Montana Public Radio

Bettye LaVette Doesn't Sing A Song; She Wrestles It To The Ground

Sep 15, 2020

Bettye LaVette's big ears, wide-open mind and ability to get inside a song's lyric, melodic line and harmonic implications “LaVetticize" every song she interprets. Her career parallels the rise of soul music, and she's among a tiny handful of her contemporaries who continue to create vital recordings.

Bettye talked with host John Floridis by phone from West Orange, New Jersey. Her newest album, Blackbirds, was released in August 2020.

She was born Betty Jo Haskins on January 29, 1946, in Muskegon, Michigan. Bettye's family moved to Detroit when she was six years old. Her parents sold corn liquor and her living room was often visited by The Soul Stirrers, The Blind Boys of Mississippi, and many other traveling gospel groups of the day. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Bettye did not get her start in the church, but in that very same living room, where there was a jukebox, filled with the blues, country & western, and R&B records of the time. The "5" Royales, Dinah Washington, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Red Foley: these were her roots.

"My Man - He's a Loving Man," Bettye's 1962 debut single, hit #7 on the R&B charts and sent her on tour with fellow newcomer, Otis Redding. Moving to New York, she joined the Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford Review as a featured singer, recorded "Let Me Down Easy" and toured with James Brown. Bettye played (and tap-danced) the role of Sweet Georgia Brown in the Broadway musical, "Bubbling Brown Sugar" on tour for four years.

In recent years, Bettye's recording and performing career has only picked up speed. She has received the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year, the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation, and three Grammy nominations.

(Broadcast: Musician's Spotlight,  9/15/20. Listen on the radio Tuesdays, 7 p.m., or via podcast.)