Soul Survivor: The best of Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette’s is one of the truly gut-wrenching stories of being used, abused, overlooked, and underestimated by the music industry. She had an R&B radio hit when she was 17, then spent 40 years getting passed over time and time again. In her 50s, she began releasing a string of records that distilled a lifetime of frustration and disappointment, channeling her own song of lament almost entirely through interpretations of other people’s work. (By my count, the five albums I’ve listed below contain exactly one LaVette writing credit.) With these albums, she has finally commanded the admiration that’s long been her due. Her music of exquisite heartache now comes with an aura of triumph.

For my money, she is the greatest soul singer in the world. Whether this is because of or in spite of her long years in exile, I’m not totally sure. Certainly, personal suffering is not a prerequisite for singing the blues, nor is it something to be fetishized. And yet, listening to the work of her glory years, I am struck by one thing in particular: Bettye LaVette is someone who never lets any pain go to waste.

There are five of her albums that I treasure:

01. The Scene of the Crime (2007)
I remember being baffled by the announcement that Bettye was headed to Muscle Shoals to cut an album with the Drive-by Truckers, though I don’t exactly remember why; maybe in those days none of us quite realized how well the Truckers could handle a groove. The resulting album is a masterpiece, one that excels on a couple of levels. You can enjoy it as an old-fashioned jukebox record; a wonderfully dank, swampy take on blues, R&B, and country, absent any unnecessary frills. But it’s also a transfixing piece of autobiography, told almost entirely through cover songs: Songs about drinking, paying the bills, jealousy, and regret, but also a story arc about getting chewed up and spit out, left for dead, then somehow rising in glory. It would be corny to say that LaVette delivers these songs as if she wrote them; more accurately, she makes it sound like these songs were written about her. She actually did write “Before the Money Came,” the record’s triumphant climax… though by that point, the hard turn into memoir feels almost unnecessary. 

02. Worthy (2015)
Sometimes when I compliment my wife’s cooking, she responds by asking: “With these ingredients, how could you go wrong?” This is exactly how I feel about Worthy, where LaVette is produced by Joe Henry and backed by a all-star squad of studio players; she revitalizes a marginal Dylan tune and an underrated Stones, turns Henry’s classic “Stop” inside-out, and finds the gospel heart of Over the Rhine’s “Undamned.” There is no overarching concept here, and there doesn’t need to be: Everything about Worthy, from the performances through the album sequencing, displays an absolute mastery of craft.

03. Blackbirds (2020)
It’s incredible that it took so long for LaVette to make an album of songs popularized by Black women (with one Beatles tune to serve as the coda). The result is a stunning example of LaVette’s masterful transference of pain. She doles out song after song of romantic anguish… and then she gives us a spectral “Strange Fruit” for the ages, which will make you realize she’s been singing about a different kind of heartache all along.

04. I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (2005)
ANTI- Records’ decision to pair LaVette with producer Joe Henry (then riding a wave of acclaim for his work on Don’t Give Up on Me, a career-reviving album for another soul survivor, Solomon Burke) really proved to be the catalyst for her remarkable latter-day resurgence. Compared to some of her other albums, including the next one she made with Henry, the production is just a shade too genteel, despite a few songs that revel in sludgy low-end fonk. And yet, everything that makes LaVette great is in evidence here. I should probably just say that she sings a Lucinda Williams tune and a Dolly Parton number, and both sound great. What else could you possibly need to know?

05. Things Have Changed (2018)
Or: Bettye LaVette Sings Bob Dylan. The chance to hear our greatest interpreter sink her teeth into such a hallowed body of work may almost sound too good to be true, like a classic unstoppable force/immovable object situation, but make no mistake: Bettye devours these songs. Part of the reason it works so well is that the singer never sounds like she’s intimidated or unworthy; instead, she asserts her right to do with these songs what she will, treating them not as sacred writ but rather as vessels for her own self-expression. Though stacked with studio pros (including Keith Richards!), the sound is a little too slick, slinking and gliding when you wish it would rumble and rage. And yet the album remains an astonishing witness to the space LaVette can create for herself, even within such oft-trod material.

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