The Scene of the Crime

Bettye LaVette is the type of petite woman who could kick your ass three ways to each direction if she chose to. She’s also the kind of woman who is just as likely to laugh at you, call you honey and tell you to pull up a barstool and throw back a tall boy. But make no mistake about it - you will learn to respect her. It’s your choice as to how that will happen.

Ms. LaVette’s career began in 1962 in her hometown of Detroit. She grew up and recorded along side other young artists of the era, notably The Supremes, Wilson Pickett and David Ruffin. Although she worked constantly fame and fortune proved to be elusive. Atlantic records signed her to a deal and in 1972 she recorded the album that was purported to be a classic. However, that album ended up in a vault, not to be heard until nearly 3 decades later. No one seems to know for sure why this happened.

Bettye soldiered on, dealing with money, drinking and drug issues, watching friends pass away, waiting for the break she felt she’d earned. Now, at age 61, Bettye may finally be getting the attention she’s sought for nearly a half century. With the help of the southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers, LaVette has recorded a remarkable album that stands as a true record of her life in the music industry. The Truckers are a great choice for the recording. Their playing is nearly reverential; they’ve suppressed their individual sound in order to be the best backing band a soul singer could ask for. Band member Patterson Hood, who also co-produces, is the son of David Hood, the bass player on Bettye’s lost Atlantic album.

Confessional isn’t exactly the right term for the songs on this disc. Yes, Bettye admits to a multitude of venial sins but she’s not seeking forgiveness, she’s not remorseful in her recounting of events. She’s simply accessing the situation and acknowledging the consequences. LaVette has chosen songs by a variety of writers, Willie Nelson, Elton John, John Hiatt, Eddie Hinton, Don Henley, and has molded each in such a way that you would swear they were written specifically for and about her. The one song that was written about her is “Before The Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette).” Co-written with Patterson Hood, Bettye sums up her life in 4 1/2 minutes. Her honesty is so straight-forward that if feels shocking. Bettye doesn’t try to pretty up her choices or mistakes. She stands squarely behind the life she has lived.

Her choice of Elton John’s “Talking Old Soldiers” is another wise pick, shedding light on a little known composition that will speak to many people who are at a point in life where they can rightfully claim to have lived to tell the tale. And boy, does Bettye have the voice to nail the emotions in these songs. Words dangle and twist as she wrenches every bit of pain or indignation from them.

When Bettye LaVette last appeared in the Pittsburgh region she surprised me with a phone call to thank me for playing her record. I told her it was a pleasure to play great music. I could practically hear her grin on the other end of the phone. “Why thank you, honey” she said. The pleasure is truly all mine, Bettye. It’s a pure joy to play this record, as well.

WYEP Afternoon Mix host Rosemary Welsch