Bettye LaVette is delighted when she's told that I listened to her new album, the soul-baring I've Got my Own Hell to Raise, at 3 a.m.
"Ooo, that's good," she exclaims over the phone from her home in West Orange, N.J. "Were you sober?"
Yes, I admit, I was.
"Well now, that's not very good," she says, laughing.
LaVette can laugh now, but life hasn't always been so fun for the Detroit Soul singer. For years, she toiled in near-obscurity, barely subsisting from gig to gig while her contemporaries (and next-door neighbors, in some cases) such as Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson all became millionaires.
Discovered at the age of 16 by the "Godmother of Detroit Soul," Johnnie Mae Matthews, LaVette recorded her first single, "My Man, He's a Loving Man," for Northern Records in 1962. The single was picked up by Atlantic Records, eventually climbed to No. 10 on the R&B charts and was later covered by Tina Turner and Ann Peebles.
LaVette's next single, "Take Me Down Easy," cut first for Calla and later for Karen, also charted and would eventually become her signature song. During the next few years, she cut singles for Motown, Big Wheel, Silver Fox, SSS, TCA, ATCO, Epic, West End and Bar/None, but mainstream commercial success always eluded her.
When her manager Jim Lewis (now deceased) suggested that she learn how to cover standards by other popular singers, LaVette balked.
Why cover other singers, she thought, when her own career seemed to be doing just fine?
"I didn't understand what he was talking about for a very long time," LaVette says. "I thought he wanted me to sound like Dinah Washington or Sarah Vaughan or some of the people he liked. It was a long time before I realized that I sounded like somebody all by myself, like nobody else, and that I should sing those songs just the way I would sing it. That's the simplest thing in the world, but you don't think that way when you're young."
In a way, Lewis was prescient — in 1972 Atlantic opted not to release LaVette's second (her first, Tell Me a Lie, had also been scrapped) full-length LP, Child of the Seventies, which she had recorded with the Memphis Horns at the famed studios in Muscle Shoals under the direction of producer Brad Shapiro. After that, LaVette did not record again. But Lewis, through his insistent prodding, had ensured that LaVette would be able to support herself as a touring act, not having to depend on the success or failure of a particular record.
"I think (the powers that be at Atlantic) just didn't know what to do with it," she says. "It isn't always just straight-ahead Rhythm & Blues, and my voice is too coarse to be a Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston, so they didn't have any place to put it. There wasn't a commercial quality to it as they knew commerciality to be.
"At the time, they were only allowing one person — Ray Charles — to sing all kinds of different songs. I don't know any black woman they were allowing to sing all kinds of different songs, but I've always performed like that."
LaVette said her failure to have a hit record saved her from having an "unnatural ego."
"When my records weren't selling, I had nothing," she says. "I had to go with, 'I must not be very good, and everybody else who is selling is, so I should try to find one of them and get as close to them as I possibly can,' and Jim was, 'No! You sound different from anyone else!' And I'm like, 'Yes! That's why they won't promote my records!' "
LaVette remains philosophical about the ordeal.
"Certainly I've had bitter, bitter days, really drunk days and really tearful days," LaVette says. "But there have been a little core group of people who have surrounded me. Some have been there for 40 years ... these people have stuck with me, they've paid bills, they've paid house notes, they've encouraged me to go 100 miles to do a $25 gig that I've run up a $75 tab at."
Her tireless work schedule started to pay off in 2000, when the French label Art and Soul Records acquired the rights to Child of the Seventies and released it under the name Souvenirs.
That album, as well as LaVette's live show, was enough to attract the attention of Anti-Records owner Brett Gurewitz (who also runs sister label Epitaph), who showed up one day in LaVette's dressing room to express interest in recording an album with her.
"They sent this young child to me, in this dingy T-shirt with no socks and a huge Afro, and he's Jewish," she laughs, as she recalls Anti-'s wooing of her. "So I wasn't extremely excited. I didn't feel 'saved.' I felt like, 'Well, let me go see what this is gonna be.' "
She wasn't exactly thrilled with Gurewitz's idea for her to record a collection of songs by all women singers. Over the course of her career, LaVette says, she's rarely sung works by other women singers, preferring to take songs written for men and turn the perspective around.
Still, of the 100 songs she was sent, she chose 10 for I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, including Dolly Parton's "Sparrow," Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero," Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream" and Lucinda Williams' "Joy."
"When I hear a song, I pretty much know what I want to do with it," LaVette says. "With 'Sparrow,' there are many things that a woman from the hills doesn't phrase a girl from the street corners of Detroit would phrase. It's (still) the same story, it's just phrased differently."
When the album was released and the critical praise started to pour in, LaVette, bristling at the notion this was a "comeback" record, wasn't so much surprised as "grateful that someone is finally helping me before I have to start going on stage with a walker," she says. "I'm more relieved than anything else that I won't die in total obscurity."
And the music community at large is making up for lost time.
In 2004, The Blues Foundation presented LaVette with a W.C. Handy Blues Award for "Blues Comeback Album of the Year" for A Woman Like Me (Blues Express, 2003). And on June 29, the Rhythm & Blues Foundation recognized LaVette with an individual Pioneer Award at a ceremony that also honored Chubby Checker, Berry Gordy and Otis Redding.
Though she might have shared the stage with other Soul and Blues greats, there's one thing that many of LaVette's contemporaries can't compete with, despite their gold and platinum records — her figure.
"I'm still a size 6," she cackles. "See, you talk about bitter, that's how mine shows. I'm just doing this for meanness!"
BETTYE LAVETTE performs at Tall Stacks Wednesday at 9:05 p.m. (just before Al Green) on the Great American Insurance Group Stage at Sawyer Point. See more critics' picks for Tall Stacks at http://www.citybeat.com/tallstacks