By Wil Comstock
MCAU Contributing Writer
22nd Annual Americana Music Awards
As I put my hands to the keyboard, I know you have already heard, read or seen who the winners were at this year’s AMA’s. I would like to write about one winner in particular who has been overlooked for more than 50 years. She has always been here in plain sight. Finally, her day has come… the unstoppable, Bettye Lavette, winner of the Legacy of Americana Award in Lifetime Achievement.
Accepting the award, Bettye said, “I have been in this business for 62 years. And I have lost all humility; I deserve this award!” The New York Times called her “one of the great soul interpreters of her generation.”
Jon Bon Jovi says of Lavette, “Some singers sing – then there is Bettye, she doesn’t just sing the song, she lives in each one of them. I’ve stood close enough to see it in her eyes.”
Bettye performed the Randall Bramblett classic “In the Meantime” with all of the grit and soul this 77-year-old woman has acquired over her lifetime.
In 1962, at 16, she recorded her first single, “My Man, He’s a Lovin’ Man,” produced by local record producer Johnnie Mae Matthews, which Atlantic records later picked up. It became a huge R&B record between 1963-1964. In 1965, she charted with “Let Me Down Easy” on Calla Records. She continued to record but without much commercial success. Atco did not release her “Child of the Seventies” album. In 1979, she was asked to join the touring company of “Bubbling Brown Sugar”cast as Sweet Georgia Brown. She appeared with Honi Coles and Cab Calloway during the show’s six-year run.
French soul music collector Gilles Petard got a hold of Lavette’s previously unreleased master of “Child of the Seventies,” which she recorded for Atlantic. He released it as “Souvenirs” in 2000. At the same time, Dutch fan Ben Mattijssen recorded Bettye at a live show in Utrecht, Holland, and released it as “Let Me Down Easy – In Concert” on hisMunich label. These two CDs, released almost simultaneously, created a renewed interest in Bettye, and showed that she was still in great voice.
In 2002, Grammy Award-winning producer Dennis Walker got her signed to Blues Express, and they made her “comeback” CD, “A Woman Like Me.” Later that year, Mike Kappus, president of Rosebud Booking Agency, signed her on, prompting the release of “A Woman Like Me” in 2003. Bettye won the Blues Foundation’s W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year, as well as the Living Blues Critics Pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004!
Kappus invited ANTI- Records President Andy Kaulkin to see one of Bettye’s shows. On the strength of her performance, Kaulkin asked Bettye to sign a three-record deal. Her first album was with Grammy Award-winning producer Joe Henry, who suggested an album of songs written entirely by women. The result was the album “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” which was on many critics’ “Best of 2005” lists. Her second album for ANTI, “The Scene of the Crime,” was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios with Drive-By Truckers. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
In 2006, she received the Pioneer Award from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation. She received a Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer in 2008. In December of that year, she performed a critically acclaimed version of “Love Reign O’er Me” at The Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute to Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend of the Who, who were among the honorees.
In May 2010, her third ANTI- CD, “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” was released to rave reviews. Lavette’s husband, Kevin Kiley, suggested the idea after her performance of “Love Reign O’er Me” at The Kennedy Center Honors.
The year 2012 saw the release of her no holds barred auto-biography, “A Woman Like Me,” co-authored with David Ritz, who has written biographies on Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye.
Verve Records released “Things Have Changed” in late 2016, an album of Bob Dylan covers. Grammy Award-winning Producer Steve Jordan was at the helm. In 2019, It was nominated for two Grammy Awards, one for Best Americana Album, and the song “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight” for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
In 2020 Bettye’s second Verve album, “Blackbirds,” was released. It consisted of songs by black female singers from the ‘50s and ‘60s that inspired her early in her career. Again, she teamed with drummer/producer Steve Jordan. She was also inducted into The Blues Hall of Fame and received a Blues Music Award for Soul Blues Female Artist. In 2021, Blackbirds received a Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
This year saw the release of “Lavette!”, an album of Randall Bramblett covers produced by Steve Jordan. Bettye declares Bramblett to be “the best writer that I have heard in the last 30 years.” This album has a stellar line up of musicians including Steve Winwood, Jon Batiste, John Mayer, and Larry Campbell, as well as Jordan. Lavette is daring and vulnerable as she stakes new ground on this collection of gems.