November 20, 2018

FOLK/Music Bettye LaVette, Rhythm and blues

Friday: 9 p.m. Penobscot; Saturday: 1:15 p.m. Kenduskeag, 7:45 p.m. Railroad

Bettye LaVette may be the best blues singer you never heard of – but not for long. LaVette is in her prime. She spent four decades singing professionally without achieving the level of commercial success her talent warrants. Now LaVette is the talk of “those in the know” in the blues world, a singer’s singer, who is finally receiving the attention and acclaim she deserves.

Unlike most of her peers, she did not grow up in a Baptist church singing gospel. She says, “I am a child of the blues,” which was the music she heard as a child growing up in Detroit. She was a teenager in 1962 when she scored a Top 10 R&B hit, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man” and was signed to her first major label. In her early years, she toured with the James Brown Revue and appeared at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater with Ben E. King, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

With a style more timeless than trendy, LaVette’s blend of R&B, blues and Southern soul made it difficult for record labels to categorize and market her successfully. An album she recorded in 1973 was shelved the day before it was to be released. Says LaVette, “They told me they were not going to release my album for ‘quality control’ reasons.” The record company wanted to put its finances behind promoting a new Aretha Franklin album. “I probably would’ve wanted to put every dollar behind her, too,” LaVette says, “but it took some time for me to deal with all of that.”

Yet, in some way, LaVette’s stylistic breadth has been a career asset, allowing her to thrive in venues as disparate as down-home juke joints, big-city blues bars, the Broadway stage (in a leading role in the hit “Bubbling Brown Sugar”) and jazz clubs. She developed a following in Europe and remains a cult figure among soul fans in the United Kingdom. Her disco hit “Doin’ The Best I Can” in 1978 was an underground club classic and sold more than 100,000 copies. As the singer says, “My records never made it to the top. So I turned my attention to developing my style of singing and becoming the best performer I could. I probably look different and sound different than all of my contemporaries.”

In 2000, LaVette released two CDs to great critical acclaim. She was nominated for the W.C. Handy Soul/Blues-Female Artist of the Year and in 2004 was named the Best Female Blues Artist in the Living Blues Critics Poll, and the No. 1 Artist Deserving More Attention by Living Blues magazine.

Backed by a tight four-piece band (keyboards, guitar, bass and drums), LaVette’s dynamic performances are gritty and soulful. As The New York Times’ Jon Pareles wrote, “It was pure, magnificent soul: passion carried by an eloquent voice and exquisite timing. And she was only getting started.”

R&B historian Dave Godin said, “Betty LaVette, with her remarkable vocal range, and stamina, is one of soul music’s finest and most accomplished exponents. … She can pack a punch that will knock you out.”

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