(Note -- April 17, 2015: With the passing of Percy Sledge (above), whose record Shining Through the Rain is featured in this story, I'm reminded how many of the artists featured in this 2005 story are now departed -- Jimmy Norman, Howard Tate, Solomon Burke and now Sledge. This, then, is in their memory, and to observe that they never quit trying to make a living through music, and to make good music. And hooray for Bette LaVette and her ongoing career revitalization. -- SR)
By Steven Rosen
From Los Angeles CityBeat, 2005
With her new album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” 59-year-old soul singer Bettye LaVette is the latest veteran R&B singer – soul survivor, if you will – to emerge from pop music’s past with relevant, new music.
As former 1950s, 1960s and early-1970s hit makers Solomon Burke, Al Green, Mavis Staples and (posthumously) Ray Charles have done recently, she has recorded a “comeback” album with polished production values and a contemporary edge to the material.
Produced by Joe Henry for Los Angeles’ trend-setting Anti- label, “Hell to Raise” includes her taut, emotional and fiercely committed versions of songs by such female singer-songwriters as Aimee Mann, Joan Armatrading, Fiona Apple and Dolly Parton. She has a sensuous, whisper-to-a-scream range similar to Tina Turner.
But her album, released Tuesday, isn’t really a comeback per se. It’s more an attempt at a late-career breakthrough. LaVette has never really had any sizeable mainstream success in a long, multi-label career that started while she was a Detroit teenager.
But her new album is the best example yet of something fascinating that’s happening at the edges of the ongoing soul-music revival. Worthy but obscure soul singers – LaVette, Howard Tate, Nathaniel Mayer, Bobby Purify, Mighty Sam McClain among them – are being given a chance to belatedly get discovered and appreciated, much the way aging country blues musicians like Son House or Mississippi John Hurt were by a younger generation back in the 1960s.
“They’re trying to make my career fresh,” LaVette says about Anti’s support, during a phone interview from her New Jersey home. “I’m not really coming back from anything. I’ve kept my health, I haven’t been strung out on anything, nobody’s beaten me, I haven’t joined the church, none of that. I’ve never done anything but this. I just haven’t been able to do it on a large enough scale to pay my bills.”
In that, LaVette has the commitment of Anti’s president, Andy Kaulkin. He already staged a small, exclusive showcase concert for her at the Echo – it received a rave review in CityBeat – and is supporting a national tour that brings her to the Knitting Factory on Oct. 10. He became interested in LaVette after being invited by her booking agent to a show at Sweetwater Saloon in Marin County’s Mill Valley.
Anti-, in cooperation with Mississippi’s hipster-blues company Fat Possum, won a Grammy for Solomon Burke’s 1992 comeback, “Don’t Give Up On Me.” Also produced by Henry, it featured Burke’s versions of songs by Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and others. It has sold a healthy 108,000 copies to date, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
“It seems our culture really undervalues the artistic contributions of older artists and I really don’t understand why,” the 41-year-old Kaulkin says. “People like Sonny Boy Williamson and Howlin’ Wolf made some of their best records when they were in their 60s and that was just a given.
“There is something great about the innocence of young artists discovering themselves when you can hear that innocence in their recordings,” he says. “But there is also something equally great about a mature artist, who has the wisdom of years, having something important to say. When such an artist tries to make a statement, it’s usually pretty great. And it’s fascinating for me to observe that, listen to that, and enjoy that.”
For older soul artists who, like LaVette, have new albums out, the stories behind their reemergence are invariably dramatic. “I had so much press after I was rediscovered,” says Tate, via phone from New Jersey, who had disappeared after recording such late 1960s/early 1970s soul tunes as the original “Get It While You Can” and “Look at Granny Run Run.” His “Rediscovered” came out in 2003 on Private Music. “I became more of a household name than I ever was before. And you know, none of us got paid back then – the black artists. That’s why I had walked away.” Now, he indicates, things are better financial – Hollywood is even considering a movie of his life.
For some of the artists attempting comebacks or late-career discoveries, there are strong L.A. connections. For instance, the manager of Percy Sledge – whose enduring late-1960s hits included “When a Man Loves a Woman” and “Take Time to Know Her” – struck up a conversation in a Hollywood office-building elevator with a consultant for a start-up film-production company called Velvet Steamroller.
They convinced the company to bankroll production of Sledge’s 2004 “Shining Through the Rain,” believing the healthy sales of Burke’s and Al Green’s comeback CDs foretold a trend. Recorded at Van Nuys’ Sound City studio and produced by Barry Goldberg, it was a respectfully updated nod to Sledge’s classic Muscle Shoals sound and included covers of songs by Steve Earle, the Hollies and the Bee Gees.
Released late last year, it was Sledge’s first album of new material in 10 years and advanced his induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Alas, business complications resulted in poor sales and Velvet Steamroller losing money. But the firm has no complaints about the experience.
“To be a part of this kind of art, who could turn that down,” asks Velvet Steamroller’s Lisette Bross, in her late 20s, during an interview at her firm’s North Hollywood office. “It’s like seeing a great actor. It was like rediscovering this sound that nobody knew. This music doesn’t go out of fashion, it comes from the heart. This man has lived it.”
Sometimes, fortuitous chance events lead to a new recording. For instance, New York musician Kerryn Tolhurst was helping clean the apartment of a frail, older R&B/jazz singer-songwriter named Jimmy Norman when he came across material earmarked for the garbage.
Norman’s greatest achievement came when called into Hollywood’s United/Western studios in 1964 to write additional lyrics for an existing song called “Time Is On My Side.” A New Orleans singer, Irma Thomas, was there and wanted to record it – and the Rolling Stones, of course, would then cover her. Norman’s long but unheralded career was finally sidelined by heart surgery in 1997.
“We were doing cleaning for him and he mentioned he had bags and bags of old R&B material from the 1960s and there was talk of throwing them out,” Tolhurst recalls via telephone. “So we intervened and found notepads of jotted-down lyrics and some very rough tapes. Amazingly, he remembered the melodies to the songs he only had lyrics for and he played them. They were great.”
That started a slow, arduous process of Tolhurst recording Norman’s “Little Pieces,” on which his tentative voice is comforted by a tasteful, soothing production on those fine songs. It ends with a poignant and joyful version of “Time Is On My Side.” Late last year, Judy Collins released it on her Wildflower label and had Norman appear with her at Carnegie Hall. That has netted him much publicity in New York, although his heart condition prevents rigorous touring.
“All of a sudden things started happening and people started talking about me and “Time Is on My Side,’” Norman says, from his New York home. “Thank God – he must have kept me here for a reason. I’m still around and I’m grateful. That’s all I can say.”