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Bettye LaVette: The Greatest Unknown Soul Singer in the World
Nov. 28, 2005. Lee's Palace, Toronto

Click here for photos of Bettye's show, and here for pics from her Nov. 2006 show.



It’s beginning to appear that after over forty years in the music business, the woman often described as the “greatest unknown soul singer in the world” may finally be losing that terrible and mysterious “unknown” adjective.

Betty LaVette recorded the first of her singles in 1962 when she was 16, but it took ten more years before she recorded her first album – and another eighteen before it was finally released by a French label in 2000.

That’s why at her recent Lee’s Palace show, Bettye could say “I’ve been recording for over 40 years, and I never won nothing!” – until, as she proudly said, she won a W.C. Handy Blues Award in 2004 for A Woman Like Me. (“My award-winning album — I never get tired of saying that).”

That award, and the raves that her new CD (I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise) has received drew extensive local press coverage — and a full hour of air play on CKLN by Tien Providence. These helped draw a full house to Lee’s Palace on a cold and damp end-of-November Monday night. It took just one song to get the crowd roaring along with her.

While she appreciated the enthusiastic "Whoooo’s" during the song, Bettye suggested skipping them “unless you can do them in tune”. For the next hour and a half, the whoooing stopped, but the audience kept up the noise, energy and participation in the soul-shaking performance that followed.

For her next song, Bettye re-worked Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” into a cross-country tour of her struggles in the music business. Detroit, New York, Memphis, Muscle Shoals… she had tried making it in all of them, but the industry was not ready for her. Over the bottom-heavy growl of her band, she tore through her frustrations:

Don’t like it no more because they took my joy
I want it back …
Sought it in Detroit…
I went to New York I was looking for my joy…
…Maybe in Muscle Shoals I could find some JOOOYYY”
, she cried with no luck.

Bettye has one of the greatest voices in soul music. She draws—and earns—adjectives like “scorching”, and “searing”. Errol Nazareth on CBC’s Metro Morning used the phrase “frightening intensity” to describe her singing. I agree. After numerous listens to her new CD, and seeing her perform at Lee’s, I know she can scare you: scare you with her intensity, scare you with the visible and palatable pain in some songs, with power and exultation in others.

But she brings far more to her performance than a voice. She’s a true master of her songs. She doesn’t write her songs, but she owns each of them as if she did. She believes in the song (“If I sing it, I would more than likely say it”), then re-makes what it was through her sound, her emotion, by changing lyrics to make the song belong to her, and then… she lives it. She lives her songs on record, and boy, she sure lives them on stage.

She lived those songs to a depth of emotion that was at times overwhelming, often unbearably painful. Her voice, her face, her body, her movements all lived out every bit of truth and passion contained in each song. It seemed there could be nothing left of a song after Bettye finished showing us what it really meant, what it really felt like, what it really was.

It was a draining, cathartic, and awesome experience being part of Bettye’s night on stage.

And, like many other veteran performers, she knows how to connect to the audience.

She told us that the title to one song was a secret — each night, she would only tell one person in the audience what it was. She then leaned over the stage edge, close to a woman standing nearby, and passed on the secret in a whisper. (But close enough to the mike, that we all heard her whisper… “Serves Him Right”) Throughout the night, she regularly looked at or pointed to someone up front, and gave a bit of advice or truth from her songs. There were many warnings to women to avoid the pain and heartbreak she sang about.

Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” became a terrible warning about the ”lowdown, lyin’ evil” ways of men. She left nothing unturned when she cried out her desperate warning:

“Oh my sisters, listen to me.
Never trust the heart of a man
He’ll crush you
Just like a sparrow
Leave you hurt so bad
Your heart will never mend”

...Then she sang, “I ain’t no sparrow!”

She took the energy level down several levels, sitting cross-legged on stage to sing, with minimal backing, the most intimate song of the night-- “Just Say So” about a relationship on the edge.

"If it’s freedom you want, I can soon be gone
And you can go right on
Without me

But if I can pour us a drink, Daddy say so.
If you need a little time to think
Just let me know"

There was no encore. Instead, just before midnight, the band put down their instruments and walked off, leaving Bettye alone on stage where she overwhelmed everyone with an acapella number written by Sinead O’Connor.

No-one had left the club all evening (who could?), so the place was still packed, but Bettye’s voice during that song grabbed every bit of empty space in the room and left us all in awe of what we had just seen, heard and felt.

“I have all that I requested
And I do not want what I have not got”

For more on Bettye:

Errol Nazareth's review for CBC's Metro Morning
Bettye's website