Bettye Lavette's story is one of inexplicable neglect; born in Detroit, she cut her first session for Atlantic Records as a teenager in 1962. She's been musically active ever since, but recording has been sporadic indeed. There are a few imports that collect her scattered singles; her only other full-length outing is a live set on Germany's Munich Records.
Such stories aren't terribly uncommon; Bettye's not the first quintessentially American artist to gain greater recognition in Europe than in her homeland. That doesn't change the fact that it's both a shame and a crime. Bettye Lavette is, quite simply, one of the best soul singers I've ever heard.
"A Woman Like Me" was produced by Dennis Walker, probably best known for his work with and songwriting on behalf of Robert Cray. He also wrote or had a hand in most of the material here, including two compositions previously covered by Cray, "The Forecast" and "Right Next Door." Mr. Walker was also responsible for assembling the crack band that backs Bettye with impeccable taste throughout; everyone's top notch, with particular mention going to guitarist Alan Marikatani for his smouldering, sensuous leads, and Rudy Robinson, whose moody organ work is an essential part of the sound.
But the show here is clearly Bettye's. Her voice weathered by a lifetime's experience, she's blessed with one of those spine-tingling, goosebump-raising voices seemingly designed to express emotion at the extreme end of the spectrum, whether said emotion originates in joy or in pain.
The set kicks off with the slinky, uptown soul of "Serves Him Right," setting the stage for Bettye's stance; she's nobody's fool throughout, and it's his loss for any man fool enough to do her wrong. "The Forecast" rides a Memphis-style groove, perfectly accented by the horns, with a tough, tight solo from Mr. Marikatani. "Thru The Winter," to me, is the disc's highlight. A tale of love grown cold, in Bettye's hands it's an anguished cry of pure pain tempered by equal measures of aching regret and dignified resignation. Done to absolute perfection, this one could well serve as the dictionary definition of pure soul.
Steamy soul returns with "Right Next Door," another of Mr. Walker's tunes previously associated with Robert Cray; the equally sinuous "When The Blues Catch Up To You" maintains the late night mood, providing a perfect lead in to the jazzy vibe of "Thinkin' 'Bout You." A shimmering boudoir ballad, this one's a little too slick for my tastes, although Bettye's sultry purr is seductive enough; but she's back to sassy, strutting defiance with "A Woman Like Me," her passionate delivery aided and abetted by the horns to bring the tune to rousing climax. "It Ain't Worth It After A While" marks a return to the love gone wrong theme, with a lovely melody and easy-going after hours vibe; Bettye struts her stuff again through the funky "When A Woman's Had Enough," again taking a defiant stance; "Salt In My Wounds" ought to have a tie-in deal with Kleenex, as I'm sure there'll be more than a few tears shed over this weeper. Another of Mr. Walker's contributions, it's yet another slice of soul perfection.
"Close As I'll Get To Heaven" starts as another wade into smooth jazz waters, but part way in it suddenly catches fire, and Bettye manages a typically impassioned delivery. Things wind up with the rollicking "Hey, Hey Baby (Bettye's Blues)," giving Bettye her sole writing credit.
The blues content might be a little light here, and the only thing gritty is Bettye's delivery; but Bettye invests every line with unforgettable passion and unquenchable spirit, and the sheer emotional intensity that fuels the best of the blues is here in spades.
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