Bettye LaVette appears to have a thing for setting people straight.
The minute someone hits her with a question about her career that seems the least bit inaccurate, LaVette immediately goes into correcting mode. When this interviewer brings up the several times she recorded in Muscle Shoals, the storied Alabama town where everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones has laid down tracks, she stops the questioning.
“No, I recorded there in 1972 and I recorded this album with the Drive-By Truckers – ‘The Scene of the Crime’ – three or four years ago,” says LaVette, 67, on the phone from her Detroit home. “Those are the only two times I was involved … Muscle Shoals didn’t have a chance to make any more impression on me than anything else that happened to me, because I only did it for a short while.”
And definitely do not lump her in with Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Lee Fields and the rest of these unsung, R&B veterans who are getting a second wind on the revival-soul circuit.
“I haven’t been revived,” she says. “I’m just taking the next step of mine. This isn’t like what happened to Tina Turner or what happened to John Lee Hooker. And that’s what I was telling you. My lineage is a little different from most of my contemporaries.”
Born in Muskegon, Michigan, and raised in Detroit, LaVette started out as an up-and-coming singer in the 1960s, recording singles for local record labels and touring with artists like Ben E. King, Otis Redding and the James Brown Revue. In 1972, she finally made her debut album, “Child of the Seventies,” which was recorded in – you guessed it! – Muscle Shoals. Unfortunately, Atlantic/Atco, her label at the time, chose not to issue it.
After that, her career had some ups and downs. She finally dropped a full-length in 1982, called “Tell Me a Lie,” on Motown. She stopped recording altogether to do a stint performing in the touring company of the musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” But it wasn’t until LaVette played “Child” for French soul music archivist Gilles Petard, who sought out the master recordings from Atlantic and released it on his own label (under the name “Souvenirs”) in 2000, that a Bettye LaVette resurgence began to take shape.
“I made one step 40 years and, now, I’m being able to take a second one,” she says, chuckling. “I’m not a has-been – I’m a never-was.”
All this love she was getting overseas led to her recording and releasing the album “A Woman Like Me” over here in 2003. The album gained critical acclaim and accolades, as well as interest in LaVette’s work. While she was dispensing new music – like her 2005 covers album “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” and the aforementioned “Crime,” which featured Drive-By Truckers as her backing band – most of her old music was being repackaged and rereleased. In 2012, she and music biographer David Ritz collaborated on her autobiography, also titled “A Woman Like Me.”
LaVette continues to be in demand. Fans of the AMC cable channel might have seen her at the beginning of every episode of the gritty (and, now, canceled) cop show “Low Winter Sun,” singing the theme song. (After all, the show was set in Detroit.) And considering that she’ll be in Durham on Thursday, performing at the Carolina Theatre, she continues to tour all over the place.
So, you think that LaVette would finally reap all the benefits that come with being an in-demand performer. LaVette says that’s not the case.
“The only thing I haven’t done thus far is make some money,” she says, surprisingly. “So that would be my next step.”
Wait a minute – you’re not getting paid? “I mean, I’m certainly not starving at all,” she says, setting herself straight. “As long as I’m working – they are paying me. And, certainly, my money has gone up. But I think that I look at it kind of euphemistically because all my friends are rich.”
She suspects more loot will come now that Alicia Keys has bought the rights to her book, but she’s not expecting it to happen soon. “It usually takes forever for a movie to get together,” she says. “So that could be another three or four years down the road.”
Whatever happens down the line, you can expect Bettye LaVette to always come correct.