Bettye LaVette has earned her place on the mantle of soul divas

Bettye LaVette can find unparalleled emotional depth in a lyric
Photo by Carol Friedman

Bettye LaVette is all about perseverance. And interpretation. That is her calling card, the thing that makes her singing akin to songwriting. By the time her imperiously ravaged vocals have finished excavating unimagined depths of emotion from a song, it has been, well and truly, righteously sung. Not even Pete Townshend understood what “Love, Reign O’er Me” could mean until he heard LaVette’s electric inhabitation of the lyric during a 2008 Who tribute at the Kennedy Center.

Born Betty Jo Haskins in 1946 to parents who sold corn liquor and loved soul and gospel, the Detroit native grew up fast, recording her first single at 16 and hitting the road with R&B luminaries like Ben E. King and Otis Redding. She made singles throughout the 1960s, until Atlantic signed her in 1972 for what was to be her career-changing first album. When it was abruptly shelved, she kept on singing — in grungy dives, on Broadway, wherever she could.

Not until 2005 did her career achieve liftoff, thanks to producer Joe Henry pairing her with A-grade material by songwriters such as Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor and Lucinda Williams. In the wake of its tremendous critical acclaim, Rhino released her “lost” 1972 album, “Child of the Seventies.”

Sleek and poised onstage, the resilient LaVette isn’t one for looking backward, her 2012 autobiography “A Woman Like Me” notwithstanding. She recently signed with new management at Gold Village, and wowed audiences at last week’s AmericanaFest in Nashville despite having a cold.

With Grammy nominations and Rhythm & Blues Foundation Awards to her credit, she’s finally receiving her due as a soul diva on par with Aretha.

 

— Bliss Bowen

 

Bettye LaVette performs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 28) at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $60 to $105. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit thebroadstage.com.

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