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Picking Up the Pieces

Survivor Bettye LaVette savors success.



"I'm not searching for anything," says R&B survivor Bettye LaVette, a down-to-earth diva whose recent critical accolades and revived popularity contradict the old saw about the absence of second acts in America. The husky-voiced singer was 16 when she cut her first single, "My Man, He's a Loving Man," and rolled out of Detroit on tour with headliner Ben E. King and an up-and-comer named Otis Redding. The Scene of the Crime, her 2008 collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers, earned LaVette a Grammy nomination for best contemporary blues performance. "My next round birthday is 70," she brags. "I can't imagine what I would be searching for."

A Grammy win, she concedes, would be nice. And she's always searching for songs that say things she wants to say. Songs like The Scene of the Crime's "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces" and her signature song, "Let Me Down Easy."

LaVette's not a music enthusiast. "Old movies are my thing," she says. "And let me tell you about one scene that used to make me cry every time." What the singer describes isn't a scene from a movie but a familiar device. "You know the scene where somebody's flying somewhere and you see the plane in the sky and the names of the cities flash up on the screen? New York, Paris, and London. That's the scene that always made me cry, because my friends had been to all those places and I hadn't." That's all past tense now.

The Detroit soul scene was just beginning to percolate in the early 1960s, when LaVette made her first recordings for Atlantic. Smokey Robinson was her neighbor.

"So many people have asked me, 'What was it like to cut a record when you were only 16?' And I tell them that in 1962 in Detroit that's just what you did. Everybody had a record or was cutting a record," LaVette says.

In spite of her early successes, LaVette was given plenty of reasons to doubt herself. "I sounded more like Wilson Pickett than Dionne Warwick," she says, recalling a time when her greatest asset was also an obstacle.

Her 1972 album Child of the Seventies, recorded in Muscle Shoals, was shelved for 30 years without any explanation. In fact, the album title The Scene of the Crime, recorded in Muscle Shoals in 2007, is an inside joke, referring to the mysterious shelving of Child of the Seventies.

"Of course, there's the insecurities," LaVette says. "But the only people who didn't like me were inside the industry. I kept picking up fans. Maybe only 50 a year some years, but they all stayed with me."

Today, LaVette is thankful that fame was so elusive. "I met a better class of people," she says. "People who didn't want something from me."

Even in leaner times she found work. "Let Me Down Easy" remained popular and eventually took her to London and Paris. She also was able to make bold career moves, like her six-year run in the hit Broadway show Bubbling Brown Sugar.

"I'm working on a show now," LaVette says. "I'd like to do something where I tell some stories and sing all the kinds of music from every part of my career."

Bettye LaVette

Sunday, May 1st

FedEx Blues Tent, 8:50 p.m.

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