One more time, with soul
Bettye La Vette brings her well-oiled blues show to the Tampa Theatre this weekend.
By BRIAN ORLOFF
Published January 4, 2007
After clocking nearly 45 years on the road perfecting what she calls her "very energetic, 4-inch-heeled, very tight clothes" show, veteran blues singer Bettye LaVette is just getting started, enjoying a career renaissance thanks to the success of her 2005 album of covers, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise.
Maybe "renaissance" is a bit strong. Her lone hit for Atlantic Records in the '60s was My Man - He's a Loving Man.
Perhaps, after 40 years, LaVette has matured into her gravelly voice. On I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, she threw herself into a new routine, interpreting material by contemporary female singers such as Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton and Fiona Apple with ferocity.
LaVette, who will be 61 this month, appears to relish defying expectations about what a woman her age should look and sound like.
LaVette brings her band and her well-oiled blues show (she's not kidding about those tight minidresses and dance moves) to the Tampa Theatre on Saturday, along with Marcia Ball. But first she called from her home in West Orange, N.J., to chat about starting over - again.
How do you characterize the past year or so?
This is my 45th year in this business, and up until now it's never worked. So when I could have gotten really, really excited about it, it didn't happen. ... It's been very hard work.
Why do you think your career never took off?
I've never been promoted. (Labels) haven't really known what to do with a female who sounded more like Wilson Pickett than Dionne Warwick. So while many people in the industry liked me, they never knew a market particularly that would like me. And they felt always like, "Well, Etta James is enough," or "We can hear the little Baptist, but this little woman sounds more like she's from the devil. There's not a lot of gospel in her voice. There's not a lot of female in her voice - to whom do we market her?"
You were sent about 100 songs while preparing your record. But how did you narrow it down to just the 10?
They're just songs, and you know whether or not you want to sing them. And it's not even a matter of "can" sing them. It's a matter of whether or not you want to sing them. And those were the 10 I wanted to sing. I thought I'd sound best on them. I thought they all told excellent stories. I loved the melodies. They're things I would hum. I don't like songs that I would not hum. That's why Bob Dylan and I often have a problem. If it's a song, I want to hum it; if it's a poem then that's another thing.
Also when I heard them, I immediately heard how I would sing them - which is how I hear most songs. I'm a really arrogant listener. I'm not really a music fan, first of all. So when I hear songs, I hear me singing them - then I hear the person who's singing them. (She cackles) That's very arrogant. I don't even listen to them as a fan. I wasn't listening to them to dance to. I was listening to them to make love to, and that's a whole different thing. It's a much more personal thing. ... It's like kissing somebody. You know if you want to kiss again - or if you want to go any farther.
You've tackled some pretty iconic women who are more well-known than you, and they're well liked. Have you gotten any feedback from them?
Lucinda Williams - I have not gotten any word from her directly - but the thing she's done that has helped me so tremendously is that she has been speaking my name from her stage. Her audience is so much bigger than mine, and usually many of us are so self-centered, for her to say my name at her show, that's really all the help I need. I'm not trying to collect any girlfriends.
You really do change up many of the songs, often just by the nature of your voice. But you left Sinead O'Connor's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got a cappella. Why?
I thought of the a cappella-ness as a part of the song. ... I said, "It's an a cappella arrangement and I'm just going to rearrange it vocally as opposed to rearranging it with instruments." And I heard it apparently just the way she did. I heard it most of all as a statement rather than a song, so I thought it needed to be spoken more than sung.
Is the live show what you most identify with?
I'm an entertainer. And over this time, not being distracted by success or any money or anything, I've been able to work on my craft. And I've become a very good entertainer. Since that is what I was striving for - I had no record to live up to or no notoriety to live up to - when I looked at an audience over these years, I've usually looked at an audience I've had to win over. I never thought I would have another record. I really didn't.
Marcia Ball with Bettye LaVette, 8 p.m. Saturday, Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. $25. (813) 274-8981.
[Last modified January 3, 2007, 15:26:18]
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