All those callow young singers who've tasted the top of the charts thanks to a shapely figure and the cut-and-paste magic of ProTools could learn a lot from Bettye LaVette. An R&B hitmaker by the age of 16, the Detroit-bred soul singer always had the voice and the special ability to make any song her own. But somehow, while friends like Stevie Wonder and the Temptations' David Ruffin scaled the heights of the music business, she never became a star. She toured with Ben E. King, James Brown and Otis Redding. She co-wrote with Wonder. An alphabet soup of labels released a string of her singles in the '60s and '70s.
But that special career-making album eluded her. Adding insult to injury, a stellar session recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in 1972 on Atlantic Records' dime didn't reach the public for nearly 30 years, and then only as a European import.
After so many near misses, other artists might have quit. But LaVette wasn't about to pack it in. She worked on Broadway, most notably sharing the stage with Cab Calloway in Bubbling Brown Sugar. When bookings in the U.S. were thin, she worked the European circuit, bolstered by fans who understood the extent of her gifts. She also tapped into the blues audience, playing clubs and festivals, including the now defunct Madison Blues Festival, where the whippet-thin singer lit up the tiny second stage with a powerful mix of gutsy soul and full-on R&B.
To be sure, it was cult career worth having. But LaVette deserved more. A lot more.
She finally got a chance to show her stuff on a properly recorded and publicized disc in 2005, when Epitaph's Anti- imprint released I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, a collection of strong - and often indiosyncratic - covers by well-respected female singer-songwriters like Rosanne Cash, Joan Armatrading and Lucinda Williams. The reviews for the CD were very good, and phrases like "lost soul diva" were now routinely attached to LaVette's name. Still, the album, good as it was, didn't quite capture the fire and depth of feeling she displayed in her live show.
That problem was solved just last month when Anti- released Scene of the Crime. Recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals with the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood, the album finds LaVette in top form as she pleads and aches and ruminates over a swampy, genre-blending rhythm section that includes other Truckers and Hood's father, David, who played on the lost session from 1972. And it's crammed with the kinds of committed, utterly personal performances that raise goose bumps. Indeed, LaVette's slow burn on "You Don't Know Me at All" and Elton John's "Talking Old Soldiers" would fit right in with the famous sides Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and other hit-makers slathered on tape down in Muscle Shoals half a lifetime ago.
Obviously, it's a crime that LaVette didn't get her shot sooner. But count yourself lucky that you're around for her much-delayed coming-out party. She's a great American singer, and she performs with the hunger of an artist who's just getting to the mountaintop. And believe me, the same will never be said of the hotties and one-hit "divas" who'll strut and jiggle on the numbing awards shows that'll pop up on prime time from now until the spring thaw.