Seasoned R&B Master Bettye LaVette to Play Caffe Lena Saturday, March 14th

Bettye LaVette performing at Caffe Lena Saturday night is one of a kind. She had her first R&B hit at16. Now 74, she’s covered everything from Dylan to the songs of the British Invasion. She plays in everyone’s sandbox but she brings her own heartfelt release with every interpretation, never conforming to any of the stereotypes of the various genres of music she dips into. She’s like Odetta or Nina Simone, a bramble bush of briers that stands tall and grows stronger, not letting anyone try to pull her out of her grounded strength without being pricked. She is to Aretha Franklin what The Stones are to the Beatles, the yin to Aretha’s yang. Aretha came from the church in Detroit. Bettye comes from the streets of Muskegon, Michigan.

Bettye Lavette
Bettye Lavette

Keith Richards has said of her: “When you hear a voice like Bettye LaVette’s there’s a sense of transportation (NOT to a penal colony!), but a certain freedom of movement and emotion, which is rare. Especially to me and I suspect other Englishmen who were so fascinated by the music that is so natural to Bettye while we were still getting our feet wet. Put me in the fan club! How did Bettye LaVette slip through the net for so long?” 

She cuts deeper than almost any blues artist alive. For me, blues is catharsis, the exorcism of pain delivered with jaw dropping honesty. On every song Bettye LaVette sings, she projects as her life depends on it. She’s had more lives than an alley cat. She’s been to hell and back so many times that she’s able to traverse the extremes of each in her delivery.

LaVette broke onto the scene way back in 1962 at the age of 16 with an R&B top 10 hit. “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” She toured with Otis Redding, James Brown and Ben E. King, but the title of her follow-up single in 1965 was prescient, “Let Me Down Easy.” In spite of staying “in the business” for the next 55 years, only six of her 45s charted R&B and none have ever broken the pop top 100.

Bettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette

That said, she is arguably the highest profile African American pop singer to never break into the pop charts. At the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008, her spectacular rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” prompted Barbara Streisand to whisper into Pete Townsend’s ear asking him if he really wrote that song.  President Obama mouthed the words to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along with her and Bon Jovi at his inaugural in January 2009 on international television.

Also in 2009, she released a 6-song digital EP on iTunes called A Change Is Gonna Come Sessions that is simply breathtaking. On it she nails to the floor a rough and ready version of Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You,” a bittersweet interpretation of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” and a definitive take on the Sam Cooke classic “Change” she calls “the black national anthem.”

Her most recent album, Things Have Changed was released in 2018. In my review appearing in Blues Music Magazine, I wrote: “To say that Bettye LaVette makes this music her own doesn’t do justice to the 12 cuts that begin with Dylan songs, some little known ’70s and ‘80s cuts, and LaVette’s them. If Dylan is the sage of a lost generation bursting to cut loose from the post-war Eisenhower generation, Bettye LaVette is his grandmother. Not the kind of grandmother that slips him candy when mom isn’t looking, but the grizzled crone who sips vodka out of her water bottle and ignores the PG warnings because she’s wise enough to know her grandkid is street smart and book learned more than she is.

“If you don’t yet think you’ve gotta have this CD, imagine Keith Richards playing reserved guitar on two cuts and a band that includes producer Steve Jordan on drums and guitar, Larry Campbell on pedal steel and Trombone Shorty on trombone.”

On May 18 she will release her latest album Blackbirds on Blue Note.

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