One of the things I was hoping to do during my Phoenix trip was to visit the Musical Instrument Museum, which I was not able to do. But in looking at the site, I saw that they have concerts and I bought tickets for An Intimate Evening with Betty LaVette Featuring Evan Mercer on Keyboards. Her name sounded familiar and they listed soul, R&B, and funk and I thought it would be something that my sister Denise and I would enjoy. I found out that Bettye LaVette has numerous Grammy-nominated albums, had her first hit at 16yo, has had a 57-year career (so far), and is known for her unique covers. She has covered everyone from The Beatles to The Black Keys and currently has an album of Bob Dylan covers.
I took the bus to the museum, which is only ten minutes from my sister’s house by car but about 45 minutes away by bus. It was a 10- to15-minute walk to the bus stop and then a 20-minute wait for the bus (they run every half-hour). The bus driver was very friendly and told everyone “Have a nice day!” as they got off the bus. The bus stop was right across the street from the museum. It was also in the middle of nowhere.
There was an open field behind the bus stop and another across the street from the museum. The plants around the museum were very pretty and so was the sunset. My plan had been to walk around the area for an hour or so until Denise could meet me and we would go into the show. Instead I walked one block and it was getting dark, so I sat right outside the museum entrance.
A bird in a cactus:
The auditorium in the museum was small and comfortable. They had the widest seats I think I have ever sat in. We had the less expensive tickets but were still close to the stage.
Mercer came out first and then LaVette. Mercer was playing piano and electric keyboards and was brilliant. LaVette sat in front of the mic and they started with “Lover, Come Back to Me” and the very bluesy “Your Key Don’t Fit No More.” You can tell that her voice is not what it used to be but she still sings with passion and she still sings full out.
Usually she travels with a full band but this tour is a look at her career, while she is promoting the new cd and her autobiography, “A Woman Like Me.” She sang that song also, which is the title of one of her other cds. Things Have Changed is the Dylan cover cd. She sang “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “Mama, You Been on My Mind,” and “Emotionally Yours” from that cd. LaVette said that it was difficult to figure out how to sing some of Dylan’s songs because he does not tell you how he is feeling in his songs. You have to figure it out from the lyrics and sometimes she could not wrap her head around it. But she worked at it. And based on what we heard, she did a terrific job of it. “Emotionally Yours” hit you right in the gut.
LaVette said that if we had seen her in the past we know that she is usually dancing across the stage and never stopping. But it was nice to sit and see all our faces so clearly. Mercer is in her band and younger than her youngest grandchild.
She did several songs that had been given to her by female Nashville songwriters. She said those women know how to write.
LaVette was born in Muskegon, Michigan. In 1946, there was segregation and blacks who wanted to drink would go to her parents’ house where they served corn liquor and had a jukebox in the living room. Her father liked gospel and R&B and her mother liked country and pop. Her teenage sister liked the current hits. By 18 months old, LaVette had learned all the songs on the jukebox and they would stand her on top of it and she would lift her dress and roll her stomach up and then down the music and sing along. One of the songs has the lyrics (cannot find the title and I forgot the artist’s name, who only had this one hit) “it’s hard to believe it hurts to be in love.” Imagine an 18-month-old singing that. Walking off the stage, she did the camel walk dance, which is the dance associated with that song (at the time every song had a dance).
She was raised in Detroit and had her first hit at age 16, “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She wanted to be on American Bandstand because all her neighbors, who had hit records were on the show. When she sang the song (again – imagine a 16yo singing that song – the audience started laughing with the first line), she ended it with not singing the last line but moving her hips around as a lovin’ man would do. And apparently that is why Dick Clark did not want her on American Bandstand.
Other songs included were The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity?”
For six years she starred on Broadway in Bubbling Brown Sugar. This was when the AIDS epidemic first hit and she lost many people. For the Janet Reno produced cd she sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” which she performed for us and it was heartbreaking. Reno won a Grammy for America in Song.
In reading about LaVette, I see that her name is familiar to me for two reasons. She sang at the Kennedy Center Honors for Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend (“Love, Reign O’er Me”) and she had a hit disco song, “Doin’ the Best I Can,” which I remember very well. If you go on her site, you will see the incredible range of songs that she has recorded.
Her encore song was “Worthy” written by one of the Nashville artists that she loves so much. Bettye LaVette is definitely worthy.
By Carene Lydia Lopez