Back in 1972, Betty LaVette recorded an LP at the renowned Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. This was to be her big break and launch her career from that of an R&B artist with some successful 45s to a major act like Aretha Franklin and Patti LaBelle. However, the label (Atco, and offshoot of Atlantic) never released the record. Her career faltered as a result. She achieved some acclaim during the next two decades, but it wasn’t until a French soul music collector discovered the old master tapes of the original album from 1972 and released it in 2000 that audiences became interested in LaVette’s music. Since then, LaVette has released a series of critically and commercially popular albums. The 69-year-old singer continues to tour and record. She’s just issued a new disc, Worthy, produced by Joe Henry.
The reason why Atco did not issue Child of the Seventies back in the day has been the subject of speculation, but there has been no definitive word on the topic. Listeners agree that the dozen songs are first-rate. This new release features the music French fan Gilles Petard put out back in 2000, but the tracks are now cleaned up with modern methods and offer bright and clear sound. There are also 10 bonus tracks including four tunes that date back to 1962-3 when LaVette was just a teenager. She may be billed as a ’70s child, but her ’60s sides show she already had a boatload of talent as a youth. Her “Shut Your Mouth” rivals Claudine Clark’s “Party Lights” for adolescent angst. And that was just the B-side. The A-side, “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man”, was a Top Ten R&B hit.
The dozen cuts from the original album reveal LaVette’s remarkable ability to bite off a lyric or just let it simmer. She emphasizes emotional states of being by growling, trilling, and employing other vocal techniques. LaVette never shows off. She lets the songs tell the story and just uses her voice to convey a point of view. And mostly she sings about love. She asks a fortune teller if she will ever find love, declares her willingness to play second fiddle to a married man, declares her readiness to take a cheating lover back, or even play new tricks of a sexual nature to keep her husband. But no matter how seemingly subservient the situation may seem, LaVette never seems weak or plays the victim. Love itself gives her the ability to conquer all.
Take her version of Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy” (recorded the same year by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust. While the White Duke emphasized disorienting strangeness of life, LaVette shows the confusion expressed by lyrics like “It ain’t easy to get to heaven when you’re going down” as a lament about the human condition. Bowie describes the mindset while LaVette reveals what it feels like. The way in which she clips her voice to state the facts and then transforms her phrasing to make words longer allows her to say more than the simple words may indicate. She sings with honesty and hopefulness as LaVette convincingly communicates that people may have their problems, but they always have, and they manage to pull through.
Which in a sense mirrors that of LaVette’s own career; she persevered and is now an award-winning star whose records and live appearances are in demand. This re-release provides evidence that this should have been famous decades earlier.