Bettye LaVette Embodies Every Lyric On ‘Blackbirds’

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Bettye LaVette wanted to push up the release of her version of “Strange Fruit” to coincide with the recent wave of social justice protests.

(Photo: Mark Seliger)

Bettye LaVette loathed Billie Holiday’s famous protest song, “Strange Fruit,” when she first heard it. She thought the Abel Meeropol-penned lyric, depicting the lynching of black people in the South, sounded too dreary.

“I wasn’t deep,” LaVette said, referring to her late teens while growing up in Detroit. “Because we were just entering this great moment of desegregation in the 1960s, I didn’t want to hear a song about lynching. I was a different kind of young person back then.”

Nevertheless, Jim Lewis, her manager at the time, suggested that a young LaVette learn the song, others associated with Lady Day, as well as a selection of standards. More than half a century later, LaVette’s soul-stirring rendition of “Strange Fruit” became the lead single to her poignant new album, Blackbirds (Verve).

Soon after the world erupted in Black Lives Matter-led protests in the wake of George Floyd’s slaying, the singer nudged her label to push up the release of “Strange Fruit” to coincide with the demonstrations.

“I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to cash in on the protest,” she said. “But when some people kept comparing unarmed Black people being killed by the police to lynching, I started thinking, ‘Well, I heard these words before. In fact, I just recorded them.’ It’s sad that this song can still be so timely.”

Blackbirds, however, centers more on material associated with iconic Black female singers such as Holiday, Ruth Brown, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington than it does on recent protests. When explaining the material’s curation, LaVette returned to the lessons Lewis tried to impart when she was just launching her career: “He told me, ‘You’re cute; you got a cute little booty and a nice waistline. But you got to learn some songs. You may never be a star, but you can sing for the rest of your life, if you would just get good.’ And he helped me do that.”

Produced by Steve Jordan, Blackbirds captures LaVette in her glory, interpreting and embodying every lyric as if they were pages from her personal diary. The album opens with a lacerating makeover of “I Hold No Grudge,” a seething kiss-off tune, written by Angelo Badalamenti and John Clifford, and made famous by Simone on the 1967 album The High Priestess Of Soul.

LaVette remembers being at a Detroit hair salon 18 years ago and first hearing the song: “I said then, ‘If I ever get a chance to do this kind of album, I’m going to do that tune.’”

LaVette’s vinegary alto and pithy phrasing imbues the song with crackling emotional immediacy. Those qualities carry throughout the rest of album, which includes testifying renditions of “Drinking Again,” “Book Of Lies,” “Blues For The Weepers” and “Romance In The Dark.”

Even though LaVette pays tribute to some of the most influential Black female singers in jazz and soul music, she said that she usually doesn’t sing songs associated with women.

“Most men approach songs like I’ve had to approach life,” she explained. “If you hit me, I’m leaving. There ain’t going to be no, ‘Oh my God, I love him, even though he’s so mean to me.’ I’m out! Most women sing about suffering when it comes to love songs.”

Despite The Beatles’ “Blackbird” coming from across the Atlantic, it’s the song here that LaVette most closely identifies with. She recalled listening to it in passing for years and not thinking much of it until her husband insisted that she listen more closely to the lyrics and realized that it was elegy for the 1960s civil rights movement.

“My husband admonished me and told me that the British call their women ‘birds,’ and that Paul McCartney was singing about Black girls,” she said. “When Paul sings ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night/ Take these broken wings and learn to fly/ All your life/ You were only waiting for this moment to arise’ ... I am her. I taught my own self how to fly.”

She then recalled a 2010 Beatles tribute at the Hollywood Bowl, where she performed the song: “I found myself standing in the middle of the stage with 32 strings playing behind me. I said to myself, ‘All my life, I’ve waited for this moment.’ The song just became a favorite of mine. So, when we started putting this album together, I began thinking of moments like Billie Holiday performing for the first time at Carnegie Hall, places where [these women] thought they would never be able to sing. I know that Billie was thinking about words that were similar to the lyrics in ‘Blackbird.’” DB

Updated Aug. 25