It is hard to believe Bettye LaVette is 74… actually, scratch that: it is only too easy, what with her raggedly powerful voice etched deep with the experience of hard knocks. In what she laughingly now calls her 5th career, the fact she is here at all demonstrates the quiet determination and self belief that has seen her drag herself up onto her uppers, clawing her way into the limelight some decades after she was carelessly and callously dumped by the industry she had dedicated her life to. And still does, as her new album Blackbirds demonstrates.
Like many, I first heard of her in the noughties, on the background of a disc of shelved recordings making its way to Gilles Petard, a French soul music aficionado who re-released those 1973 tapes, Child of the Seventies, as Souvenirs a full 23 years later. Avid ears liked what they heard and she was off. Many of those ears to appreciate that LaVette had had her first hit single in 1963, and was a running mate alongside all the soul greats–Aretha, Otis, Marvin–if less willing to play the party line, preferring her own counsel.
Since then, LaVette has produced a regular stream of releases. Not a major songwriter, she has always styled her work as re-interpretation, specializing in the rock and pop acts of the ’60s through ’80s, rather than the Motown and Stax staples you might expect of her. The term cover version is arguably insulting of her talent; she refuses to simply echo the originals, blitzing both Laurel Canyon hippiesque and British Invasion bombast into a raw R’n’B screw-you. Her last album, 2018’s Things Have Changed, consisted entirely of Bob Dylan covers. She has scooped up awards and kept active to the astonishment of many of her initial peers: her 2012 book, A Woman Like Me, is a roller coaster read, outlining her unchanged approach to life then and now. Your mother would probably not like her.
Her new release Blackbirds is slightly different, taking a wider perspective and is to celebrate the songs of, largely, her peers, black women singers with something to say and who made damn sure they did. (Black birds, yes?) So she covers the likes of Nina Simone, Dinah Washington, and Leonard Cohen’s longtime writing partner and backing singer, Sharon Robinson. Tipping a more overtly jazz and blues hat than her usual rock’n’soul style, there is also a timely take on Billie Holiday’s chilling “Strange Fruit.” Plus a slightly surprising closing track. Backed by a slick quartet, led by album producer Steve Jordan on drums, the overall feel is of a single set piece, the backing as tight as LaVette’s voice is loosely compelling.
Displaying no fear, Blackbirds‘ opener is Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge,” rejecting the strings-led torchiness of the original for a swampy don’t mess with me. If Simone is graceful in her acceptance, LaVette certainly doesn’t want anyone to think they could get away with anything twice. Majestic.
At this writing, if you go to the YouTube clip of Sharon Robinson’s “One More Song,” there is but one comment, dated 2015, from Kevin, LaVette’s husband. It says: “Nice one, Sharon… I’ll play this for her when she gets off the road.” Clearly he did. Knowing Ms. Robinson’s original, I was skeptical LaVette could top that, as ever underestimating the reality, the wracked vocal oozing palpable loss, with a brief vibes solo in the middle slaying any residual upper lip stiffness.
“Blues For the Weepers” is another nevermore torch song, paying debt more to Della Reese rather than to Lou Rawls, who had the bigger hit with it in 1965. Again, this a funkier rendition, if a little by numbers, as would anything sound after the last track. So is “Book of Lies,” originally by ’60s belter Ruth Brown, which starts with a slightly over the top a cappella. It’s also the first song on Blackbirds that fails to equal the source material.
It is the prewar Lill Green original of “Romance in the Dark” that LaVette is honoring here. Understandably, as Green wrote it with Big Bill Broonzy. It has also been covered by Lavern Baker, Esther Phillips and, um, Cyndi Lauper, let alone at least three of the other singers celebrated on this record, so no pressure. LaVette credits herself well, eschewing the sometime stilted nature of the earlier renditions, making it a near talking blues, with a restrained and effective guitar solo from Smokey Hormel.
“I was born into a heavy drinking family,” LaVette wrote in A Woman Like Me. “Early on I became — and I remain — a serious drinker. I make no apologies for this.” Dinah Washington was another feisty woman with an acknowledged thirst. It would be hard to top her “Drinking Again” from 1962, Washington singing with her straw surely sitting in the corner of her mouth. Bettye, no slouch, succeeds sublimely, drinking straight from the bottle. Another clipped blues from a smoky downtown club, after hours in the wee small hours.
And so to “Strange Fruit,” a song covered so many times by the great, the good, the bad and the indifferent as to be near impossible to add anything new. It’s okay, good even, but on Blackbirds it isn’t a highlight, if it ever could be, however much it needs singing and singing again, for every generation to hear and hope for it to be history. “Save Your Love For Me” is perhaps also a step too far, the “modernizing” of the sound failing to dent the Cannonball Adderly-enhanced brilliance of Nancy Wilson’s original.
Finally we get the surprise bonus track, given the absence of any link to her heroines of color. The clue is in the name, it being indeed a ghastly anodyne version of “Blackbird,” the Beatles song, channeling Shirley Bassey’s version of “Something.” Yes, that bad. My advice is to skip it and close the show the track before, lest it mar the taste of the rest of the album. Without “Blackbird,” Blackbirds is a creditable addition to the LaVette canon, re-energizing and reinvigorating a rash of songs, mostly to the satisfaction of at least this listener, and containing a couple of tracks up to a career best for this survivor.
- I Hold No Grudge (Nina Simone cover)
- One More Song (Sharon Robinson song)
- Blues For the Weepers (Della Reese cover)
- Book of Lies (Ruth Brown cover)
- Romance in the Dark (Lill Green cover)
- Drinking Again (Dinah Washington cover)
- Strange Fruit (Billie Holiday cover)
- Save Your Love For Me (Nancy Wilson cover)
- Blackbird (Beatles cover)