Bettye LaVette's playing the Lilac festival tomorrow. You should go.
My first exposure to her was the record "I've Got My Own Hell To Raise," which I bought sound unheard, based on the cool cover and the producing credit of Joe Henry. I knew immediately it was a major discovery. The glorious weather-beaten voice commanded attention, from the tenderest whisper to a full force gale.
Last summer, I got the plum assignment of introducing her show at the Harro East. I had interviewed her by phone a few weeks earlier and was looking forward to meeting her. I learned backstage that she had been very sick all day, and when I finally saw her she was stepping gingerly down the stairs, hand on the wall for support. She reached the bottom and bent over to catch her breath. I took the chance anyway, walking over to say hello. She straightened right up, gave me a big smile and a strong handshake. Called me baby. Then I did my intro, went back out into the crowd as the band played the opening tune on their own. I wasn't expecting much but she strutted out like it was the best night of her life and proceeded to deliver the greatest show I've ever seen.
There's a gospel influence in her sound, but it didn't come from church. Her parents ran "the local drink place" in segregated Michigan as she was growing up. The Soul Stirrers, The Blind Boys of Mississippi, The Clouds of Joy and others would come through town to perform and since they couldn't just stroll into any bar, they'd wind up in her living room. Her mom sold chicken sandwiches, and her dad poured shots of corn liquor. And then they sang. That would seem to be inspiration enough to become a singer, but the real spark was seeing LaVern Baker; not in some nightclub, but on the silver screen. Bettye bought the romantic image - the beautiful gowns, the champagne - and wanted that life. Despite success with her first single, her recording career didn't quite pan out. Her 1972 debut session for Atlantic in Muscle Shoals was inexplicably shelved, and unreleased for three decades. She went back to Alabama to record her new CD, aptly titled "Scene of the Crime."
So, if you haven't heard of her, there's no shame. Blame the music industry. Or better yet, don't worry about it and just make sure you catch the show - 7pm, Thursday May 15th, on the Lilac Festival Main Stage.