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The 'Return' of Soul Singer Bettye LaVette


Detroit rhythm and blues singer Bettye Lavette had a couple of hit records in the 1960s. After that, she disappeared from the charts, but that doesn't mean she stopped working and recording. On her new album, she covers 10 songs. All are written by women, and they roughly follow the story of Lavette's life. The CD is called "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise." Meredith Ochs has a review.

(Soundbite of "Joy")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) Joy...

MEREDITH OCHS reporting:

Bettye Lavette's voice possesses an undeniable power. Unlike a lot of soul singers, Lavette didn't grow up singing gospel music in church. Hers is a pure blues growl, fiercely emotional, commanding you to pay attention the way Aretha Franklin demanded respect.

(Soundbite of "Joy")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) Oh, my joy. I don't like it no more 'cause they took my joy. I don't like it no more 'cause they took my joy. They took my joy. I want it back.

OCHS: On this song, an intense reconfiguring of Lucinda Williams' "Joy," Lavette retraces the steps of her lengthy career, replacing Lucinda's map of the South with one of her own travails: Detroit, New York, Memphis, Mussel Shoals; each destination a city where Lavette took a shot at stardom and was robbed of what might have been hers.

(Soundbite of "Joy")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) Maybe in Memphis I'd find joy. So then I went to Mussel Shoals looking for my joy, went to Mussel Shoals looking for my joy. I thought maybe in the Shoals, I could find some joy. Maybe in the Shoals, I could find some some joy.

OCHS: Bettye Lavette's new CD practically jumps out of the speakers when you play it, thanks to producer Joe Henry. Henry's a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter known for making rootsy records with an ethereal stamp. On this disc, he captures a warm sound that puts you right in the middle of the room with all the musicians. Its unpolished sound is something you don't often hear on contemporary records, and it's the perfect setting for Bettye Lavette. Her voice is so strong that it functions as if it were another instrument in the ensemble, standing out with its own natural force on songs like this one, Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream."

(Soundbite of "Sleep to Dream")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) I've got my feet on the ground, and I don't sleep to dream. You got your head in the clouds, and you ain't all what you seem. This mindless body, this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways. So don't you come here with that, I've got my own hell to raise.

OCHS: Bettye Lavette's career has been a slow burn. It's allowed her to fully develop her astonishing vocal gift and granted her artistic license to sing whatever she pleases, like the country, rock and folk songs on this disc. The most telling of her choices, though, is this gritty take on Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got."

(Soundbite of "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) So I'm walking through this desert, and I'm not scared although it's so hot. I have everything that I've ever requested, and I do not want what I have not got.

OCHS: Lavette once said that she's grateful to have not been a one-hit wonder so she wouldn't have to sing the same song every night for the rest of her life. And listening to her breathe fire and profundity into these songs, I'm grateful for that, too.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) Love the feeling when you're reeling...

BLOCK: The album from Bettye Lavette is called "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise." Our reviewer is Meredith Ochs.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) ...we're leaving for another one. Now you're walking with your feet back down on the ground, down to the ground, down to the ground.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Meredith Ochs