Bettye LaVette is one of the greatest soul singers in American music history, possessed of an incredibly expressive voice that one moment will exude a formidable level of strength and intensity and the next will appear vulnerable, reflective, reeking of heartbreak. Although LaVette has been recording for over four decades, up to this point she has remained relatively unknown.
Born in Muskegon, Michigan in 1946, LaVette grew up in Detroit. Despite the palpable level of emotion and fire breathing intensity that permeates the essence of her vocal art, LaVette is one of the very few soul singers who did not get her start singing in the church. “Discovered” at the age of 16 by the legendary Motor City music raconteur Johnnie Mae Matthews, LaVette’s first single was the insouciantly swinging “My Man--He’s a Loving Man.” Recorded initially for Northern in the fall of 1962, the record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The net result was a Top 10 R&B hit that just missed the pop Hot 100 and would be eventually covered by both Tina Turner and Ann Peebles.
LaVette next hit the charts with the Dee Dee Ford penned “Let Me Down Easy” in early 1965. She rerecorded the song in 1969 for the Karen label and to this day “Let Me Down Easy” remains the singer’s theme song, serving as a climactic, gut wrenching showstopper night after night on her incendiary gigs.
Over the next three-plus decades LaVette cut a string of consistently strong singles for Big Wheel, Silver Fox, SSS, TCA, Atco, Epic, West End, Motown and Bar/None. Among her more notable recordings were the sultry Top 30 chart entry “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” “Doin’ the Best That I Can,” and “Hey Love,” written expressly for Bettye by Stevie Wonder. She went on to do soul covers of “What Condition My Condition Was In,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Games People Play,” “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart,” “The Stealer,” “It’s Your Turn to Cry” “Heart of Gold,” “Behind Closed Doors,” and “Damn Your Eyes.”
As the above list of covers makes manifest, Bettye has always had big ears and a wide open mind, preferring to fulfill the role of a song interpreter, rather than attempt to write her own material. “I’m a better editor,” insists the diminutive singer. “If you make a statement, I can make it a stronger statement. And, if you write a story, I can make it a stronger story. But, I rarely think of a story I ever want to write myself.”