Bettye LaVette Biography
Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the great soul interpreters of her generation,” five-time Grammy nominee and Blues Hall of Famer Bettye LaVette is a vocalist who can transform any song into her own. LaVette’s artistry has earned the admiration of her musical peers and over the course of her six-decade career, LaVette has sung for President Obama, published an autobiography, placed six records on the rhythm & blues charts, and starred in a hit musical.
LaVette is a native of Detroit. She recorded her first song in 1962 at the age of sixteen. Since then she has recorded ten albums. Her most recent record Things Have Changed, produced by Steve Jordan, was released on Verve in 2018 and received two GRAMMY nominations.
Bettye LaVette was born Betty Jo Haskins in Muskegon, Michigan, on January 29, 1946. When she was six years old, her family relocated to Detroit, where her folks made extra money selling bootleg liquor on the side. The Haskins home also played host to a number of traveling R&B and gospel musicians, and they owned a jukebox that was stocked with blues, R&B, and country singles that sparked Betty Jo’s desire to sing. At the age of 16, she was strong enough as a singer to consider turning professional, and she was introduced to producer Johnnie Mae Matthews, who worked with a small regional label, Lupine Records. Feeling Betty Jo Haskins sounded a bit bland, she adopted the stage name Bettye LaVette, the surname taken from a woman she knew, Sherma Lavette. LaVette’s first single for Lupine, “My Man — He’s a Loving Man” b/w “Shut Your Mouth,” was still in the test pressing stage when it was heard by an A&R rep at Atlantic Records, who quickly leased the disc for national release. The 45 rose to number seven on the R&B Singles charts in 1962, and LaVette seemed poised for big things, making her first national tour on a package show headlined by Ben E. King and Clyde McPhatter. But when her next release, 1963’s “You’ll Never Change” b/w “Here I Am,” failed to chart, LaVette found herself back at Lupine Records for another 1963 release, “Witchcraft in the Air” b/w “You Killed the Love,” before hitting the road as part of the Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford Revue. Having established what would become an unfortunate pattern in her recording career, LaVette cut a single for Scepter Records in 1964 that went unreleased, before signing with Calla, whose 1965 release “Let Me Down Easy” b/w “What I Don’t Know (Won’t Hurt Me)” took her back to the R&B charts, topping out at number 20.
LaVette released two more singles on Calla (and cut a number of unreleased sides) before jumping to Big Wheel Records for one 1966 release, then cutting four singles for Karen Records between 1968 and 1969. One of LaVette’s Karen sides included a cover of Kenny Rogers & the First Edition’s faux-psychedelic hit “What Condition My Condition Is In,” and when Kenny heard it, he persuaded his brother Lelan Rogers, a producer who had worked with the 13th Floor Elevators, to work with her. Rogers helped engineer a record deal for LaVette with Shelby Singleton, and she ended up cutting six singles for his Silver Fox and SSS International labels, two of which, 1969’s “He Made a Woman Out of Me” b/w “Nearer to You” and 1970’s “Do Your Duty” b/w “Love’s Made a Fool Out of Me,” made the R&B Top 40. LaVette also cut an album for Singleton, but he had a business disagreement with Rogers, and the LP was shelved.