Bettye LaVette isn't wasting time.
The 76-year-old singer is one of the defining voices of the Detroit sound. Her raspy, soulful voice has been part of the music scene since she was 16 years old. When looking back on her 60-plus years of struggle, she laughs easily, doesn't sweat the past and doesn't overlook life's surprises.
"My 50-year-old [single], 'Let Me Down Easy,' has been completely sampled by a young group called Odesza. They've had 350 million streams on Spotify," she notes. While enjoying the song's success, she happily boasts that she's now an "electronic music star" and was even spotted by a 20-something fan recently -- a sort of full circle moment as she was around the same age when she released the song.
LaVette's storied career began with the release of "My Man, He's a Loving Man," which hit No. 7 on the R&B charts in 1962 and put her on tour with Ben E. King and Otis Redding. Even in that early song, her voice contains the rich raspiness and timbre that is her hallmark. Later "Let Me Down Easy" landed her on tour with The James Brown Revue. While it looked like she was going to shoot to stardom, continuous record company drama stifled her ascent.
Her cover "What Condition My Condition Was In" caught the ear of Kenny Rogers in 1968, and he rightfully told his brother Lelan that he should record her on his Silver Fox label. This led to her working with The Dixie Flyers and The Memphis Horns on several songs. Two singles, "Do Your Duty" and "He Made a Woman Out of Me," which was banned by some radio stations for being too risque, charted well, but despite all of the success and recordings, they never released an album by LaVette. Even though she was talented and ready, a reported split with Lelan Rogers and the label head quashed her dreams of releasing an album of her own.
In the early '70s, she released another song with a different label, one she owned with her keyboard player and manager. She signed with Atlantic Records a second time, and the label sent her to Muscle Shoals, where she recorded what would be her first album, "Child of the Seventies." Or so she thought. Right before she was set to do a publicity tour, the label dropped the project with no explanation.
When I ask her how she survived such setbacks, she laughs.
"Well, it isn't something, first of all, that should kill you," she answers. "I'm sure every woman has been hurt like that by one thing or another. But hurt is nothing but hurt."
She goes on to say, "I quit every time that happened," she laughs. "And then somebody else called." She likens it to not sitting around crying about a bad relationship and instead moving on to the next one.
"You might have hurt me real, real bad, but if someone else comes along and they're really nice to me, I don't miss all the niceness sitting around crying about your a**. I enjoy the blessings and the good things that happen," she says.
And she did. She kept recording and releasing music. In 1979 she joined the touring company of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Bubbling Brown Sugar" and spent six years singing and dancing with Cab Calloway and Charles "Honi" Coles. She finally had an album of her own in the '80s, and even though it wasn't promoted well, she kept working.
Then, in 2000, she finally started to reap her rewards. A French collector/label owner Gilles Petard found her album "Child of the Seventies" in the Atlantic Records vaults (the album was believed to be lost). Petard released it as "Souvenirs" around the same time that a Dutch fan, Ben Mattijssen, recorded one of LaVette's live shows.
Since then, she has recorded eight more albums and racked up numerous accolades including six Grammy nominations, the Blues Foundation's W.C. Handy Award, Living Blues Critics' Best Female Blues Artist, Motown HAL (Heroes And Legends) Award, the Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society and was inducted into The Blues Hall Of Fame.
Her latest album, "Blackbirds," contains songs popularized by Black female singers, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington except for the title song, written by the Beatles. Her approach to choosing the songs for this album was simple -- she liked the songs and wanted to sing them.
"The older you get, the more you know exactly what you want to do," she says. "I pretty much know what I'm looking for -- what I can sing, what I can't sing. What I do want to sing, what I don't want to sing."