Bettye LaVette's an old soul, through and through

Feb 20, 2008 at 4:00 am

"Hopefully when I see you, I'll have this little Grammy thing," Bettye LaVette says, calling from a scratchy phone line two weeks ago. (She won't have it, however: The award for Best Contemporary Blues Album went to JJ Cale and Eric Clapton.) But the rhythm and blues and soul veteran's Grammy nomination for 2007's The Scene of the Crime remains a personal victory, a comeback and a comeuppance to an industry which wrote her off — and then torched the evidence that they ever seemed to care in the first place.

After some 40 years in obscurity, LaVette staged a vicious return with 2005's Joe Henry-produced album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, last year's Drive-By Truckers-backed Scene and an unflagging touring schedule.

Roy Kasten: Patterson Hood [co-producer of The Scene of the Crime] claims you rejected 50 songs he pitched to you.

Bettye LaVette: It was not. It was 49. I didn't want to sing them. It's not that I didn't like them. Liking a song and singing it are two different things. Because of age and just meeting me, it would be hard for him to pick someone for me to make love to, because that's the way I look at [choosing a song].

I have a hard time picturing you picking Elton John to make love to.

I didn't pick Elton John. I picked the song ["Talking Old Soldiers"]. I don't think of the artist. I just hear the song, almost like it comes right off a piece of paper. I only hear what I'm going to do with it. I'm a very, very self-centered singer. It's like looking for a dress. I don't think, "Wow, that looks really good on Elton John." I just look at the dress, and if I like the dress, I put it on and buy it!

You've said that you don't think of yourself as a soul singer.

No, I said there is no such thing as a soul singer. Anyone who sings soulfully — [Enrico] Caruso, anybody — is a soul singer. It's a white euphemism. I've never heard any of us describe ourselves as soul singers. We've always thought of ourselves as R&B singers. I started to use the word to explain myself to people in Argentina or places like that. If I said rhythm and blues, they wouldn't understand it. But I'm a rhythm and blues singer of the purest sort. There's only a few of us around. Solomon Burke, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin. We know who we are!

Was your manager John Lewis (recently deceased) important for thinking of yourself as a singer?

I'm always glad when I get to say his name, because he never thought I was going to do anything! But he made me learn good songs, which enabled me to do Broadway or sing in New Orleans, because I knew "St. James Infirmary" and "Bill Bailey." As a star, I wouldn't have learned them. Why would I need them? But he said, "You and your little friends don't know how to sing." By "little friends" he meant all the people at Motown and in Detroit. He said, "You better learn your craft and be worthy of your union card." He made me believe in my voice. I thought my voice wasn't good, because I couldn't get a record company to do for me what they were doing for my friends. But he said, "You have a unique sound. You have to believe in it. Let your sound come out of your mouth."