Stories » Bettye LaVette embodies every lyric on 'Blackbirds' / DOWNBEAT

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Bettye LaVette embodies every lyric on 'Blackbirds' / DOWNBEAT

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Bettye LaVette loathed Billie Holiday's famous protest song, "Strange Fruit," when she first heard it. She thought the Abel Meeropol-penned lyric, depicting the lynching of black people in the South, sounded too dreary.

"I wasn't deep," LaVette said, referring to her late teens while growing up in Detroit. "Because we were just entering this great moment of desegregation in the 1960s, I didn't want to hear a song about lynching. I was a different kind of young person back then."

Nevertheless, Jim Lewis, her manager at the time, suggested a young LaVette learn the song, others associated with Lady Day, as well as a selection of standards. More than half a century later, LaVette's soul-stirring rendition of "Strange Fruit" became the lead single to her poignant new album, Blackbirds (Verve).

Soon after the world erupted in Black Lives Matter-led protests in the wake of George Floyd's slaying, the singer nudged her label to push up the release of "Strange Fruit" to coincide with the demonstrations.

"I didn't want it to seem like I was trying to cash in on the protest," she said. "But when some people kept comparing unarmed Black people being killed by the police to lynching, I started thinking, ‘Well, I heard these words before. In fact, I just recorded them.' It's sad that this song can still be so timely."

Blackbirds, however, centers more on material associated with iconic Black female singers like Ruth Brown, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington than it does on recent protests. When explaining the material's curation, LaVette returns to the lessons Lewis tried to impart when she was just launching her career: "He told me, ‘You're cute; you got a cute little booty and a nice waistline. But you got to learn some songs. You may never be a star, but you can sing for the rest of your life, if you would just get good.' And he helped me do that."

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