Jon Bon Jovi backstage at the taping of the HBO special, We are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Right: Russell Simmons, Paul Horn, LaVette, Ringo Starr, David Lynch, Donovan and Mike Love in New York City at Radio City Music Hall in 2009.
If you’ve never heard of Bettye LaVette (and, sadly, there’s a good chance you haven’t) consider yourself lucky to discover her now. She’s been described as possessing ”the growl of Tina Turner and the forbidding, earth-moving force of Aretha Franklin.” Her recent work has garnered wide acclaim and, frankly, it’s about time.
”Bitterness—that will show on your face,” says LaVette, the twice Grammy-nominated but still not entirely famous singer, who lives in a tidy West Orange neighborhood with her husband, singer and harmonica player Kevin Kiley. LaVette is not one to hide her feelings.
For example, when the 65-year-old won a Heroes and Legends Award last September in Los Angeles—the award recognizes Motown’s role models, and LaVette, a native of Detroit, grew up among Motown stars including Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin—she wasn’t entirely delighted to be in the company of some of her former Michigan friends, whom she felt had let her down in harder times. She was pleased, however, that among them, she cut such a trim figure.
The award was given to her along with Holland-Dozier-Holland—the legendary song-writing team responsible for hits like “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” and “(Stop!) In the Name of Love.”
“I accepted and said, ‘I’ve known Holland Dozier and Holland since Lamont Dozier was too shy to pick his head up. I have made it this far without the help of any of these people.’
“I’m about to cry now and I was about to cry then,” says LaVette from her kitchen table, sniffling and sipping a glass of rosé wine on a winter afternoon. “But I got up and sang the Sinead O’Connor song ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ a capella. And I was the only one in the room wearing a size six. It was fabulous.”
To be sure, many fabulous things have happened in the life of Bettye LaVette.
In 2005, when she was 59, her album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (on independent label Anti) landed on several critics’ top-10 lists and prompted Esquire magazine to pronounce her “the sexiest female vocalist alive.” (Playboy magazine backed that up by saying her voice is “as good as Tina Turner’s when she’s with Ike.”) In 2007, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for The Scene of the Crime. And within the span of a few months in 2008 and 2009, she performed at Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration and sang, to near show-stopping applause and wide acclaim, the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Prior to the last six years, though—while contemporaries such as Diana Ross have been mostly occupied with tucking their glory years safely behind them—LaVette couldn’t get out from under what she calls “buzzard luck.”
She was born in Detroit to factory worker parents who sold homemade corn whisky to neighborhood friends, including Sam Cooke. By 16, she was married and recording. By 25, her first manager had been murdered and her second one, mixed up with mobsters, had vanished. While neighborhood kids ascended the pop charts, she made records that fizzled or never got released.
There is no good explanation for the fits and starts, she says.
“I can’t say it was because I was strung out on drugs for 20 years, nothing like that. You know how they say things come together to make a perfect storm? It was like that—a perfect failure. The bad things that happened, like my record label calling me in 1972 to say, ‘Your album’s not coming out,’ were just as unique as some guy calling me up out of the blue a few years ago and saying, ‘Would you like to come honor the Who at the Kennedy Center?’”
LaVette “watched everybody I grew up with go on to be very successful, and I have issues with these people because I feel like they watched me starve,” she says.
But in West Orange, where she moved in 2003 after marrying Kiley, who is a native, those issues don’t crop up.
“When I’m here, there isn’t anyplace I want to go. I’ve never been embraced this way before—people see me and recognize me in the post office and supermarket, and that’s wonderful. People recognized me in Detroit, too, but it was always people who knew me because I grew up there. People here recognize me because I am Bettye LaVette, someone they’ve seen or heard about. It’s nice,” says LaVette, whose two grandchildren are in college and whose daughter is a public school teacher in Michigan.
Besides friendly nodders and well-wishers in the supermarket, she also attracts her share of music-obsessed out-of-towners. Often, they have come hoping to catch her sing the blues, soul or R&B at Franklin Tavern, a tiny West Orange club where until recently Kiley had a weekly gig. LaVette would sometimes sit in if she wasn’t touring.
“Franklin’s no bigger than this kitchen, but they absolutely embraced me there. They were my entourage,” she says. “People came from far away. I wasn’t always there, but people came in looking.”
It’s something she’s getting used to, now that her career is finally taking her places it once took her Motown cronies. The accolades may have come late, but she’s glad they’ve arrived.
“The way I feel is relieved. I feel I could sing the rest of my life now, and be assured that enough people know me that I would have places to work. Even if I had to go back to making $50 a night, I feel much more secure in the fact that I have places to sing. It’s all I know how to do, and now it’s all I have to do.”
In February, LaVette was up for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album for her album, Interpretations: the British Rock Songbook, which came out in May, but she lost to Buddy Guy.
The honor would have erased some of the enmity—not bitterness—she feels about her past and the superstars who paraded in and out of it, she said.
“Everybody I know is like, ‘a Grammy means nothing.’ But you see, most people who sing—all their friends haven’t won Grammys. I’m from Detroit—everybody I went to school with won a Grammy. All my friends and neighbors had them. People who weren’t even musicians, like producers, had them. In Detroit you just looked across the alley and saw them on people’s mantels. It’s kind of a personal thing with me.”