It’s a tale as old as the music business. A promising young singer signs with a major label, is brought to a legendary studio, records her breakthrough album and goes on to great success.
It’s a nice story, but it isn’t Bettye LaVette’s. After a string of singles on different labels in the ’60s and tours with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, Otis Redding and James Brown, LaVette signed with Atlantic Records and in 1972 traveled from her home in Detroit to Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama to record her debut album, Child of the Seventies.
Then the record was inexplicably shelved. Nobody, least of all LaVette, knows why. The album didn’t see the light of day again until it was discovered and released independently by French soul collector Gilles Petard as Souvenirs in 2000. It certainly wasn’t a bad record – in fact, it drew considerable critical acclaim when it was finally released. Whatever the case, the event dealt a considerable blow to LaVette’s career. But the feisty singer wasn’t about to give up. It simply wasn’t an option.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go and work at Burger King with my first record coming out at 16 and that was all I was trained to do,” LaVette told Pollstar. “In Detroit, everybody – black anyway – knew my face. I wasn’t going to go work selling hamburgers and sign the darned bag when I gave it to them.” So she went back out and did what she does best – singing – while she waited for fame to come. She performed wherever she could – sometimes for as little as $50 and a bar tab – and drew enthusiastic crowds wherever she went. She spent six years on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” opposite Cab Calloway, and released singles and the occasional album.
Major success and a label contract never materialized, but LaVette never stopped performing. She worked without an agent or manager, but whenever she needed someone to step in, she turned to her friend Robert Hodge to handle things for her. Then, a few years ago, she hatched a plan that would bring her the big break that had eluded her for more than 40 years. John Goddard, owner of legendary record store Village Music in Mill Valley, Calif., asked LaVette to perform at his birthday party. He told her the salary would be minimal, but to make up for that he asked if there was anyone she wanted him to have at the party to hear her sing. She seized the opportunity.
She’d been talking with Mike Kappus at Rosebud Agency, but had been unable to convince him to sign her. Kappus only knew LaVette from her records, and he wasn’t overly impressed.
“The album that was in the can at the time was A Woman Like Me,” he told Pollstar. “It was a good record, but it wasn’t representative of what she could do live.” LaVette asked Goddard to make sure Kappus was at the party. “When I saw her live, I was blown away. Sometimes you get chills when you’re watching an artist and it reminds you why you’re in the business. With her, I got goosebumps several times in the first song and it just continued throughout the set. “So I came back and sold her to our agents more than I ever had with anyone before. I was really geared up from having seen her.” LaVette asked Hodge to be her full-time manager and Kappus got her a deal with Anti-/Epitaph Records, where they saw LaVette’s potential and went to work making her a star. “Andrew Kaulkin at Anti- is the LaVette musical brain,” LaVette said. “I’ve been calling him my Karl Rove. He’s just a brilliant young man. He comes up with all these ideas. I don’t agree with all of them, but when he comes to one that I like, then I see how I can make what I do work within that realm.”
Kaulkin’s latest stroke of genius was to pair the singer with alt-country band Drive-By Truckers for her new album The Scene of The Crime, which has brought her the greatest commercial and critical success of her career. Kappus said he believes the main thing that’s led LaVette to where she is now is greater exposure. “Everywhere she goes, she knocks people out. She always has, but she wasn’t going that many places before,” he said. LaVette agreed, but also credited the Internet for helping bring her to larger audiences. “Just five years ago, I pretty much knew all of my fans all over the world personally, because there were no more than 150 in any one place. With the Internet, I was able to connect all of them and then make that spread out into other things.” Kappus said selling an artist that’s been around so long but had so little exposure is like selling a brand new artist – with one big advantage. “The challenge is in the lack of awareness, but there’s a positive in the fact that there’s a unique story.” LaVette has been on the road most of the year, as she is every year, and has dates on the books well into 2008. Kappus and Tom Gold, LaVette’s current agent at Rosebud, plan to continue introducing her to new and larger audiences with headlining shows and pairings with other artists. And there are already plans for a third album. So the future looks bright for LaVette, but she hasn’t forgotten the people who got her through all those years. “I’ve not had records to depend on. I’ve had to depend on my voice, my show. I maintained a star attitude with nobody money, but people have always taken care of me and for that I’m grateful.”