Hailed by the New York Times as "one of the great soul interpreters of her generation," five-time Grammy nominee Bettye LaVette is a vocalist who can take any type of song – jazz or country, pop or rhythm & blues – and make it her own. LaVette's commitment to artistry has earned the admiration of musical peers such as Jon Bon Jovi ("she doesn't just sing the song, she lives in each of them") and Bonnie Raitt, who praised her as "one of the most incredible R&B singers singing today…a force of nature." Over the course of her remarkable, six-decade career, LaVette has sung for President Obama, published an autobiography, placed six records on the rhythm & blues charts, and starred in a hit musical. And, as proven by Blackbirds, her second recording for the legendary Verve label, she continues to scale new artistic heights.
Born Betty Jo Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan, LaVette moved at a young age to Detroit's North End, where her neighbors included 1950s music stars such as Jackie Wilson. In 1962, at the age of 16, she stepped into a recording studio for the first time and the result was a top 10 rhythm & blues hit, "My Man – He's a Lovin' Man." Released on Atlantic Records, a leader in African American popular music, the song made LaVette an overnight star. LaVette returned to the charts in 1965, with "Let Me Down Easy," a haunting ballad that for years became her signature song. 1969 brought another hit, "He Made a Woman out of Me" – a classic of Memphis soul that showcased LaVette's vocal timbre and masterful sense of timing.
After her first full-length album, Child of the Seventies, was inexplicably shelved by Atlantic in 1972 (it would finally be released in 2000), LaVette turned to the theatrical stage, appearing in a national tour of Broadway's Bubbling Brown Sugar. In 1982, she signed with her hometown label, Motown, to release Tell Me a Lie. The album's hit single, "Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love)," brought LaVette a new round of critical and popular acclaim. By the start of the 1990s she had become a regular performer on the UK's "northern soul" scene, where British music lovers made collector's items of her 1960s singles. All the while, she was asserting herself as a contemporary artist: 2003's A Woman Like Me won the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year.
The success of A Woman Like Me marked the onset of LaVette's career revival. In 2005 she signed with ANTI- Records for I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of songs from female writers. Three ANTI- releases followed, along with several events that rank as career highlights. In 2006 she received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. Then, in December 2008, LaVette delivered her rendition of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center Honors, as the audience watched in astonishment. The following January, she performed "A Change Is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi as part of Barack Obama's inaugural celebrations.
Things Have Changed, an album of Bob Dylan songs produced by Steve Jordan, marked LaVette's Verve debut in 2018. It received two Grammy nominations. Blackbirds, whose release will coincide with LaVette's induction into the Blues Music Hall of Fame, represents a further step in her artistic evolution. Working again with producer Jordan, who also plays drums, and a group of celebrated musicians (Smokey Hormel on guitar, Monty Croft on vibes, bassist Tom Barney and veteran keyboardist Leon Pendarvis), LaVette delivers impassioned readings of songs associated with African American female vocalists of the 1950s. Nina Simone's "I Hold No Grudge," which was suggested for LaVette by the original writer, Angelo Badalamenti, captures the defiance we associate with Simone while adding warmth and hopefulness. "Save Your Love for Me," popularized by Nancy Wilson, reflects LaVette's development as a vocal stylist who, through the warmth and precision with which she caresses each lyric, creates the kind of intimate mood once associated with smoky nightclubs and after-hours spots. Meanwhile, "Strange Fruit," first performed by Billie Holiday, is a harrowing critique of American racism that still says much about the country today.
"I didn't want to do it in any way that had been done before," LaVette says of "Strange Fruit" – an explanation that speaks to her process for the album as a whole – "but I wanted it to be dramatic." The ideal, she adds, is for "your interpretation to be as interesting as that original one." To that end, LaVette chose songs that she could personalize into reflections of her own experience. Paul McCartney's "Blackbird," while anomalous in that it isn't connected with a particular female vocalist, nonetheless fits into the project's scope because it speaks for the struggles faced by these women – LaVette's musical forbears – as they worked to build and maintain their careers. "All my life," LaVette sings, shifting McCartney's original lyrics into the first person, "I have waited for this moment to arrive." In curating the songs for Blackbirds, LaVette has established a dialogue with the great women who preceded her while reaffirming herself as a vital, living presence.
