If a trail of neglected masterworks scattered over four decades isn’t enough, 60-year-old R&B empress Bettye LaVette has lots of famous pals to remind her of her crooked career path. As she prepares to take the stage at New York’s Ed Sullivan Theater one July afternoon, the past is all around. ”In the dressing room were pictures of my best friends from Detroit,” says the Michigan native, referring to Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. ”I thought about how long behind them it took me to walk on that stage.”
Not for lack of trying. Since 1962, when she put out her first single, the top 10 R&B hit ”My Man — He’s a Good Man,” LaVette has released dozens of singles without ever scoring a top 100 pop hit. In 1972 she finally recorded her first LP, the swamp-funk Child of the Seventies, only to have it shelved by Atco/Atlantic for nearly 30 years. Another decade elapsed before an LP was actually released: 1982’s Tell Me a Lie. Still, it wasn’t until 2000, when French label Art and Soul retitled and released her ’72 disc (as Souvenirs), that awards and real attention started coming her way.
And so it is David Letterman — and not Ed Sullivan — who shakes LaVette’s hand after she transforms Dolly Parton’s ”Little Sparrow” into a threatening storm. It’s a taste of the fierce intensity she whips up on covers of songs by Aimee Mann, Sinéad O’Connor, and Lucinda Williams on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (Anti-). Produced by Joe Henry, who masterminded Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning Don’t Give Up on Me, the album came about when the head of indie label Anti- saw LaVette perform in San Francisco and signed her on the spot. According to the singer, Raise is the album she’s been revving up for since she was a teen.
”I wouldn’t have become this proficient at my craft had I had any success. I feel like it’s taken me 44 years to make this work,” she says, before admitting she wasn’t always so enlightened: ”Do you think I sounded like this when Atco wouldn’t release my record?” She laughs. ”I was very, very drunk and crying a lot of the time.”