From ’60s Motown to the British Invasion, Lavette gives it her all

By From page A9 | April 10, 2012

Fifty years after her first hit single, Bettye Lavette will take the stage Friday, April 13, at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. Courtesy photo

Fifty years after her first hit single, Bettye Lavette will take the stage Friday, April 13, at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis. Courtesy photo


Who: R&B/soul singer Bettye Lavette

When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 13

Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 students; www.mondaviarts.org, (530) 754-2787

R&B/soul singer Bettye Lavette — who scored her first hit single  in the early 1960s, and has more recently found renewed acclaim applying her gutsy, husky voice (and distinctly American style) to songs associated with British Invasion bands — visits the Mondavi Center at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13.

Lavette was born in Muskegeon, Mich. — a blue-collar manufacturing town on the western side of the state, on the shores of Lake Michigan. But her family moved to the Motor City — Detroit — when she was 6.

She began singing in the family living room, learning songs from her parents’ record collection, which included R&B and country-western discs. She became part of Detroit’s thriving music scene in the 1960s.

Her 1962 single “My Man — He’s a Loving Man,” recorded with she was 16, led to a tour with Ben E. King and Otis Redding. Her 1965 hit “Let Me Down Easy” earned her a spot on the nationally broadcast show “Shindig,” and led to a tour with James Brown.

After recording several 45s for Detroit labels, she was signed by Atlantic/Atco in 1972, and recorded a full-length album at the famous studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala. — now a landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But the record company didn’t release that album.

She subsequently cut two singles for Epic, and an album for Motown. She put her recording career on hold in favor of a six-year run (1979-85) in the touring Broadway musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which also featured Harlem Renaissance veterans Cab Calloway and Charles “Honi” Coles. After that, Lavette worked the lounge circuit as a singer for several years.

Lavette’s recording career was revived in the new millennium, when the album she’d recorded for Atlantic in 1972 finally saw release, and she went into the studio to record several new albums. She made a landmark appearance at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, singing The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me,” and winning approving applause from The Who’s Pete Townsend, who wrote the song, and Roger Daltrey, who sang it on their album “Quadrophenia.”

In 2009, Lavette sang at President Obama’s inaugural celebration at the Lincoln Memorial. Later that year, she shared the stage with former Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at Radio City Music Hall.

Her recent albums include 2010’s “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” in which she brings an African-American woman’s perspective to songs originally recorded by The Animals, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and The Who. The disc was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Blues Album category.

“I am an R&B singer, and will do that for the rest of my life — singing is all I know how to do,” she told an interviewer a few years ago. “The songs I sung when I was young, I can really understand them better now. I sing from a woman’s perspective now, while before I was just a naive teenager. I’ve lived some of the songs I sung as a teen, and I sing (now) from a mature woman’s point of view.”

Tickets are $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787.

Jeff Hudson

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