Review. In 1972, she was sent to Los Angeles to record what was to be her first full length album. With the album done and a publicity tour booked, she was called at the last minute and told, with no explanation: "We have decided not to go forward with the project. Please return the plane tickets."
Twenty-eight years later, in 2000, two events propelled Bettye LaVette back into the spotlight: a French collector and label owner, while searching the Atlantic tape vaults, came up with the long-thought-lost tapes to the 1972 recording. He licensed the tracks and released them in France on his own Art & Soul label as Souvenirs. The same year, a Dutch fan recorded Bettye at a live show in Utrecht, Holland and released Let Me Down Easy-In Concert, on the Munich label. These two CDs, released almost simultaneously, created a renewed interest in Bettye, and showed that she was still in excellent voice.
I can see why, even after 28 years out of the mainstream spotlight (she was still busy recording the occasional album and performing for theatre and television), Bettye would once again be embraced by the music business and fans alike. I mean, listen to this:
I often wonder if it's an early exposure to gospel music which makes the difference - it seems so many of my favourite singers have some gospel in their past. And Bettye's performance above is imbued with something beyond just interpretation - I get a deep sense of connection with the song. She's not just reciting lyrics; it's as if she's feeling them. And that's what makes her so special as an artist. But don't just take my word for it - she was selected to perform as part of the inaugural celebrations in Washington for Barack Obama in 2009. Check it out:
Whether it's soul, R&B, gospel, blues or jazz, I so enjoy the passion with which Bettye LaVette performs. In her own words:
"I think people are too hung up over genres of songs. There really aren't genres of music, only genres of singers. The song 'Sparrow' by Dolly Parton was only considered country because she sang it that way. Had I sung it first, it would have been R&B. I don't care who sang it before me, whether it's Caruso or Tiny Tim. If I like it, I sing it."
And she always makes it her own.