The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
Saturday, March 10, 8:30 p.m.
Since her inaugural session as a teen in early '60s Detroit, soul singer Bettye LaVette has recorded a number of songs written especially for her. She shines even brighter, however, when taking ownership of previously recorded songs. Her list of commanding interpretations is remarkable, like her Motor City-born "Heart of Gold," a kinetic take on the whacked-out Kenny Rogers hit "What Condition My Condition Is In," and a "Piece of My Heart" that trumps Erma Franklin and Janis Joplin. "They're just songs I heard that I want to sing," LaVette says of her choices. "I'm not a fan of music. I'm a fan of singing. If I like a song, I imagine myself singing it."
So when LaVette put her unique stamp on songs she'd heard by Sinead O'Connor, Dolly Parton, Fiona Apple and Lucinda Williams for 2005's Joe Henry-produced I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, she was merely doing what she'd done for 40 years. But that album capitalized on the success that producer Henry had experienced with soul legend Solomon Burke and his 2002 comeback, Don't Give up on Me. Lured listeners were rewarded with a collection of stirring turns from LaVette, and she earned a bushel of new fans. She was an overnight sensation—who had been making music since she was 16.
"I sing different from most girls," LaVette says. For the longest time, she insists, labels didn't know how to promote her and what she describes as her "screaming and hollering" vocals. However you label them, though, the emotion-rich performances on I've Got My Own Hell to Raise connected. She's just finished recording its follow-up, the second of three for the Epitaph imprint ANTI-. "I'm the oldest person in the world other than Tony Bennett with a three-record deal," she offers with a hearty laugh.
It's a laugh that shows up often during our talk. And when she closes the conversation with "Thanks for writing about me, baby," wrapped in that voice of a thousand fiery and real soul numbers, she owns me like a song.