On Friday, March 21, award-winning singer-songwriter Bettye LaVette–rhythm and blues royalty–performs in Zankel Hall. LaVette launched her 50-year career with the hit single “My Man—He’s a Loving Man,” has appeared in the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, brought down the house at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, and published her autobiography in 2012. She’s back in smoking form with her album Thankful N' Thoughtful, a collection of songs by The Black Keys, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, and others.
Jay Ruttenberg writes about LaVette's roundabout ascension to the throne of R&B royalty.
In the fraternity of artists who got bum deals in their initial music industry
go-rounds only to burn bright in maturity, Bettye LaVette stands as a queen.
The dreamy achievements of her early years—charting R&B singles when her
contemporaries were learning to drive, touring alongside legends named Otis
and James—too often got overshadowed by the slights handed down by the
gods of record companies and timing. She is the type of singer who recorded a
debut album in the early 1970s, only to see it shelved until the early 2000s.
Were LaVette to tumble into the plot of a Nick Hornby novel, she would feel
right at home.
During the singer’s fruitful 21st-century renaissance, she has been in full-on
revisionist mode. Her albums include I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, featuring
material composed entirely by female songwriters, and The Scene of theCrime, which returned LaVette to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she
recorded the fateful LP that had been scrapped decades earlier. On
Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, she performed standards of the
British Invasion—well-trodden material that, one would assume, needed no
further airing. Yet LaVette does not cover songs; she disembowels them,
carefully twisting perspective and emphasis until they belong to her outright.
These are fresh creations with familiar words and melodies. Witness her
recording of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” from her 2012 album Thankful N’
Thoughtful: LaVette strips a pop hit of recent omnipresence of any
contemporary archness or sheen, rendering it desperate and weathered.
Why have this singer’s fortunes so improved with the years? Perhaps LaVette
makes the most sense as a veteran artist and a perennial underdog. Her voice
is certainly not that of some young angel—this music is gritty, knowing, blue
collar. She has a work ethic unique to those who have been gifted second acts.
People who attend cultural events around New York City are likely to stumble
upon her. I have seen LaVette sing as part of a starry charity event, in a tribute
show devoted to another musician, and at a studio taping of Late Show with
David Letterman. She has a way of popping up. But the performance that hit
me in the gut was the singer’s headlining concert in Madison Square Park. It
was a free show, with an audience that not only included fans, but also people
on their way home from work, young children of the Flatiron District, and
curious passersby. The musician voiced songs both familiar and obscure, then
introduced what was perhaps her set’s most known quantity: “Blackbird,”
from The White Album. “Who needs to hear this old number again?” I
thought. In a flash, she proved me wrong. LaVette dragged the tempo down
and seemed to crawl inside the song, acting as both singer and subject.
Everybody—kids, tourists, office workers—seemed to stop in their tracks to stare down the source of sound. And for a brief
moment, a bustling New York City park stood
© 2014 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
Jay Ruttenberg is the editor of the comedy journal The
Lowbrow Reader and of its book The Lowbrow Reader
Reader (Drag City). He has written for The New York
Times, Fashion Projects, and Mad magazine