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Bettye LaVette Enjoying Long-Overdue Success

Of the Oakland Press

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Bettye LaVette says she feels “vindicated” these days — a word she’s been using a lot during the past three years.

After spending four decades waiting for a long-overdue break, the R&B singer, a Muskegon native (born Betty Haskins) who began her career in Detroit, is finally getting her due. Her 2005 album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” and this year’s “The Scene of the Crime,” were both critical hits.

The latter also received a Grammy Awards nomination for best contemporary blues album, which LaVette, 61, embraces as a sign that things are only getting better.

“It’s very, very satisfying and very exciting,” she says. “I went through an awful lot to do this and thought I was going to be successful a long time ago, and it never happened. So, to me, this is something that I’ve been waiting for, for years.

“So I don’t feel just excited. I feel vindicated.”

To this day, LaVette is at a loss to explain what took so long for her to reach this level of notoriety. She did, after all, have a Top 10 R&B hit in 1962 with “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” after being discovered by Detroit record producer Johnnie Mae Matthews. But while LaVette watched friends such as Smokey Robinson and members of the Four Tops and Temptations go on to legendary careers at Motown, she was inexplicably unable to procure an long-term deal for herself, instead releasing a series of singles for a variety of labels.

She was slated to release an album in 1972, “Child of the Seventies,” but that deal fell through, too, and it went unreleased until 2000, when a French fan licensed the album and finally put it out as “Souvenirs” (it’s since had several other re-releases).

LaVette hardly starved, however. She spent six years singing and dancing on Broadway and played opposite Cab Calloway in a touring edition of the musical “Bubbling Brown.” She also had a minor disco hit in 1978 with “Doin’ the Best I Can” and was briefly with Motown in the early ’80s.

“I’m not bitter at people or life in general — just at an industry that’s been cruel and neglectful,” explains LaVette, who moved to New Jersey five years ago, though her daughter and two grandchildren live in Detroit. “But I was never allowed to be totally depressed about it, ’cause I always had to show up for the next gig.”

Andy Kaulkin, the president of Californiabased Anti-Records, came to LaVette in 2004 with a concept — an album on which she’d cover songs written by younger female artists such as Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor and Fiona Apple. Produced by Rochester Adams alumnus (and Madonna brother-in-law) Joe Henry, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” elevated LaVette’s profile, while “The Scene of the Crime” maintained that momentum.

It’s an entirely different kind of album, however. Recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and co-produced by Patterson Hood of the Americana rock group Drive-By Truckers, it’s a rootsy but still soulful outing, with LaVette taking on songs by Elton John, Willie Nelson, John Hiatt and Don Henley, among others. It’s an eclectic mix, but LaVette contends that’s not unusual for her.

“I can sing more than R&B songs,” notes LaVette, who co-wrote the semiautobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)” with Hood. “The stuff people know me for just happens to be R&B, and the way I sing ... even if I did an aria, it would sound like an R&B song.

“But if anyone came to see my shows all those years, they’d hear rock in the middle of my shows, country, blues ... So when we decided to put that stuff into this album, it didn’t strike me as unique.”

Nevertheless, LaVette says she hopes to take advantage of the unique opportunity her recent success has afforded her.

“I want to make some money,” she declares. “That’s the only thing I never had an opportunity to do. I’ve had all the excitement; I just never made any money I worked for $50 a night for a long time.

“So I just want to get a chance to be in the big rooms in (Las) Vegas or any of the big auditoriums, maybe Pine Knob up in Detroit or something. That way I could do my whole show as opposed to just rippin’ and running. I’m glad to be able to just rip and run, but it’d be nice to get a little more out of it, y’know?”

The 14th Annual Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday (Jan. 4 and 5) at the Magic Bag, Tonight’s show includes the Hodge Brothers (Catfi sh and Dallas) Reunion featuring Drew Abbott, Thornetta Davis, the Erich Goebel Band, the Grandmasters and Mike Espy/Yakety Yak. Saturday’s bill features Bettye LaVette, Johnnie Bassett, the Laith Al Saadi Band, Count Bracey & the Pleasuretones and the Front Street Blues Band. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets are $25 each night. Call (248) 544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.

Web Site: www.themagicbag.com

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