In the last decade, a number of older soul and blues singers have experienced late-career rebirths. The Daptone label has released successful albums from Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. Betty Wright recorded an album with the Roots. The Truth and Soul label has a belter of their own in Lee Fields. Bettye LaVette is another such singer. She recorded her first tune at age 16; she’s now 66. With the exception of Betty Wright, who had a few hits in the early ‘70s, these singers largely struggled in obscurity for most of their careers. But persistence can pay off.
As a young singer, LaVette had a few minor hits, most notably “Let Me Down Easy” in 1965. In a moment of frustration, she supposedly walked away from Atlantic Records and the chance to work with a young producer by the name of Burt Bacharach. She eventually went back to Atlantic, and recorded an album at the famed Muscle Shoals studio, known for handling all manner of explosive voices (Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, the Staples Singers, Clarence Carter), but the single didn’t do that well and the rest of the album never got released. Blues and deep-soul, the musical forms for which LaVette’s voice was best suited, were on the way out. The new popular black musical forms were funk and disco, but rather than trying to adapt, LaVette stuck to her guns, which didn’t help her career.
Like most things, music moves in cycles, and in recent years, LaVette has experienced a resurgence. In 2007, she went back to Muscle Shoals to record an album with the Drive-By Truckers as her backing band. Then she gained positive press from her cover of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy center. LaVette took the wildly operatic track (from the wildly over-the-top album Quadrophenia), originally driven by synthesizers, crashing cymbals, and a screaming Roger Daltrey, and stripped it down to easy blues rock, dominated by organ and guitar. Then she applied her blistering vocals, which made Daltrey sound like the lead singer of a local bar-band. To capitalize on this performance, she produced an album’s worth of covers of British rock songs in 2010, entitled Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. Two thousand and twelve marks the 50th year of LaVette’s singing career, and she celebrated by releasing another covers album, Thankful N’ Thoughtful, and co-writing an autobiography.
LaVette’s career renaissance has been accompanied by some pretty hyperbolic praise. The New York Times boldly suggested that she was competing with Aretha Franklin for the title of “her generation’s most vital soul singer.” The New Yorker called her “the last great vernacular black singer” (why can’t there be another one, and who says there aren’t several out there right now?). Famous musician Ry Cooder glossed over a number of superlative singers when he stated, “she is and was the greatest female soul singer in a hardcore vein.” While these comparisons seem a little over-blown, there is no denying that LaVette has a hell of a voice. On Thankful N’ Thoughtful – as on her other work – it’s a massive, destructive, ragged thing. It can knock you over like a ton of gravel or break you down into a shivering heap. It’s the kind of voice that makes writers scramble over one another to talk about authenticity, the real blues, and the good old days.
But you need more than just a voice to be great, and you need a lot more than just a voice if you want to be dropped in the same sentence as Aretha Franklin. You need songs of the jaw-dropping juggernaut variety, where the voice fuses with rhythm and melody to become something unstoppable and greater than the sum of its parts. LaVette is capable of these, but her recent work hasn’t shown it.
Ever since the Kennedy Center performance, LaVette’s music has been predominantly covers of classic songs, often songs written by famous white singers. On Thankful N’ Thoughtful, she branches out more, covering newer artists like Gnarls Barkley and the Black Keys and black artists such as Sly Stone in addition to white classic rock standbys such as a Neil Young. Her approach is relatively consistent – she takes a tune and makes it bluesier, often by slowing it down, pumping up thick guitar, and applying her raspy, gaspy, immolating vocals on top. This approach bets on her ability to use her impressive voice to reshape and redefine well-known songs.
Sometimes the bet pays off, sometime it doesn’t. Her arrangement of Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” hues pretty close to the original (she has mined Young’s catalog for material before, covering “Heart of Gold” in 1972). Young’s track is a stunning display of relaxed power, and LaVette doesn’t really know what to do with it – she’s not about relaxation, she’s about fire and grit. She also goes for Sly Stone’s “Thankful N’ Thoughtful”. The original is unbelievably funky, with a wonderful horn part. LaVette transfers most of the melody to the guitar, which is less flexible. She comes up with a fine song, but Sly’s loose and unpredictable arrangement, as well as his wild vocals, make LaVette’s take seem pretty tame.
LaVette does better when attacking newer songs. Despite her previously displayed willingness to completely rework a classic rock standard, it could be that she’s scared to mess with the original versions of songs by singers as famous as Neil Young or Sly Stone. She doesn’t display any fear when taking on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”. She stretches everything out and wails away on top of a minimal pulse of guitar and organ. It sounds like she’s biting someone’s head off when she sings “I think you’re crazy,” and the whole gist of the song is well-suited to her favored style of delivery.
When working with new songs, she also finds songs that are better suited for her to cover, like the Black Keys’ “I’m Not the One”. The melody is beautifully simple, just a keyboard creeping up and down. LaVette’s got an easy job: let down her lover, who wants it all. It’s the reverse of the role she played so well so many years ago as the broken lover in “Let Me Down Easy”. LaVette finally gets some revenge, and she has no qualms about letting this guy fall hard. She’s steely and dangerous, like she might just shoot her lover to move the whole negotiation process along. When she sings “I was born tired, and I still ain’t got rested,” it’s impossible not to believe her.
As a young singer, LaVette had the talent to make it, but she never found a label or producer suited to her particular set of skills. She’s gained a following over the years, but, to a certain degree, she is still struggling with the same problem: she has the voice, but not the songs. She has tried to overcome this by working with songs from other artists; the results are mixed. It might be better if she collaborated with a group like the Black Keys – who have found success with an amalgamation of blues, garage rock, and soul that might work nicely behind LaVette – or maybe the Menahan Street Band, a Daptone group who held their own behind the expressive pipes of Charles Bradley. Perhaps she should really mix things up and work with someone completely unexpected, in the same way that Cat Power threw everyone for a loop by recording the killer “I’ve Been Thinking” with the hip-hop producers in Handsome Boy Modeling School. Her voice needs a partner in crime.