Bettye LaVette’s career spans five decades from her initial 1962 smash hit “My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man”—recorded when she was just 16—through a series of middling successes in the 70s and 80s, to her long-deserved breakthrough with 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.
In the decade since that release, LaVette has been maintaining her reputation as an unparalleled interpreter who puts her absolutely vital stamp on any song she sings.
“Interpreter” really is an inadequate word to describe what LaVette does with and for the songs that she sings—it’s more like she makes the songs live and breathe in the ways that they always should have.
Case in point are LaVette’s brilliant takes on Bob Dylan’s “Unbelievable” and the Beatles’ “Wait”.
For “Unbelievable,” LaVette unleashes all of the soulful power of her burnished, gritty voice, making the tune into a swampy raver.
“Wait,” on the other hand, takes the desperate urgency of the original and slows it down to a blues ballad, allowing LaVette to wring a beautiful melancholy out of the lyrics.
LaVette’s band, which includes guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and keyboardist Patrick Warren, add a nearly telepathic level of support for the singer in their accompaniment. Their ability to push LaVette while at the same time leaving her room to dig into the songs is reminiscent of the great Muscle Shoals studio bands.
Her producer, Joe Henry, who also helmed I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, makes sure to keep the proceedings spare and simple so that LaVette’s voice shines through in the way that it should.
LaVette, with her band’s able assistance, also tears through the Rolling Stones’ “Complicated”, adding to the tradition of soul singers—Tina Turner especially—taking Jagger/Richards material to higher levels.
Aside from the ravers and ballads, no soul album would be complete an intense slow-burner, and “Just Between You, Me, and the Wall, You’re a Fool” fits that bill perfectly as LaVette swings from low and sultry to loud and powerful over subtle conga and Warren’s sweet electric piano.
“When I Was a Young Girl”, meanwhile, is a song that seems to have been written especially for LaVette at this stage in a career of ups and downs: “But you can’t get a sneak preview/Of what you gonna go through/And you got to rely on your body and mind/See the light from the tunnel”.
The music, highlighted by Chris Bruce’s funky bass, slips darkly around the lyrics of hard-won wisdom that LaVette completely makes her own.
Worthy is another powerful statement from a singer who, at 69, is still in full command of her instrument, and her intense and personal approach to the songs she sings adds new depth and meaning to whatever she puts voice to.