Stern Grove Festival's Best of the Fest: Episode 7 - Celebrating Women
Blues Hall of Famer Bettye LaVette has decided to release her stirring rendition of "Strange Fruit" ahead of schedule as it says as much about the history of American racism and the state of the country today. "Strange Fruit" was originally recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 and written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol who wrote the song based on a photo of two black men who were lynched as a crowd of white people looked in the camera pointing and smiling. LaVette's version will be featured on her album, "Blackbirds" (Verve) set for release August 28.
The very definition of persistence, Bettye LaVette is among the newest inductees into the Blues Music Hall of Fame, yet she pulls her material from nearly every imaginable corner of music. In addition to her distinguished R&B output that dates to the 1960s, she has interpreted the greats of folk and country music, ranging from Bob Dylan and Patty Griffin to George Jones and Dolly Parton. Now the five-time Grammy nominee is honoring many of the Black women who inspire her with Blackbirds, a collection that takes its name from the Beatles standard. However, as LaVette has stated before, Paul McCartney wrote the song about a Black woman (as British slang refers to a girl as a "bird"). In LaVette's rendition, though, she is the one who's been waiting… and waiting… and waiting for this moment to arrive. And, in a specific allusion to this moment in history, to be free.
Set for release on the venerated Verve label, Blackbirds alights on August 28, though the Detroit-raised diva has already issued a stunning rendition of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," as well as Nina Simone's "I Hold No Grudge" and Sharon Robinson's "One More Song." (Songs recorded by Ruth Brown, Lou Rawls, Dinah Washington, and jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson are featured on the album, too.) Look for our two-part interview with this candid and compelling entertainer, who's now based in New Jersey, later this month. Until then, enjoy our BGS Essentials playlist of August's Artist of the Month, Bettye LaVette.
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2020 Blues Hall Of Fame inductee Bettye LaVette is a native of Detroit. Her first recording in 1962, at the age of sixteen, was on Atlantic Records. She later charted with such singles as "He Made A Woman Out Of Me" and "Do Your Duty," Since then she has recorded ten albums. Her most recent album Things Have Changed, also produced by Steve Jordan (John Mayer, Keith Richards), was released on Verve in 2018 and received two GRAMMY nominations, which brings her total Grammy nominations to five. Her latest release, "Blackbirds," features songs primarily popularized by some of her peers, other iconic black women in music, who she personally respected and admired. Set for release August 28, the album finds Bettye in top form delivering powerful renditions of songs that touched her personally. It also re-unites her with legendary producer Steve Jordan and Verve Records. From Dinah Washington's "Drinking Again," Nina Simone's "I Hold No Grudge," Nancy Wilson's "Save Your Love For Me" and more, all delivered in Bettye's rich and raspy tone with a touch of the blues.
After having a chance to chat with Bettye a couple of years ago and hanging out with her backstage, we were like two peas in a soul sharing pod. Which made this time around even better. We talk about how this album came together, working with a producer that has the same ear and the tunes that make up this walk down music history lane. We spend a good amount of time talking about the timeliness of the song, "Strange Fruit" as social upheaval takes over the news cycles once again in the United States and beyond. This track says as much about the history of American racism and the state of the country today. The song was originally recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 and written by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol who wrote the song based on a photo of two black men who were lynched as a crowd of white people looked in the camera pointing and smiling. This album is one that can help bring a little focus on the way things were and still are in many ways, but I believe it also holds some of the keys to unlocking the new realities many want to see within the space of equality and justice…while honoring the people who helped build the bridge that led Bettye as a whole person to where she is today. The music joins the times of then to the times of now, and if you never knew…..just grab an earful.
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Bettye LaVette is a US treasure, a blues-soul singer with a truly remarkable background and heritage.
Now approaching seventy-five years of age – "I'll be 75 in January," she tells me – she has weathered countless twists and turns in her own personal musical journey since first recording as a young sixteen-year-old teenager with Atlantic Records in Detroit. And, as we chat, surprisingly UK pop giants The Beatles somehow or other creep, albeit forcefully, into the conversation about her current place and her new album, ‘Blackbirds,' due to launch on Verve in August.
