Detroit’s Bettye LaVette is back with ‘Worthy’

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Bettye LaVette’s life has been more dramatic than most blues songs.

“My life has been lived in B-flat minor,” LaVette admitted with a raspy laugh while talking by phone from the Carlyle Hotel in New York.

But if the native Detroiter had lived the life of a cossetted, satin-clad Motown goddess, as she so hoped, instead of running after the North End hoods who stole her mink, instead of being hung out of a window by her platform shoes by a New York pimp, that voice wouldn’t be the same.

“This voice has not always been the voice of commercialism,” the singer observed.

But that deep-timbred, raw sound is the right voice for the times, she thinks.

“Now that we’ve seen beheadings and more people have seen shootings right in front of them, my voice is a little more tolerable. One guy said he loved my voice, and that it sounded like shards of glass,” LaVette added, laughing hard now.

“People like Berry Gordy and whoever else making the ‘Sound of Young America,’ they didn’t want that,” she said.

But if all those terrible things hadn’t happened to her while she was scratching out a living, bouncing from man to man, almost making the big-time then being let down, hard, it’s unlikely that Alicia Keys’ production company would have optioned the rights to LaVette’s 2013 memoir. The book, “A Woman Like Me,” written with David Ritz, is so frank, the pages scorch your fingers.

It’s because of that life that on her new album, “Worthy” (Cherry Red), she inhabits songs such as “Unbelievable” by Bob Dylan,“Wait” by John Lennon and “Complicated” by Keith Richards so thoroughly they are almost unrecognizable to all but the most astute Dylan/Beatles/Stones fans.

“So many people were surprised by the Dylan tune, they hadn’t heard it, and that was so pleasing because he’s covered so much,” said LaVette, 69. “And people are not recognizing that ‘Wait’ is ‘Wait.’”

Her producer Joe Henry understands that LaVette needs find her way into a song until it becomes a part of her, each line uttered from the heart.

“To sing it, it has to roll out of my mouth easily,” LaVette said. “Like when I did ‘Love Reign O’er Me’ (at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, famously moving composer Pete Townshend to tears and drawing praise from Barbra Streisand). I didn’t know anything about The Who, and I didn’t know that song. But (producer) Rob Mathes designed the arrangement so perfectly for me that I wanted to sing something to that, any words, I didn’t care what they were.”

As always, LaVette complains about the business. Although she is acknowledged now as one of the great soul singers, she wants to know why former Detroiters such as Don Was and Jack White work with everybody but her?

“I am the bridge,” LaVette said, of her role as a human link back to deep Detroit soul.

She’s gotten attention and acclaim, and the voice that she jokes used to frighten all small children but her own grandkids is now her calling card.

“Somebody sent me a video of a little girl and her family at some kind of bluegrass festival, and her brothers and sisters are playing the instruments, while she was lead singer. Someone said she was doing Dolly Parton’s song ‘Little Sparrow,’ but the little girl piped up and said ‘No, that was Bettye Lavette’s ‘Little Sparrow.’ ”

LaVette loves that.

Husband Kevin, an antiques dealer and music buff (and musician) with whom she lives in New Jersey, digs up many of the songs she ends up covering.

“My goodness, I don’t even know if I’d still be doing it if it wasn’t for him. He loves it, including the people (in the music business) — I don’t even like them! He does a yeoman’s job, and I am so grateful for it.”

Having ended her brief stint at the Carlyle, LaVette and the band, which includes Detroit guitarist Brett Lucas, are in Europe and will hit the ground running with more dates. She’ll be in Detroit in April to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Detroit Music Awards.

Back in the day, LaVette was, famously, one of the premier party girls, starting at the 20 Grand in Detroit, with Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye and others, on up through the disco era.

“I used to not be able to keep my voice clear because I wouldn’t shut up and go to bed,” LaVette said. “I wanted everybody to see me, hear me, and I wanted to be everywhere with everybody.”

Though she can still do it, why bother?

“If I don’t go to another party or dress up again, I’d be happy. When I’m on stage, that’s as much of it as I want to do.”

What other goals does she have?

“I want to become more famous so that I can work more efficiently and not so hard. Other than that, I’ve done things people dream about; I’ve acted out all my fantasies,” LaVette said, laughing. “The only thing I haven’t done in this business is make money. Just give me some money now!”