First Lady of Soul

Bettye LaVette and her band at World Cafe Live in the city that finally loves her, Philadelphia

On a frigid January day in 2009,  my siblings and their kids traveled from around the country to meet in Washington, D.C. for Barack Obama’s historic first Inaugural Celebration. The only hotel we could find was several miles away from the furthest D.C. Metro stop, way out in Virginia, but part of the magic of the day was boarding the empty train and being joined by an accumulating mass of bundled-up, happy people at each station, until finally we were part of a peace-able, joyous throng of 400,000 strong at the Washington Mall, waiting to hear a concert.

As a musician, I was skeptical that sound could be transmitted in any sort of acceptable way from Jumbotrons placed around the grounds. But the concert was great. Among the star-studded line-up (Herbie, Stevie, Beyoncé, Renée Fleming) the one performer who embodied power, intensity, and burn-in-your-brain “remember this” was the one performer I had never heard of. Bettye LaVette was that unique.

So when I heard she was coming to our genre-busting Philadelphia venue World Café Live, Tom and I got tickets right away for her show last week. We waited in anticipation while her band of young guys (Darryl Pierce, drums, James Simonson, bass, Brett Lucas, guitar) vamped for her entrance. Her keyboard player and music director Alan Hill intoned, “Please welcome the First Lady of Soul — Ms. Bettye Lavette,” and Ms. LaVette, almost 70, wisp-thin and petite, strode onstage in 3-inch heels and a sleeveless black jumpsuit.

She’s been singing, for long periods unnoticed, since the early 1960′s, when she came out with her first hit single, “My Man –He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She explained that the suggestive song wasn’t what the mainstream expected from a 16-year-old, especially not Dick Clark, who didn’t book her. “Oh, I wanted to be on American Bandstand in the worst way. All my friends were going on, but they were doing things like –” and she demonstrated a teenybopper, cutesy kick.

Ms. LaVette is anti-cutesy, anti-sweet, anti-fake. There is no sugar-coating or lying to herself or anyone else in song or word. For the show, she sang all the tracks from her new CD “Worthy.” “This is what I do — I go on the road when a new CD comes out — not that there have been that many,” she added with customary candor and a smile.

Her smart, bitter take on tunes by Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable”) and the Stones (“Complicated”) rendered their provenance unrecognizable by the audience, when she quizzed us on who we thought had written them. “C’mon, white people!” she chastised us.

Yet, she was gracious too, thanking her musicians and the sound engineers at World Cafe Live for their excellent, perfectly mic’ed acoustic.

For over an hour, Bettye LaVette stabbed us with raw, unfiltered emotion — what she delivers is not just singing, but cajoling, growling, pleading, moaning, crying. Her show culminated in a heart-wrenching rendition of her hit “Let Me Down Easy.” Rarely have I witnessed such bare vulnerability — onstage or off.  I’ll remember it forever, and tell my students today and in the future — that’s the kind of caring you aim for. For now, Bettye LaVette is certainly “worthy” of her title “First Lady of Soul.”


There are 2 responses to “First Lady of Soul”

  1. One of the things I love about your blog, Deb, is how you introduce me to artists. Via YouTube I checked out Bettye LaVette in a performance of the Who’s “Love Reign Over Me.” I still have goosebumps! What an incredible, unique artist! Thanks for making the urge to look Ms. LaVette up absolutely irresistible with your writing.

  2. The way this blog opened, I thought it should be put in some sort of time capsule from the historic day of President Obama’s inauguration. It put me in mind of citizens’ accounts of what it was like to be present when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address. Then, when you spoke about Bettye LaVette, I thought to myself, there is no wonder you responded to her the way you did. After all, when you give a concert, I feel that same “unfiltered emotion,” coming out of you. One artist must recognize in another that ineffable quality that is so rarely seen, but so much appreciated.