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The blues are part of Bettye LaVette's soul
By dint of her first hit -- 1962's "My Man -- He's a Lovin' Man," when she was just 16 -- and an eclectic set of recent releases, Bettye LaVette is generally considered an R&B singer.
But the Muskegon native, who cut her musical teeth in Detroit during the early and mid-60s, promises that she knows her way around the blues, too.
"Rhythm & Blues is just rock 'n' roll and blues put together -- which is why I refuse to be called a soul singer," says LaVette, 67, who's one of the headliners at this week's Anti-Freeze Blues Festival in Ferndale. "You can dance to Rhythm & Blues, and all you can do to the blues is cry.
"There are Rhythm & Blues singers, pop singers and blues singers. Koko Taylor was a blues singer; I doubt you could've gotten her to sing a Mariah Carey song, y'know? Etta James was a real Rhythm & Blues singer, but the blues embraced her because she could go belt out a blues song -- which I can do, too."
For credibility purposes, LaVette received a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award in 2006 and was named Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer at the 2008 Blues Music Awards. Her 2007 album "The Scene of the Crime and 2010's "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook were both nominated for Grammys for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
And LaVette has, in fact, shown she can do quite a bit in music -- specially during the past eight years, as her career went into long-overdue ascent.
For a variety of reasons, mostly business-related, LaVette (born Betty Haskins) was unable to build on the momentum of "My Man -- He's a Lovin' Man," and she quietly slipped into obscurity, though she made a living on the musical stage, on Broadway and in a touring production of "Bubbling Brown" with Cab Calloway.
But just as she was about to succumb to "an industry that's cruel and neglectful," LaVette got a fresh lease on life with a new booking agency and label deal. Since then she's released four critically acclaimed albums, worked with producers such as Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood and Joe Henry, performed at the Kennedy Center Honors, President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration concert and major music festivals, and published a memoir, "A Woman Like Me" in 2012.
It's been a relatively short time in the spotlight, but LaVette assures that she feels all 51-plus years of her career.
"I think if I had been successful all those years maybe it would feel like 120 (years) -- or 20," she says with a laugh. "When I was 16, I didn't imagine having a 50th anniversary in (music). When you're 16 and you say you're going to do something forever, you aren't really thinking about 50 years -- you're not thinking about anything, really. It wasn't a conscious thought at all.
"There certainly is a sense of gratification, though."
But the long climb has left LaVette -- who now resides with her husband Kevin Kiley in New Jersey -- with a few burrs still under her saddle.
"I think when you start looking at 70, you'd like three or four dollars," she explains. "At least I'm not able to walk through an airport without being virtually unnoticed, and the record company has done a pretty good job of at least introducing me all over the world.
"My great fear as I got into age 55 and so on was I was going to die broke and obscure. That was a great fair of mine. Now I can see that I'm just going to die broke -- but not obscure," she says with a laugh.
LaVette's main mission now is figuring out her next recording project, the follow-up to 2012's "Thankful N' Thoughtful." There are some ideas swirling around, but LaVette hasn't quite honed in on anything yet.
"I've got nine or 10 things in my head, but I really don't know what to do -- maybe an album of nursery rhymes?" she says. "Up to now I would think, 'What do I want to do?' but the audience didn't seem to like that, so now I'm like, 'What the hell do THEY want?'
"But in the end I think you will see I pretty much do whatever I want to do right now. At this point I can't imagine what everybody would want to hear me do, so I'll just keep piecing it together until I can get enough blocks together that match and then go in and make something and hope that people like it."
The Anti-Freeze Blues Festival takes place Friday and Saturday, Jan. 3-4, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. Ana Popovic, the Bobby Murray Band, Rattlesnake Shake and Erich Goebel & the Flying Crowbars perform Friday for $25; Bettye LaVette, Laura Rain & the Caesars, the Greg Nagy Band and RJ's Gang featuring Kenny Parker play Saturday for $35. Doors open at 7 p.m. both nights. Call 248-544-3030 or visit www.themagicbag.com.
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