Classic Soul Music

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Imagine a Thursday night in L.A., sitting on the edge of a seat in a funky dark-lit bar that usually hosts young rock'n'roll and punk performers. The Echo Cafe in Silverlake is not the most likely place you'd find me on any night of the week but I'm here to see Bettye Lavette, one of few remaining real authentic no-shit female soul singers who started her career in the '60s. I'm sitting next to another member of that ever-diminishing breed, my good friend Thelma Jones. I've known Bettye since the mid'70s when a single on Epic Records was my 'excuse' to interview her for Britain's "Blues & Soul" magazine. We've had a few 'moments', me and Miss Bettye: when she was visting NYC in the late '70s, she needed a place to crash - and my studio apartment was it! Over the years, we would chat periodically: when a small French label was brave enough to issue her long-lost lone Atco album in the '90s, I got to contribute a few lines to the liner notes and when Bettye signed with a tiny San Francisco label a few years ago, it was an excuse to finally see her live after having spent some time with her in L.A. while she was recording the album for Blues Express.

I trotted off with my friend Rudy Calvo (the renowned make-up artist and stylist and major soul fan) and there we were in a truly little SF club watching Bettye do her thing - and what a thing! She was unlike almost any other performer I'd ever seen, pouring her heart, soul and guts into songs that I'd known through years of listening to her from back in '65. She was deep. Unfettered, unaffacted, just real as all could be. It was scary to see so much emotion come out of one tiny body (cause Bettye is no big mama but almost fragile and slim unlike most hardcore R&B been-through-it-all performers). She sang like she was on the edge, 'bout to break down. And when she sang "Your Time To Cry" and her all-time classic "Let Me Down Easy," she delivered with such feeling, grown men were weeping.

Thankfully with some prompting Mike Kappus of The Rosebud Agency was there that night and the next few nights, Bettye was seen by more than a few notable pop and rock luminaries such as Huey Lewis and Bonnie Raitt. Those SF gigs turned Bettye's career around. She was truly - in her own words - on her last career 'legs,' having struggled to make ends meet without any real representation, no major label and just occasional gigs in Europe and at home in Detroit somehow helping to pay the bills. Within a couple of years, Mike had Bettye working more than she ever had in her entire life. She had married, left Detroit and moved to New Jersey. Now, she had a record deal with Anti Records, a primarily rock label based - where else but in Silverlake, a few blocks from The Echo Cafe...

Just a week or so before, I had sat stunned in my bedroom seeing Bettye on "The David Letterman Show"! I actually cried a little. Not just because of the stellar performance she gave but because this was her first EVER major national appearance on any late night show after a 44-year-long career. Talk about survival. Damn. And singing Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow" she was just as real as she had been that night in San Francisco...

The Echo Cafe show confirmed that Bettye Lavette is indeed in the top 3 performers I've ever seen in my 40 years as a soul music fan, up there with '60s Aretha and Nina Simone. I watched intently as she delivered song after song from her upcoming album "I've Got My Own Hell To Raise," songs written by female artists which seem tailor-made for this woman who is finally finally coming into her own. Thelma J. was speechless at the end of the show when Bettye rendered a throw-down of the acapella opening track on the album. So was I. Afterwards, I told Bettye that seeing her on the Letterman show had me saying, 'There really is a God!" She hollered and was effusive in her greeting of Thelma, telling her how honored she was to meet her. Thelma was inspired and encouraged that doing a real soul album could get her out there too. And I pledged to do whatever I could to promote Bettye's new album via the website...and was inspired to start this blog as a result.

My friend and colleague Michael Lewis called me yesterday to tell me that Bettye had made it to the front page of the L.A. Times Calendar section. Soul justice: in a musick world of fakery and fools, Bettye Lavette is the passionate, no-holds-barred, make-you-wanna-slap-somebody real real deal. Yes, her time is here and yes, karma is a mother, hanging in there when you got a soulful mission will pay off and yes, there is a God! Nuff said, y'all.