Bettye LaVette was born Betty Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan on 29 January 1946.
Raised in Detroit, she was signed by a local record producer called Johnnie Mae Matthews and in 1962, aged sixteen, she recorded her first single, My Man He’s A Lovin’ Man.
She next hit the charts in 1965 with Let Me Down Easy on the Calla label, and after recording several 45 rpm singles for local Detroit labels Bettye signed to the Silver Fox label in 1969. She cut a handful of tracks, including two Top 40 R&B hits.
Her recordings from that period showcase her intense vocal delivery on solo tracks such as Easier To Say (Than Do) and He Made A Woman Out Of Me, plus two duets with Hank Ballard – Hello Sunshine and Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go.
The Memphis studio musicians on these recordings have since become known as The Dixie Flyers.
In 1972, she signed with Atlantic offshoot Atco and teamed up with producer Brad Shapiro (best known for his work with Millie Jackson) to record 11 tracks at Muscle Shoals. A further track was recorded in New York to complete a proposed album.
Shapiro gave LaVette a choice of 50 songs to cover, and she picked the ones which most reflected her tortured relationship with songwriter Clarence Paul at the time. Hence the inclusion of a rollicking rock and soul take on Free‘s The Stealer.
Inexplicably, the album was aborted, and the sessions produced just two singles – her tremendous re-workings of Neil Young‘s Heart Of Gold and Joe Simon’s Your Turn To Cry.
The album was finally released in all its glory by Rhino Handmade over 30 years later as Child Of The Seventies, replete with 10 bonus tracks, including the unissued Waiting For Tomorrow and Livin’ Life On A Shoestring.
After a long fallow period, LaVette’s ailing career was given a boost when Nashville producer Steve Buckingham cut some demos with her and persuaded Motown to sign her.
Bathed in country-tinged Southern soul, the resulting album, Tell Me A Lie (1982), was unlike anything else Motown released in the 80’s and seemed stylistically out of kilter with some of the label’s acts from the era, such as The Mary Jane Girls.
Ironically, the album’s anachronistic quality made it stand the test of time, and unlike many 80’s soul albums, Tell Me A Lie does not sound dated.
LaVette’s 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise sparked something of a musical renaissance and her mainstream profile was given a belated boost when she performed Sam Cooke‘s A Change Is Gonna Come at Barack Obama’s inauguration concert in January 2009.