Bettye Lavette released her first single, “My Man--He’s a Loving Man” in 1962. It was a top 10 R'n'B hit, but failed to crack the pop charts. 1965 and 1969 saw further activity and she kept recording but it wasn't until twenty years later she finally managed to release an entire album in 1982. Somehow, another twenty-odd years then passed without a real follow-up in the States, though there were a few imports available, spaced years apart. Then finally, as she neared the age of 60, her momentum started to build, first with A Woman Like Me, released in 2003, then with the grammy-nominated The Scene of the Crime from 2007, and now with the brilliant Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, Bettye, now at retirement age, is finally getting recognized as one of the greatest living American blues singers and has assumed a pretty high profile in the music world. Yes, that was her singing "A Change is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi at Obama's inauguration concert and she's been very visible the past couple of years.
Last night she and her four-piece band rolled into the Great American Music Hall to highlight material from the new album in an hour and a half show that at times felt incredibly intimate and at others like she was about to blow the walls off the relatively small confines of the GAMH. A pretty impressive feat for a 65 year old woman. I've read Esquire has dubbed her "the sexiest singer alive." I can understand why. Talent, and mean hip-shake are pretty damn sexy.
The band opened on its own for one song about whiskey and then Lavette hit the stage to do a romped-up swamp-boogie version of the Beatles' "The Word." I was hooked and she held me through the next thirteen or fourteen songs. An American blues singer singing the British rock songbook doesn't sound that promising on paper until you're reminded by hearing these songs done this way how indebted the British were to American music, especially the blues. For a different take on this I'd urge you to get a copy of the TAMI Show and watch it. Focusing on material mostly from the sixties and seventies, Lavette ranged from Ray Charles (yes, not British) to Led Zeppelin. Highlights included an amazing, sexually charged-blues-laden version of the Moody Blues "Nights in White Satin," Bernie Taupin's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" (which sounded nothing like any version I've heard before) and the Who's Love Reign O'er Me." A crowd favorite was certainly Zeppelin's "All of My Love" but since I think that's the worst Zeppelin song ever and the band missed a great opportunity to exchange the cheesy keyboard part for some serious guitar- for me it was the weak point in the set but the audience ate it up.
Before she sang "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me," Lavette claimed "senior privilege" and asked the standing crowd to part so the people in back could see her as she sat down on the stage to rest her legs while she sung the song. It was incredibly moving and for me it was the highlight of a set that had many to choose from.
Lavette also spurned the love of a young woman who wanted to show how much she loved Bettye by yelling out everything she knew. When Lavette mentioned that she's had the honor of singing in front of two Presidents, the girl yelled out "A Change is Gonna Come!" to which Lavette replied "It's my show. Let me do the show." If for no other reason, though there are so many more, I too, love Bettye Lavette. If she's coming your way, don't miss her. The only other female blues singer I've ever seen who is this good was Etta James back in the 70's. And that's the word.
Randy and Steve- great meeting you guys and thanks for being chill once we got it all worked out. Drinks are on me next time we all meet again, which in this town, is inevitable- especially since we live in the same neighborhood.