Bettye Lavette: Late Bloomer Gets Her Mojo On

Music Features Bettye LaVette
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After Atlantic Records shelved what singer Bettye LaVette had hoped would be her breakthrough album in 1972—an album recorded in soul-music hotbed Muscle Shoals, Ala.—the Detroit native spent more than three decades exiled on the farthest fringes of the music biz, singing for her supper in dives and lounges.

“I gave up every other week,” the 61-year-old artist says today, “but I’ve been fortunate enough to have this one little core of people who have always said, ‘This is gonna work, just hold on.’ When I got to be about 50 or 55, it was like, ‘Hold on to what?’” At that she explodes with rueful laughter.

But she got some unexpected and long-overdue R.E.S.P.E.C.T. in 2005, when she was signed by über-hip L.A. indie label Anti- Records, home to Tom Waits and Merle Haggard. Anti- released LaVette’s Joe Henry-produced album, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, to universal accolades. “The reviews sounded as if my mother wrote them,” LaVette quips. After that validating experience, shshwhen she came to regard Anti- head Andy Kaulkin as her savior, but she was taken aback when he suggested that she return to Muscle Shoals to record the follow-up backed by scruffy Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers.

“It was an extreme stretch to me,” LaVette admits. “But Andrew is very persuasive and very smart. I just had to say, like, ‘After all these years, here’s a record company—a young, hip record company—who thinks I rock.’ I just went with that. The Truckers said they were fans of mine, so I was just hoping they’d like me enough to lean my way.”

Meanwhile, at Muscle Shoals’ venerable Fame Studios, the Truckers, whose Patterson Hood was set to co-produce with engineer David Barbe, awaited LaVette’s arrival with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, wondering whether the strong-willed singer would accept them. They were somewhat reassured by the presence in their ranks of a pair of ringers—local heroes Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer and piano, and Patterson’s father, David Hood, who'd been alternating on bass with the Truckers' Shonna Tucker.

The sparring that would characterize the recording of the aptly named Scene of the Crime began as soon as the players gathered in the main room to go over the arrangements, with LaVette smack in the middle, lording over the process. “We had original versions of the songs to learn before hooking up with Bettye,” Patterson Hood says, “but that all, rightly, went out the window, so we had to completely rework every song from the ground up. If Bettye was there when we tried to do that, she would stop us every few seconds and nitpick it to the point that we couldn’t get anything done. Most of our temperamental times came during these points. It got where we would sneak in the studio and work up songs when she wasn’t there; then we could iron out the kinks in private and she’d come in and everything would go great.”

LaVette soon realized she had an ally in Oldham. “When I sing a gonna defend my position,” LaVette says. “Spooner helped me pull the way that I was going, and he refused to go any other way.”

“Spooner was the link we needed to wed what we do to what Bettye does, and it worked even better than any of us could have imagined,” Hood con?rms. “Beyond his playing, his personality and sense of humor really defused some tense moments. Everything just rolls off of Spooner, and that became contagious.”

But Oldham’s calming presence didn’t totally defuse the tension. “Sometimes it would be going great,” says Hood, “and suddenly something would make her mad—usually me—and it was the wrath of Bettye, which almost could have been the name of the album.” That gets a laugh out of him. “She’s been through so much that she has good reason to be naturally suspicious. Add to that, we have our own ways of doing things that didn’t always make sense to her, and I’m sure she thought that Andy had paired her with a bunch of lunatics, but as it progressed, I think she could see that there is actually a method to our madness, and things generally went smoother."

Getting on the Good Foot

Little by little, LaVette bought into the program. “I said to Bradley [Brad Morgan], the drummer, ‘I can’t believe those licks you’re playing are so dead-on,’” she recalls. “And he told me that he’d altered his playing so that he could accommodate the movements I was making while we were all in the room putting the songs together.”

By then, LaVette was digging deep inside the songs, especially the sad ones: Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Talking Old Soldiers,” the George Jones hit “Choices” and Willie Nelson’s “Somebody Pick Up My Pieces.” “I’ve chosen the words because they’re poignant and they mean something to me,” she explains, “and I get swept up in the emotion, especially if it’s being played really well. It wasn’t like I was listening to someone else’s stories that were making me sad; they were true for me. Those are the saddest songs I’ve ever recorded; I don’t want it to be so sad that you can’t listen to it. I just hope the upbeat ones will be up enough to balance it out.”

LaVette needn’t worry. Her finger-wagging cover of Don Henley’s “You Don’t Know Me at All,” the band’s swampy romp through John Hiatt’s “The Last Time” and the Hood/LaVette co-write “Before the Money Came (Battle of Bettye LaVette)” totally smoke. “Watching her perform her vocal takes—and it was a performance—was like watching a great method actor make a ?lm,” says Hood. “She got so worked up and in character, then it just exploded into the microphone. It was awe-inspiring and stunning; I had chills the entire time.”

If LaVette’s 2005 “comeback” album was a delightful surprise, Scene of the Crime is a smoldering revelation displaying an artist nearly a half century into her career who is only now approaching the peak of her considerable powers. “Goodness, I don’t know anybody else my age that this is happening to,” LaVette marvels. "I've got so many quick steps to make, and I really don't know how much time I gotta make 'em in, so I gotta make 'em fast and furious."