The pop music world that Bettye Lavette has been trying to conquer since her first hit in 1962 (Atlantic Records’ “My Man, He’s a Loving Man”) has been a hardass.
The strange creature that freights the sweetness of melody and harmony with the cocked fangs of pure business and cold, hard cash hasn’t given Lavette much in the way of returns.
Ironically, the toughest nut to crack has been hometown Detroit, where Lavette — unlike her local contemporaries Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Martha Reeves — has been unable to gain a multiracial crossover audience.
It’s an unfortunate fact that Lavette writes off as bad luck and timing. In 1963, when the Sound of Young America was booming from countless car radios in the Motor City, Lavette had already made her way to New York, where the thrills were short and the heartaches long.
Her local misfortune continued when Cameo-Parkway, the label that in 1965 issued Lavette’s most successful song, had distribution problems in the Midwest.
“It’s so hurtful because ‘Let Me Down Easy’ was the biggest recording that ever happened to me,” Lavette says, over the phone from her new home in New Jersey, where she moved from Detroit last July when she was married. “But at home, it helped me none.”
The 58-year-old singer’s career reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s littered with bright spots (hit records, Broadway) and low hits (death, missed opportunities, etc.) and best played on the black keys.
“I tend to take the B flat minor look at things,” Lavette says. “It’s OK with me to cry.”
She was 17 when one of her managers took a bullet in the eye. The horrific accident helped kill a deal that might have propelled her to stardom. She missed an opportunity to work with Burt Bacharach.
Over the years, she’s seen versions of her recordings become hit records for other artists, as in “He Made A Woman Out of Me,” which went nowhere for Lavette but became huge for Bobbie Gentry.
Two years ago, Lavette’s musical director of 35 years died while the singer was in the process of making A Woman Like Me, her first studio album in more than 20 years.
That’s three strikes right there. But woes notwithstanding, the world’s finally grinning on Lavette, who has been waiting years for another turn at bat.
But while some of her more obscure records typically fetch hundreds on Internet auctions, they don’t make many playlists. Lavette long ago earned respect in the British Northern Soul movement, a trendy niche now fostered by neo/faux-soul hipsters who refuse to give up the ghost of maximum rhythm and blues.
And “soul singer” is a tag Lavette is glad to accept, but is uncomfortable with. It’s a term she says was invented by white music fans to define a sound.
“Thank God they started this movement and brought us all out of the crypt, but they’ve put us in categories,” Lavette says. “I’m a rhythm and blues singer and that’s what I’ve been all my life. Whitney Houston isn’t. She’s a pop singer and Anita Baker’s a pop-jazz singer, but Gladys Knight and Tina Turner and me are all rhythm and blues singers.
A Woman Like Me, a 12-song tour de force that may have for the first time captured the breadth of Lavette’s vocal talents in a studio setting, is definitely a rhythm and blues album that leans on the blues side. It’s not retrofitted to make Lavette sound like she did when she was a child, and it may initially alienate folks who have nostalgia in mind.
A Woman Like Me reveals a gifted songstress whose capacity for emotional nuance enables her to reach joyous heights and melancholic lows. She’s hurt, vindictive, wounded, strong, hateful, loving, wanting and satisfied. On each of the 12 song-stories (most written by outside writers), she’s compelling enough to draw in the listener, to hold the listener’s attention.
Call it mature music, or call it blues for grown-ups, because its themes are aimed at those who’ve lived and learned. It’s an album that deserves respect. In fact, A Woman Like Me earned the singer four Handy Award nominations, which will be decided in Memphis at the end of this month.
The Handy Awards, named after W.C. Handy, the man who is credited with the first published blues song, are this country’s most prestigious awards in the fields of blues and soul music. Lavette’s nominations include best blues album, best soul/blues album, best comeback album and best soul/blues singer.
Lavette’s got her end-of-April itinerary in hand.
