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Hell-raising soul

Bettye LaVette is – finally – ready for her close-up

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It's a crime. But when you ask Bettye LaVette who you need to contact to rectify the fact that she's not more famous, she lets you know right quick that she's already on it. "Ooh honey," she squeals. "I'm trying to get a coalition together myself."

It was a lack of promotion that excluded LaVette from her rightful position as high-ranking royalty in the soul court. She had the fire of Aretha, the soul of Mavis and the spunk of Tina. "Everybody that heard me, liked me," LaVette says of the singles she cut in the early '70s that included a scalding rendition of Janis Joplin's "Take Another Little Piece of My Heart." "It's just that they weren't hearing me in large groups."

But as anybody who was listening knows, LaVette's stuff was so strong that once you heard her version, you'd throw Joplin away. But nobody bothered to tell LaVette. "When she (Joplin) was at her very height, I was then in my 10th year," LaVette said last week by phone from her New Jersey home. "Knowing that I was being ridiculed because I was hollering and screaming, and then for them to make her a success because she was hollering and screaming, you can't imagine how traumatic that was for me for at least 20 years."

LaVette kept on, replating Neil Young's "Heart Of Gold" with liquid soul in '72 then knocking Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" off its hinges in '75. Good as they were, they didn't break the Top 100. Her debut album, Child Of The Seventies, was shelved by Atlantic in '73 and resurfaced 27 years later on a French label. LaVette made a living touring, thanks to some advice from a former manager who made her learn standards like "Sophisticated Lady" and listen to Dinah Washington and Frank Sinatra for phrasing. "I felt like I was cute and I could holler," she chuckles. "He felt like if I listened, I could sing."

When the re-titled Souvenirs came out in 2000, it reintroduced real soul to a younger generation. A Woman Like Me, released in 2003, won the Handy Award (the blues world's equivalent of the Grammy) for Comeback Album of the Year.

But it was 2005's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise that raised the singer back to the top of the soul hierarchy. It's an eclectic mix that includes Dolly Parton, Sinead O'Connor, Joan Armatrading, Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash. LaVette approached the project as a true diva. "I wasn't gonna sit and listen to no broads sing all day long," she states firmly. "I've never heard anything that I liked so well as to sit and study it. So when it comes out of my mouth, maybe it sounds so different because it's exactly how I feel -- not how they feel."

The effect is stupefying. She takes O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" to church and flails the hide off her sorry-ass man on Armtrading's "Down To Zero." But she plays down her amazing transformations of the songs into soul classics. "Because after all, they are just words on a piece of paper," she says. "And if you are a song stylist, then whatever the song is, there is no degree of difficulty, you just have to figure out how it works best in your mouth and in your voice."

On her new record, out in August, her voice was working so well that the label told her they thought it was a real piece of art. "No one ever speaks about me in those terms," says the singer, who wants to be known as just a hard working entertainer, like James Brown. "They usually say something's funky, so I was very flattered," she chuckles. "I have to take my genteel compliments where I can get them."

Bettye LaVette kicks off her national tour at Spindale's Isothermal Community College on Friday, March 9. For more info, visit www.isothermal.edu.

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