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On the Comeback Trail

Soul singer Bettye LaVette on the path from obscurity to sensation.

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Bettye LaVette was just a kid when she first traveled to Memphis at the end of the 1960s to cut "At the Mercy of a Man" and "Love Made a Fool of Me" -- two of the most incendiary slabs of hot-buttered soul music ever heard -- yet she recalls the sessions like they were yesterday.

"I stayed at the Holiday Inn Rivermont and recorded at Sounds of Memphis. I had a great time in Memphis. I spent a tremendous amount of time there at the record company's expense," she says, and explains with a giggle: "I was in love with one of the Memphis Horns."

At the time, LaVette was hot on the comeback trail after failing to record another chart-topper following her first big hit, "My Man -- He's a Loving Man," which was released on Atlantic Records in 1963. The Michigan native bounced from Scepter Records to the tiny Calla imprint before Kenny Rogers happened upon her version of his song "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)."

"Kenny thought it was the greatest version he'd ever heard," LaVette says. "He called his brother Lelan, who signed me to his label, Silver Fox/SSS International."

Lelan Rogers produced the Sounds of Memphis sessions (which yielded 13 tracks, released this year as Take Another Little Piece of My Heart), pairing LaVette with the Dixie Flyers, a local session group featuring organist Jim Dickinson, guitarist Charlie Freeman, drummer Sammy Creason, and bassist Tommy McClure. The studio, an old tobacco warehouse on Camilla Street, provided the perfect backdrop for the raspy-voiced soul singer and the white rhythm section, laying the groundwork for similar sessions the Dixie Flyers would do with Aretha Franklin at Miami's Criteria Studio a few months later.

Franklin became a superstar, but LaVette nearly wound up a mere footnote in soul-music history.

She cut an abortive effort for Atlantic Records in Muscle Shoals and tried her hand at disco. She landed at Motown in the '80s, long after that well had run dry. Over the last two decades, she more than earned her reputation as a stellar live performer and even won a W.C. Handy Award for 2003's A Woman Like Me, but she was still one of the most underappreciated soul singers on the contemporary chitlin circuit.

Then, about 16 months ago, something incredible happened: Following in Solomon Burke's footsteps, LaVette struck a deal with Anti- Records. By May 2005, she and producer Joe Henry were holed up in a recording studio, culling from a hundred potential tracks and choosing Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," Lucinda Williams' "Joy," Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero," and seven others. Backed by a mellow team of session musicians (including guitarist Doyle Bramhall II and Prince keyboardist Lisa Coleman), LaVette opened her mouth and let that magnificent voice roar.

The album, I've Got My Own Hell To Raise, puts Lady Soul's previous effort, 2003's So Damn Happy, to shame.

LaVette wrings every emotion from Rosanne Cash's "On the Surface" and Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream." She injects Williams' already fierce battle cry with her own gut-wrenching autobiographical material, hollering "Maybe in Memphis I'll find joooyyyyy" over a bold tom-tom beat. She epitomizes the very meaning of soul on her jaunty cover of Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different" and her thrillingly dark take on Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow." She distills the bare essence of O'Connor's love song into a thrillingly stark gospel number, eschewing instrumentation for an opportunity to show off her sandpapery vocals.

"People think there are genres of songs, but there are really genres of singers -- a song is nothing but words on paper, and the melody is just a melody," LaVette says of her ability to turn a pop or country tune into pure soul.

"I liked what [O'Connor] was saying, but she used too many words. I knew I could cut to the chase and make the song more poignant, because I've had these life experiences. The chord changes were what drew me to 'Little Sparrow.' The melodies always appeal to me first, then I go back and hope [the songwriter] had something good to say. With 'Joy,' that's just the way I heard it. I wanted to say Detroit, New York, Memphis, and Muscle Shoals, all those places."

At nearly 60 years old, LaVette has finally found that comeback she was looking for, as critical accolades rolled in and I've Got My Own Hell To Raise turned up on the Billboard charts. The best part of her success, she says, is "picking up my own tabs and paying my own bills.

"For the last 45 years, other people have done it," LaVette says. "I never had a 'real' job. Last year, I was able to pay taxes, which was very exciting."

There's already talk about returning to the recording studio this winter, although LaVette refuses to divulge details, earthily explaining, "You know, sugar turns to shit so fast.

"Right now, I'm just looking forward to coming to Memphis," she says. "It's always wonderful to visit the scene of an early crime."

BettyeLaVette.com

Bettye LaVette

Gibson Lounge

Thursday, September 28th

Showtime at 9 p.m.; tickets $20

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