Surviving in the wilderness: Bettye LaVette

After the Bettye LaVette concert last Sunday night in DC, Ms. LaVette, the great soul singer changed out  of her black jumpsuit and returned to talk to the audience. She sat at the edge of the stage, clad in jeans, boots, and rock-star glasses glittering with rhinestones.

Ms. LaVette could have been just another star, cool, confident, handling the wireless mike with the ease of a born performer. But the small auditorium at the Atlas Performing Center was charged with certain powerful emotions that went beyond the high of a successful show: grief, joy, thankfulness.

The audience that had stayed behind to talk to Bettye was largely black and largely middle aged. They asked questions like: “Bettye, where have you been all my life? and “How did you keep in shape all these years?”

Because Ms. LaVette, a soul sensation now, is 65 years old. A star at 16, she hit the charts in 1962, running in the same crowd as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Ben E. King. But when R&B was wiped out by the British invasion and the then the rise of disco, she was dropped from her record label.

She survived for decades in the wilderness, forgotten; her first album, recorded in 1972, was never released, which devastated her. Her career was pretty much over till she was ‘re-discovered’ by a French soul music collector, and her first album released in 2000, delayed by 28 years!

Like many people in the audience, I had only heard of Bettye LaVette in recent years, as part of the neo-soul revival. And I had stuck around after the concert to let her know that I appreciated her, and also to ask the question, “How did you survive all those years? How did you keep sane, and keep on living, when your talent was ignored?”

A woman in the audience beat me to it. Ms. LaVette said, “Well, I didn’t go to the gym to work out. I mowed my own lawn, trimmed hedges. I was out there a lot. People passing by said, “Hey, you’re good at that.” They gave me their cards, and offered me yard work. And I said to myself, how could you do that, I’m a star.”

Ms. LaVette is back, folks. Her voice is strong and haunting. She sang at the Kennedy Center in 2008. In 2009 she performed at the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.And this is a lady who was offered yard work.

It’s sad and haunting, but that yard work really saved her. It kept her in shape, and she created and shaped her garden. She could have done drugs, or killed herself. Instead, this lady trimmed her hedges.

I’m sure it’s more complicated than that. But at a time when my first novel is out with publishers, and I’m looking into the face of oblivion, I take solace in Bettye LaVette’s courage and faith in herself. I think that’s the difference between people who fail and those who succeed: sheer bloody-minded persistence, even in the face of rejection.

It really reminded me of what I read about what makes an artist. For the longest time I had a hard time saying, “I’m a writer. ” Instead I used to say, “Oh, I used to be an architect,” or “I’m trying to write.”

Who is to decide if you are an artist or not? No one.

An artist is a person who nominates herself.

At the ending of the Q&A session, Ms. Lavette said, “I’m just glad to be known. I’ll still die broke, but I won’t die unknown. All I wanted was to be heard.”

Amen to that.

Bettye Lavette in 1972



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