Monday, November 15, 2010

The Phases of Bettye LaVette

This headline is a bit misleading. It might pertain to her career, but not her being.   There is an intriguing profile of Bettye LaVette in the New Yorker's Nov 15th issue by Alec Wilkinson.  She seems to have done things her way and without compromise. What you see is what you get.  She speaks her mind.  The piece describes an encounter with a fan who happens to be an ex-musician.  When referring to music, she says to him,  "Why do you white guys have to study it so much?"  He says, "I guess I do it for the love." Her response to him, "It's music.  It never saved nobody's life.  We still don't have a cure for cancer.  Honey, if I'm dying of cancer I don't want you to sing to me by my bedside."  This is probably the biggest clue into why it's taken till now for her to receive the adulation that seemed long overdue.  Her life isn't all about music.  Mr Parker asked her if it was true that she didn't listen to music.  She responded that she didn't want to sound arrogant,  but she's not a fan of music.

Bettye killed at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, which I've already written about. This was most likely her crowning moment, singing a song she originally wanted nothing to do with. She has regrets. Mistake #1 as she called it, was demanding that Atlantic let her out of her recording contract.  This was very early in her career.  Her first record was released in 1962 when she was still a teenager.  The beauty of Wilkinson's writing is that he doesn't judge, he lets her story unfold.  Bettye's brashness is evident.  She comes across not so much as a survivor (despite getting pregnant at 15, her childhood seemed stable), but as a determined individual who goes with her gut.  Alec refers to her Kennedy Center performance as intended.  "I didn't come there to try anything," she told him.  "Whoever else in on that show, they have to die tonight.  I haven't had the opportunity to be adored already when I walk out onstage."  "If I have to rise to the occasion of killing you, I will."  That's determination.  That's honesty.  She performed like she was going to battle.  When she hit the stage, she commanded it.

Singing the Townshend song must have inspired her most recent record, Interpretations, in which she covers the British songbook.  She hated the British Invasion, as it took over the radio and knocked she and her fellow R&B musicians off the charts.  With new arrangements, she has clearly come to terms with the Brits.  It's another phase in her career, one that seems to put the spotlight on her. 

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