She’s a one off. She’s celebrating 50 years in the music business as a performer and she’s back. But you’ll have to wait to 1 October for Thankful N’ Thoughtful by the great Detroit singer Bettye LaVette, She’s also written an autobiography with David Ritz, the writer who has produced such compelling if controversially raw books on Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Scott.
Like Scott, Bettye LaVette has had more than her fair share of ups and downs over the years and was a star and then wasn’t, then kind of became one again for a variety of reasons which the book goes into gripping detail about. I didn’t care much for her last album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook which for me laboured the point a bit, but the new record is different.
Coming well ahead of a Jazz Cafe date in London on 11 December as part of a European tour to support the release Thankful was produced by Craig Street, the producer who turned Cassandra Wilson’s career right round in the 1990s when he worked with the Mississipian on the superb Blue Light Til Dawn on which Wilson moved beyond her comfort zone for the first time.
LaVette because of the nature of the kind of R&B she thrives on (roughly Tina Turner land) maybe didn’t have to make such a leap with Street, and as she dips in and out of different styles gives each of them her own emotively compelling life force. The tracks are a mix bag of tunes and on early listens I have been hitting replay on Dylan’s ‘Everything is Broken’ and the left field folk singer Patty Griffin’s song ‘Time Will Do The Talking’ which is just stunning. But there are plenty of other goodies including material by the Black Keys, Tom Waits and Neil Young, and LaVette manages even to breathe new life into Gnarls Barkley’s done-to-death ‘Crazy’, in itself a neat trick. LaVette’s band on the record is Chris Bruce, guitar; Jonathan Wilson guitar, banjo; Glenn Patscha, piano, keys; Jennifer Condos, bass; JJ Johnson, drums, percussion; Steven Bernstein of Sex Mob on ‘Yesterday Is Here’; and Douglas Wieselman, reeds on the same track.
Just ahead of the album release LaVette’s autobiography, A Woman Like Me is published on 27 September.
Bettye LaVette pictured top. Photo: Marina Chavez