“I’m going to dash down to Memphis and see if I can get one of these Handys,” she says. “If I do, I’m coming back and tying them to the back of the car and riding around Detroit. If I get all four, I’ll really come back and holler out the window. They’ll think somebody’s campaigning for something.”
More than a few Detroiters are beaming with pride that one of the city’s own — and one of its most neglected — is finally getting just recognition.
“We raised that girl,” says Sir Mack Rice, former member of the Falcons (from 1957 to 1963), whose “Mustang Sally” has become one of the lynchpins of rock, roll, blues and soul. “She was just a little girl who wanted to sing, and ever since then she’s been climbing.”
Rice first encountered Lavette in 1962 as Betty Haskin, a teenage fan and St. Agnes High School student who haunted clubs like the 20 Grand and the Graystone Ballroom.
Haskin wasn’t long for the constraints of a girls’ Catholic school. The people she sought to meet were the more progressive Northern High students, many of whom would later strike gold at Motown.
Lavette would hang out at Northern, but it wasn’t Smokey Robinson or the nascent Temptations that she wanted to meet. It was Sherma Lavett, a friend whose last name Bettye adopted as her own, adding an “e” at the end.
“She knew everyone who was on the stage in Detroit, and I wanted to know her,” Lavette explains. “So I started going with her to the 20 Grand and to the Graystone, and at the Graystone we met Timmy Shaw, who had a recording out at the time. And Johnny Mae Matthews was working with him.”
Shaw introduced Lavette to Matthews, a savvy local music businesswoman, songwriter and producer with her own label. Matthews mined Lavette’s talent by featuring her voice on “My Man.”
Matthews — who is portrayed as a shrewd operator in the made-for-TV movie The Temptations — had the tools of a star-maker. But, like local producers operating on her level then (think Berry Gordy or Jack and Devora Brown of Fortune Records), Matthews was — according to Lavette — a shark swimming in shallow waters.
“She was possibly the first female producer of the day, and certainly the first black female producer. She at one time had the Temptations when they were the Distants, the Supremes when they were the Primettes, and she had the Falcons,” explains Lavette.
Matthews intended “My Man, He’s a Lovin’ Man” for release on her Northern label, but Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records heard the tracks and quickly snatched up the single for national distribution.
“The people that I knew as stars were people like Ruth Brown and Clyde McPhatter and Ray Charles. These people were on that red and black label [Atlantic], and suddenly I was on it,” says Lavette. “For black music, that was the absolute hottest label at the time.”
The song went Top Ten in the R&B charts, and the 16-year-old Catholic schoolgirl became an instant celebrity.
Lavette sounds downright wistful when she recalls the moment the record hit: “For me to have just been at the Graystone literally the week before dancing to ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King and the Drifters and then to be on the road with them like in 60 days.
“Yeah, it was really something.”
Back at home and armed with a hit record, Lavette showed a shrewd business side by dumping Matthews’ management and hooking up with well-connected manager Robert West.
By that time, Motown had hit pay dirt. With songs like the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” Mary Wells’ “My Guy” and the Marvelettes “Please Mr. Postman” having already clocked in at No. 1 on the national pop charts, Hitsville U.S.A. was living up to its name. Every other Detroit record producer and label owner wanted a taste of what Motown had and maneuvered to get it.
In 1963, Herman Griffin — husband of Motown star Mary Wells — and West traveled to New York to negotiate the deal that would eventually place Wells with Twentieth Century Fox and sever that singer’s ties with Motown.
“West was more or less negotiating the deal. He had worked with the Falcons and Atlantic and he had been to New York,” Lavette says. “Most of these [Detroit] people had never talked to anyone from New York before. So if you had that, it gave you kind of a leg up.”
West, a big man with a hot temper and a feverish regard for his artists, often carried a handgun. He would pay a price for this when he aimed the gun at Griffin in a boozy argument at the Sheraton Hotel in Manhattan.