Blackbirds, I suggest includes an unexpected and surprising take as a title track with a Paul McCartney song: "Well, why not. It's a song about a bird, hearing a bird singing. A blackbird!," she laughs.
"I was invited to sing at Ringo Starr's birthday recently. He's now 80. I told him I had thought that I was old! "How did he take that? I ask: "He was great. He just laughed. I sang at his birthday about four years ago, I think it was. So, I already knew him. We get on okay."
But the new album is far from anything popular (or populist) or dated by 1960s musical shackles. So, I question, how long was the latest project in the thinking and making. Bettye laughs before quipping: "The new album was always there really. I always have projects on the go, songs I've already recorded maybe, just waiting till I'm ready to put it all together. I never do more than two cuts of any song. I've been doing this a long time and I know what works for me. And I have Steve Jordan again as producer. He knows what he's doing and he knows what I like." Jordan, now an industry veteran and always in-demand producer, also produced LaVette's last, widely acclaimed offering, ‘Things Have Changed,' a few years ago in 2018, an album that gained Best Americana Album award nominations and introduced her to many more listeners globally.
We discuss the horror of racism in the world generally and the USA in particular, an inescapable topic with the new album driven by the subject and full of tracks that shout about the appalling issues surrounding the subject: I mention talking with Nashville-based Will Kimboro recently following a visit to Alabama. Kimboro has a song, ‘Alabama,' on his latest album, ‘I Like It Down Here,' a track that is based on the public lynching of a young black man in the southern state in the early eighties, a shocking fact that brings the horror home forceably when the question of just how recent such behaviour is historically in modern USA. Bettye instantly agrees but counters with a question, asking me when I thought the last similar tragic event happened in Mississippi. When I shake my head and ask, she tells me: "It was only a few years ago in Mississippi!"
As we run through the tracks on the new album ranging from Nina Simone's ‘I Hold No Grudge,' Nancy Wilson's ‘Save Your Love For Me,' to Dinah Washington's ‘Drinking Again,' Bettye again confirms her despair that now, in 2020, the striking relevance and terrifyingly horrific imagery of one track in particular remains as salient and significant as it did when first recorded almost a century ago by Billie Holiday in 1939: "Strange Fruit is an incredible song," she says with an understandably heartfelt sigh: "It's just incredible and unbelievable that here we are again facing these issues and this behaviour. Absolutely incredible. I've been around a long time now and I never thought I'd be witnessing this kind of thing again in my lifetime."
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Welcome to a new edition of the Neon Jazz interview series with Legendary Blues Hall of Fame Singer Bettye LaVette .. She opened up about her new 2020 CD Blackbirds that will be out on August 28, 2020 .. The album coming out during the COVID-19 pandemic is a tribute to iconic black women in music .. This Blues Hall of Famer is a native of Detroit and at 16 she released her first recording in 1962 on Atlantic Records .. That led to a storied and glorified career that has included 5 Grammy nominations and so many fans that adore her music .. Get to know her .
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Blues Hall of Famer Bettye LaVette is set to release; 'Blackbirds,' on August 28 via Verve Records. Blackbirds features songs primarily popularized by some of her peers, other iconic women in music, who she personally respected and admired. The album finds LaVette in top form delivering powerful renditions of songs that touched her personally. It also re-unites her with producer Steve Jordan.
From Dinah Washington's "Drinking Again," Nina Simone's "I Hold No Grudge," Nancy Wilson's "Save Your Love For Me" and more, all delivered in LaVette's rich and raspy tone with a touch of the blues.
Bettye LaVette is a native of Detroit. Her first recording in 1962, at the age of sixteen, was on Atlantic Records. She later charted with such singles as "He Made A Woman Out Of Me" and "Do Your Duty," Since then she has recorded ten albums. Her most recent album Things Have Changed, also produced by Steve Jordan (John Mayer, Keith Richards), was released on Verve in 2018 and received two GRAMMY nominations, which brings her total Grammy nominations to five.
On Friday, July 24, 89.1KMUW: Wichita KS will feature a few single off the album, as well as selections from Curtis Mayfield, Kandace Springs and others. SEE THE PAGE