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Bettye LaVette didn't know 'The Beatles - Blackbird,' then it helped her fly / The New York Times

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Ten years ago, the Fab Four's song about civil rights gave the soul singer a creative spark. Now she's releasing an album of tracks originally popularized by Black women.

All the songs on Bettye LaVette's new album, save for the Beatles track that inspired it, were originally popularized by Black female singers, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. 

In the summer of 2010, the soul singer Bettye LaVette stepped onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with a 32-piece string section behind her and performed a four-decade-old song she'd only just learned: the Beatles' "Blackbird."

At the time, LaVette was about seven years into a long-overdue career resurgence. As a teenager in the 1960s, she had scored a few memorable R&B hits, including the slinky, aching "Let Me Down Easy," but she failed to make the kind of impact that many of the artists she came up alongside in Detroit - Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves, Aretha Franklin - enjoyed. To many record collectors, LaVette was a great forgotten singer whose earthy voice could transform any song into something more than even its author imagined. To most everyone else, she was just forgotten.

For decades, she'd had albums shelved, projects scuttled and even one manager shot. LaVette calls this seeming yen for misfortune "buzzard luck," but beginning around 2003, her fortunes began to change with a string of critically acclaimed albums.

Preparing for the Beatles tribute, her husband, Kevin Kiley, suggested she perform "Blackbird." "I'd never heard the song before in my life," LaVette said in a phone call from her home in West Orange, N.J., where she has been riding out the coronavirus pandemic. "Kevin played it for me and I said, ‘I wonder if people know he's talking about a Black woman?'"

Performing to a packed crowd 10 years ago, LaVette felt a deep connection to the signature lyric. "I just said, ‘All my life I've waited for this moment to arrive.' That is exactly how I felt."

LaVette rejiggered the song into the first-person, slowed the tempo to a crawl and added a bed of strings. Her wholesale reinvention of the classic tune became the foundation for an album that would take another decade to blossom. "Blackbirds," due Friday, is a collection of songs celebrating the formative work of - as LaVette calls them - "black birds." All the songs, save for the Beatles song that inspired it, were originally popularized by Black female singers, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington.

"These women are the first Black women singers I heard," she said. "Knowing what all these women went through, I can find myself in each of the songs because I'm a black bird too."

Steve Jordan, who produced and played drums on the album, heard LaVette's performance of "Blackbird" from the Hollywood Bowl and got goose bumps. "A lot of people don't realize Paul McCartney wrote this song about the civil rights movement and now you have an African-American woman who lived through the civil rights movement, so you're getting a taste of what the song was really about," he said.

LaVette's albums over the past 15 years have often been thematic. There are LPs of songs by female writers, British Invasion hits, Bob Dylan covers, and a disc recorded at the Southern soul incubator FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with the Drive-by Truckers. She admits that she doesn't even listen to much music these days, and relies heavily on her husband, who's both a musician and a record collector, to catalog songs she might one day like to sing.

"I'll call her in and say, ‘Listen to this song,'" said Kiley. "If the bit she hears makes sense, we'll put it in a folder. I've got folders of George Jones songs, Beatles songs, country songs, just tons of them."

For LaVette, liking a song isn't the most important metric. "I have to find me in it somewhere," she said. "I'm such an arrogant singer. When I hear your song, if I like it, I don't even hear you anymore. I hear how I'm going to sing it."

Once LaVette chooses a song, she's all in. "She doesn't take on anything she can't fully own," said Joe Henry, who has produced two of LaVette's albums. "And thus, there's a really intense intimacy that her albums offer."

At her best, she manages to recast a song in a way that often changes its meaning or at least shades it differently. When Nina Simone sang "I Hold No Grudge," her target was an ex-lover, but when LaVette opens "Blackbirds" with the song, the source of her deep well of hurt is different.

"At this point, if a man hurt me, I'd smother him in his sleep," she said, laughing. "I'm singing about the pain I've suffered in this business. The ‘you' is the music industry."

LaVette is known for her cover songs, but she's picky about which she'll sing. "When I hear your song, if I like it, I don't even hear you anymore," she said. "I hear how I'm going to sing it."

LaVette is known for her cover songs, but she's picky about which she'll sing. "When I hear your song, if I like it, I don't even hear you anymore," she said. "I hear how I'm going to sing it."Credit...Gioncarlo Valentine for The New York Times

LaVette, who remains slender and feisty at 74, has a well-earned reputation as someone who, as Henry put it, "doesn't suffer fools." In conversation, she's chatty and punctuates many of her thoughts with raspy laugh. It's easy to read her 2012 memoir, "A Woman Like Me," a freewheeling, dishy marvel that gleefully calls out those who've wronged her, and wonder if her bad breaks were less "buzzard luck" than the industry's predictable response to a Black woman speaking her mind. But back then, LaVette said, she was less bold.

"I've gotten more outspoken as the years have gone by. A lot of the things that were happening to me in terms of racism, I didn't speak out on them because I didn't realize they were happening," she said. "I was doing better than any other Blacks I went to school with. So when I started to want more, I realized what I didn't have and what I didn't get a chance to do. There's a gene in us that keeps us from feeling entitled and that's the systemic racism. We're on autopilot now. We don't even have to be whipped. We know what to do."

Despite the many executives, producers and others who went out of their way to help LaVette during her leanest years, the prejudice she often faced was more insidious. "Systemic racism is when I have a record in 1969 and only Black stations can play it, and Bobbie Gentry did the same recording six months later and had a No. 1 record because it was heard all over the world."

In the time since "Blackbirds" was recorded last year, the project has taken on a poignancy LaVette never envisioned. The killing of George Floyd in police custody, the widespread protests that followed it and the heavy-handed federal response have reminded LaVette of the civil rights protests she lived through in the 1960s. "I thought we were further along than we apparently are," she said. "We all thought that until this administration got in."

Against the backdrop of the rancorous summer of 2020, LaVette's soaring "Blackbird" comes across as a pained but hopeful lament. Her stark take on Billie Holiday's iconic "Strange Fruit" - written in 1937 about the lynchings of African-Americans - feels haunting and anguished. "It sounds like they wrote it last week about this situation," LaVette said.

The tumult of the past few months frightens LaVette. Back in the '60s, she was an unapologetic militant who occasionally cooked grits for a breakfast program run by the Black Panthers. "Malcolm was speaking so much more to me than Martin was," she said. "I wasn't for marching and singing and praying and crying. Now, I'm old. I want to march and sing and pray and cry."

Watching millions of people rise up in protest has at least provided her with a measure of optimism. "This looks and feels different," she said. "My neighbor sent me a note saying he was sorry. It made me cry. I was raised with a mother who was born on a plantation in Louisiana, and I felt the whole '60s thing but I've never felt this before."

At the moment, LaVette is anticipating the day she can leave her home without fear, and get back to performing. Although she once longed for the superstardom many of her peers achieved, her career aspirations now are more pointed.

"I'd love to have a very big record, or for ‘Strange Fruit' to somehow become some kind of social statement," as long as the success was "something where there wouldn't have to be a lot of noise and moving about," she said with a sharp laugh. "I just want to look gorgeous but stand a little stiller."