Soul singer on a punk label: Bettye LaVette in a nutshell

Sep 26, 2006 at 6:12 pm
Bettye Lavette
Bettye Lavette
Soul singer Bettye LaVette came of age in Detroit at a time when the town’s music scene was exploding. As she remembers, “I was a little younger than everybody else, but as a teenager all of my friends were recording. Some went on to become big stars, others wound up working for General Motors.” LaVette’s fate fell somewhere in between.

Though not from a particularly musical family, she always sensed this as her unique vocation. “My mother’s from Louisiana, and all the black people there were Catholics who sang gospel real well and drank even better. So, my mother had a wonderful voice but — except for a relative who literally ran off to join the circus — I was an oddity in my family,” she explains.

To her credit, LaVette persevered with dignity and assurance during the many years she seemed to be the odd one out in her musical family. The industry that she loves repeatedly misrouted her trajectory and never fully acknowledged LaVette for her amazing gifts as a vocalist and overall performer. That is, until recently. Through a strange series of events, some of LaVette’s early work was re-discovered, re-released and, in some cases, released for the very first time. The enormous response to these lost gems led to a new deal with noted punk label ANTI and a working relationship with producer Joe Henry. The results are astounding.

LaVette will feature many of the songs she has interpreted of late — including tunes penned by the likes of Aimee Mann and Lucinda Williams — when she rolls into town next week. But be warned, she is intense in a live setting. As LaVette confides, “It’s a very physical thing. I’m a little woman who sings real hard. Sometimes I come off stage feeling like somebody’s been kicking me in the stomach. But I love it. It’s the only thing I know how to do.”

Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper
Alice Cooper first made a name for himself (quite literally — his real name is Vincent Furnier) in the late 1960s as a daring showman and solid craftsman of songs. His shock-rock antics yielded Cooper numerous radio hits, and his groundbreaking albums have inspired legions of aspiring musicians. Still, the pairing of Cooper with the Rolling Stones, at first glance, seems to be a strange match.

But beneath the surface, there is a real connection that was not lost on either act. As Cooper explains during a recent interview with LEO, “When the British Invasion first came along, I was at the perfect age for getting it. The Beatles and the Stones came out, and I thought to myself, ‘That looks like fun.’ So, when I was 16 I put a band together, and to this day rock ’n’ roll has been the only job I’ve ever had.”

Given the nature of his occupation, Cooper initially had trouble determining whether or not he was on the clock. “I used to think that people would be disappointed if they ran into me on the streets and I wasn’t handling snakes, wearing make-up and acting the part,” he says. “But I’ve come to realize that I only have to be Alice for two hours a night, and that’s just when I’m touring. Otherwise, there’s no reason to be that persona.”

In addition to his day job, Cooper appears to be a man of many hobbies. The premier rock ’n’ roll villain is not at all ashamed of his affection for golf. He is also the proud proprietor of a chain of restaurants. And in what’s left of his spare time, Cooper functions as a popular syndicated disc jockey with a real niche of his own. “On my show I play the classics that seem to have disappeared. Like most listeners, I grew weary of the steady diet of Zeppelin and AC/DC that has been the standard offering for so long. From me you also get stuff like the Hollies, Zappa, Procol Harum and anything else I wanna play that day.”

Not surprisingly, Cooper is excited that his 40-year career will now come full circle. “You know what’s really amazing? I bet there are 50 people a week that come up to me and say that I was their first concert. It’s staggering. But now, after all these years, I actually get to open for one of the first bands I ever saw. And that is a cool thing to be able to do.”