Log In

Reset Password
  • MENU
    Monday, September 25, 2023

    Song stylist Bettye LaVette finds her groove with help from John Mayer and Jon Batiste

    Renowned for making sad tunes sadder, song stylist extraordinaire Bettye LaVette was strikingly upbeat the other day, for two reasons.

    First, she had just learned that morning that one of her old tunes, 1970's "Easier to Say Than Do," had landed on the soundtrack to this summer's "The Beanie Bubble" starring Elizabeth Banks and Zach Galifianakis. "I have no idea how or why," she said with a long, dry cackle. "I'm just glad they're saying my name." She's on the soundtrack with Janis Joplin, Lenny Kravitz, the Cranberries, Earth, Wind & Fire and the McGuire Sisters, among others.

    Second, LaVette is stoked about her own new album, "LaVette!" featuring the Southern soul songs of Randall Bramblett and all-star guests like John Mayer, Jon Batiste and Steve Winwood.

    "As Hubert Humphrey used to say, I'm as pleased as punch," said LaVette, who is not prone to gushing.

    The veteran singer discovered Bramblett about eight years ago when he opened for her in an Annapolis, Maryland, club. He gave her a couple of his CDs. Then her manager/husband explored more of Bramblett's catalog and made a mix CD for her. She was smitten by the songs.

    "He wrote them for me, but he didn't know it," LaVette said this month from her New Jersey home. "He gave me liberty to personalize them by making them more feminine or twisting the story around."

    This time, LaVette isn't reimagining familiar numbers. She's finding herself in obscure tunes, discussing life's dilemmas with pathos and sometimes self-deprecating humor. There's the pushback of "Don't Get Me Started" and the heartbreaking "I'm Not Gonna Waste My Love." On the simmering funk single "Plan B," she admits that she's not cut out for a day job and has no fallback strategy. In "Hard to Be a Human," she sings sarcastically of God: "First He made the mountains, then He filled up the seas. But He lost His concentration when He started working on you and me."

    LaVette and Bramblett met only once in person but talk often on the phone. Said the well-traveled song interpreter: "He's the only person I know who has had more flop records than I've had. He's had 17 albums and none of them have sold."

    The Michigan native got her start on Motown as a teenager, scoring minor R&B hits in the 1960s. After decades in obscurity save for a six-year stint on Broadway in "Bubbling Brown Sugar," LaVette launched a recording comeback in 2003, making a series of themed albums — including a collection of tunes by female songwriters, material from the British Invasion and pieces by Bob Dylan.

    She's received recognition along the way, including blues awards and Grammy nominations as well as hosannas for performances at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors (doing the Who's "Love, Reign o'er Me") and Barack Obama's 2009 inaugural celebration (duetting with Jon Bon Jovi on "A Change Is Gonna Come"). She authored a raw, riveting, celebrity-filled 2012 memoir, "A Woman Like Me." But none of her well-reviewed endeavors has been a big seller.

    Steve Jordan, best known now as the Rolling Stones' new drummer, produced her previous two albums. When he heard the material that she wanted to record next, he not only agreed to produce the project but to release it on his label, Jay-Vee Records. He was so committed to the record that his company bought a huge billboard for "LaVette!" in New York's Times Square this summer.

    "Steve Jordan is my Quincy Jones," said LaVette, 77, who jokes that she's in her fifth career. "He got a chance to be very broad and proficient, and most Black producers don't get a chance to do that. My only regret is that I'm so damn old; I wish I could have met him when I was 30."

    Jordan — who has produced a range of artists from Buddy Guy and Rod Stewart to Sheryl Crow and Josh Groban — lined up well-known guest musicians, including Anthony Hamilton and Pino Palladino. Some of the players coincidentally had connections to LaVette.

    Guitarist Ray Parker Jr. played in the last incarnation of her original band, Fun Company, when he was getting started.

    Saxophonist James Carter sat in with her group when he was 17 or 18.

    Pianist Jon Batiste's dad played bass in LaVette's combo when she lived in New Orleans back in the day.

    Steve Winwood recorded her "Let Me Down Easy" with the Spencer Davis Group in 1966.

    Her version of "Let Me Down Easy," which went to No. 20 on the R&B charts in 1965, was sampled last year by Odesza, a pair of DJ/ producers, for their dance tune "The Last Goodbye," with their video featuring footage of an 18-year-old LaVette singing. And the tune was tapped for a TV commercial for Apple's MacBook Air.

    "I'm still trying to catch my breath. I've never gotten a check for quite that sum in my 62 years in show business," she said, noting that Odesza is giving her half of the proceeds. "I'm so grateful, flattered and totally overwhelmed. I'm grateful for all these tidbits. I wish I didn't have to view them from my walker."

    She broke into a prolonged cackle.

    Comment threads are monitored for 48 hours after publication and then closed.