“Herman was about 5-feet-5, and West was about 6-1 and noted for pulling this little ragged gun on everybody,” Lavette says. “He pulled the gun out in the argument, and Herman ran toward him and pushed his hand back. The gun fired and went through West’s eye, and through his brain.”
While the pistol fracas left Griffin unharmed, it spelled a tragic end for West, who would die two years later from the injury. It was also a tragedy for Lavette, who — at the tender age of 17 — took up the reins of her career. Remember, this was the ’60s, and the opportunities for women were thin at best, much less for a girl not yet 18.
After West’s death, Lavette made her way out to New York and sat down with Jerry Wexler and demanded to be released from her contract.
Wexler obliged, begrudgingly, as he had just matched Lavette with a new young producer and songwriter named Burt Bacharach.
Wexler’s Bacharach carrot didn’t tempt Lavette. Conceivably, Lavette’s career could’ve taken a Dionne Warwick-like trajectory.
“He wasn’t the Burt Bacharach you know now,” Lavette says. “He had one record, I had one. There’s no way you could look upside his head and tell who he was going to be.”
Lavette’s instincts led her to a two-year stint at Small’s Paradise in Manhattan where she was a featured vocalist with the Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford review. It was her first real education in stage showmanship.
With Lavette in mind, Ford penned “Let Me Down Easy,” which became a Top 20 R&B hit in 1965 on Calla Records. In the ensuing years, the tune became Lavette’s bread and butter. She has recorded fast versions, slow versions, disco versions and live versions. With its aching plea for a gentle end to a soured love affair, “Let Me Down Easy” embodies the ethos of what has become known as soul music. In three minutes, Lavette begs, screams and demands a show of kindness from an ex-lover.
Pounding the stage for two years at Small’s gave Lavette the ammo she needed to put together a ballistic live show, which she carried with her when she left New York for Detroit in 1968.
“Betty didn’t need a record,” Rice says. “She’s got the glamour and she’s got the style and she knows what she’s doing and she’s loving it, and that’s what I love about her.”
Instead of returning home a conquering heroine like many of the Motown artists packing the Roostertail and the Fox Theatre then, Lavette’s out-of-town successes and polished stage show went virtually unnoticed.
“The people in Detroit — my audience — is primarily black,” Lavette says. “And when whites started coming into the city and knowing the clubs, I wasn’t there. So when I came back they didn’t know me. They only knew Motown.”
While Lavette’s career turns insured home-turf obscurity, the singer stayed her course.
Her 1970s recording sessions took her to Memphis and to Alabama’s famed Muscle Shoals studio. She worked with everyone from Leland Rogers (brother to Kenny) to Memphis cult-hero Jim Dickinson during his stint with the Dixie Flyers.
Then she turned away from pop music and became a cast member in Broadway’s Bubbling Brown Sugar. Onstage, alongside the likes of Cab Calloway, Lavette learned show business inside and out in a completely different arena. Lavette still regards her Broadway stint as one of her best career moves.
“That’s the most fun I’ve ever had,” she says. “When I got into show business I thought of it from a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers point of view. Lena Horne in long black gloves and big, big stages, and that was it.”
Although many of her ’70s recordings were shelved, forgotten or otherwise neglected, Lavette managed to release “Your Turn To Cry” on Atco in 1972, which she considers, alongside of “Let Me Down Easy,” the best representation of her work until last year’s Just Like A Woman.
Lavette and Giles Petard (a huge Lavette fan and an owner of a small French label called Art & Soul) compiled 14 sides culled from the singer’s Atco and Atlantic sessions for a 2000 album Souvenirs.
That feat of detective work, which involved a lengthy search on Petard’s part for the “lost” tapes that Lavette was sure were destroyed in a fire in Atlantic’s vaults, may not have happened had interest in her career not been rekindled by the earlier release of a live set, Let Me Down Easy, on another small Euro label.
