Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Soul of Bettye LaVette

HERE at The Misread City, we’re longtime fans of the LA-based biographer and ghostwriter David Ritz. Many of you know his work – his definitive biography of Marvin Gaye, Divided Soul, and his "collaborative autobiographies" of Ray Charles, Jerry Wexler, Cornel West, and many others. He’s among the most productive and genuinely soulful people we know. (Ritz is, among other things, a former student of one of our intellectual heroes, Leslie Fiedler.)

Ritz’s latest book is on the once lost – now found -- R&B singer Bettye LaVette, who exits both inside and outside of the tradition. She can build up a phrase like Otis Redding, and she can smear her tones like Eric Dolphy. “She is a voice from the wilderness,” Pete Townshend has said. “How did we miss her for so long?

Ritz captures that voice, and her strange, at times very sad, at times hilarious story, in A Woman Like Me. (Don’t take out word for it: Elvis Costello loves the book as well.)

LaVette also has a new record, Thankful 'n' Thoughtful, on the Anti- label. It's got her usual counter-intutive set list, with songs by Dylan, the Black Keys, Neil Young, and two versions (one of them wonderful) of Ewan MacColl's "Dirty Old Town" -- originally written about Salford, Lancashire, which makes me wonder how long it will take her to cover The Smiths.

We spoke to Ritz about LaVette’s roller-coaster career, the book and his work as a ghost writer.

Bettye LaVette manages to be both a classic soul singer in her vocal tone and technique, and also a real individualist: It takes just a bar or two to tell it’s her. Can you describe her style, her approach to a song?

She describes herself as a rhythm and blues singer—and I think that’s accurate. She’s street-trained in the Etta James/Otis Redding school of singing: unrestrained emotional expression; idiosyncratic style over self-conscious composure; emphasis on percussive narrative. Let the beat drive the story. Sing conversationally. Stay  loose. Never fear the funk cause the funk is deepest and messiest truth. Like all the great soul singers—Marvin, Ray, David Ruffin—she’s also informed by jazz. Her sense of harmony is highly sophisticated and her phrasing, though raw, has jazz-like cadences. The way she elongates a line. The way she cuts off a phrase.

One of the things that makes LaVette so distinctive is her choice of material. Unlike a lot of R&B singers, she doesn’t sing many blues numbers or classic soul tunes, at least not on her recent albums, but rather songs by everyone from Ewan MacColl to Tom Waits to Aimee Mann. One of her records was produced by musician Joe Henry, an inspired choice but hardly an obvious one. Where does that impulse come from?

She’s an iconoclast by nature. She resists the obvious. She’s also a searcher. She’ll search out various writers—say, George Jones—and learn their entire oeuvre. She and her husband Kevin, a brilliant musicologist, are fearless about seeking out esoteric material. They never stop looking for good stories set to music. They search far beyond the R&B genre because they know if the song is righteous Bettye has the chops to reinvent it.

As riveting a musician as she is, LaVette spent decades poor and obscure, at times working as a prostitute. Was it just bad luck that put her so far on the margins for so long?

God only knows. Why some great artists hit early while others hit late or not at all is an eternal mystery. We can look back and analyze but I prefer to leave the mystery in tact. Who can say why the planets align the way they do? Was her it fault that she languished in obscurity for so long? Probably yes, probably no. Why does the cosmos conspire to bless one artist and deny another? Who knows? I’m just glad she’s finally made it.

What is LaVette like temperamentally? Intense? Laid back? Guarded? Funny or deeply sober?

Sober is not a word you’d apply to Bettye. Neither would you call her laid back. She is not guarded. I know no one more candid. She is funny, even hysterical. She’s intense. Her mind is fascinating. Her brilliance is always on full display.

It’s interesting how she breaks from the classic grounding of soul music and the black church, or at least Christianity. “My story is one in which Jesus will not be making an appearance,” she says in the book. “My feeling then and now is that if God is fond of black people, he has shown his affection only recently.” How typical is this point of view, have you found, among black musicians of her generation?

Given her cultural background, her atheism is highly unusual. It’s also refreshing. A believer myself, I was happy to be challenged over and again by her skepticism about the Christian story. Bettye’s strongly anti-authoritarian. She also likes to use language to shock. Her main tool, as a singer and conversationalist, is surprise.

You’ve spent time with a lot of subjects for as-told-to novels… Many of them are black musicians whose backgrounds are in basic ways very different from yours. Part of your job is to capture their voices, or maybe merge them with your own? My guess is that the trick is a bit like the secret to improvising: You listen. But what else is there?

Love. It helps enormously to offer love to your collaborator. Love comes in the form of not simply listening, but listening with your heart as well as your head. Love comes in the form of not judging your subject. Love is also expressed in patience. Letting her take as long as she needs to tell her story.

Love also comes in the language you use to ask questions. Even the tough questions ideally should come from a place of love. Love is also the source of my enthusiasm. And without enthusiasm—for the mere fact of hanging out with Bettye, for the joy of hearing her speak, for the privilege of channeling her voice and sculpting her story—the work becomes dull. With enthusiasm, art is possible. A groove can be set. A story can be told. 

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