Although she may have been nearly invisible for years, Lavette never took her hands off the mic. At 16, she set out to become a singer, and 42 years later she continues to ply the trade, with both a teenager’s enthusiasm and a grandmother’s wisdom.
“Anytime people don’t hear from you for a long time they think you’ve either taken a day gig or got strung out on drugs, but I have always done this,” Lavette says.
Still, she remembers many nights spent whiling the time away in Detroit’s Locker Room bar, where she was often perched on a bar stool with Pervis Jackson of the Spinners, a Detroit group that bubbled-under for 15 years before breaking big in the 1970s.
“I’d say, ‘How in the hell did you hold on all that time when the Tops were making it and the Tempts were making it. Everyone was making it all around you and you were starving to death?’
“And Jackson said, ‘Do you know how to do anything else?’ And I said, ‘Hell no.’”
For more than 40 years, Lavette’s been pumping her change into the music industry’s slot machine, hoping for the big payoff.
What’s remarkable is the woman’s ability to be a shouter while gingerly adopting the soft, melodious vocal technique of a jazz singer. She can get down and dirty onstage too. Outright nasty even. Her vocal cords have been stretched to the limit and her body’s been danced to death — and she’s far from retiring the dancing shoes.
“I’m still able to do a lot of dance movements in my show which most of my contemporaries who are almost 60 years old aren’t doing,” Lavette says.
Her skills have not gone unnoticed by local performers’ Thornetta Davis and Norma Jean Bell, who owe Lavette a nod for her unflagging devotion to craft and her inspirational role as one of the top female vocalists to ever come out of Detroit.
“I am a person who studies performers,” says Bell, who was a teenager when she first saw Lavette. “And I always learn what to do and what not to do, and she’s a real show person. I think that that’s what has kept her around because her records don’t always sell well. …”
When Lavette refers to show business, she speaks in the abstract — almost bitterly — as if the music business is some stubborn Goliath that she’s determined to fell.
“I’ve given it everything I have,” Lavette says.
She cites Tina Turner as inspiration: “Her first records came out just a couple of years before mine, and I know how she feels now when I see her holding her stomach in and twisting and twirling.
“I know that she feels beat on when she gets off the stage like I do, but she had to do it because the business owed her money. She’d given it her whole life and they were finally offering her some money. She couldn’t quit then. I can’t quit now.”
With the release of A Woman Like Me, Lavette is again poised for real recognition, and whether she leaves Memphis with a Handy award or not, the music cries out for a listen.
The album, while unfortunately a swan song for Lavette’s musical director Rudy Robinson, is perhaps the first full-length studio work that the singer can call her own. Tell Me A Lie, the 1982 record she recorded for Motown, netted another successful single with “Right In The Middle (Of Falling in Love),” but the middle-of-the-road pop album, which flopped, was not a true representation of the singer. Befitting of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, A Woman Like Me took approximately 40 years to make.
Though producer Dennis Walker — whose list of credits includes Robert Cray and B.B. King — penned the lion’s share of tunes on the album, they were handpicked and adapted by Lavette.
“He had a tune called ‘You Left Me Lonely’ and I said, ‘No one has ever left me lonely,’” Lavette says. “So I rewrote the song and changed it to ‘A Woman Like Me.’ He was just like, ‘You’ve never won anything. I’ve won three Grammy awards and you’re just taking my tunes and decimating them.’ He let me do everything I wanted, that was the first time I’ve ever done that in a studio.”
So far, A Woman Like Me has collected accolades, and things are looking good. Ry Cooder, in fact, wants to include Lavette in a future film and recording project.
Looking back over a storied career that has associated her with a bevy of record labels including National, Lupine, Big Wheel, Cameo-Parkway, Atlantic, Calla, Karen, Silver Fox, Atco, Epic, Street King, Bar None, a brief stint with Motown in the 1980s, and, most, recently Blues Express, Lavette speaks with worlds of experience, as the new record shows. It’s a record by a women who knows the routes to bottom and to the top.Mike Murphy is a freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]