BETTE MIDLER isnâ€™t the only seasoned star whoâ€™s less than thrilled with todayâ€™s young singers.
Right after the Divine Miss M, during an interview, fired a broadside about the vocal abilities of our current hit-makers, senior soul star Bettye LaVette tweeted, â€œI always loved you @BetteMidler. I love you even MORE now!â€
â€œAll I said was that I love Bette,â€ LaVette told the Daily News, with a sly cackle.
Naming names, sadly, wasnâ€™t in the cards.
â€œLetâ€™s just say, it took me 20 or 30 years to learn to sing really well,â€ LaVette says. â€œItâ€™s easy to get a hit. But to actually be an entertainer and sustain, you need to be really doing something.â€
LaVette has done that, all while facing unusual resistance. She suffered a Sisyphian string of aborted record deals, crummy promotion, rip-offs and disappointments before finally becoming a star 10 years ago with her critically-adored â€œIâ€™ve Got My Own Hell To Raiseâ€ album.
By then, LaVette was nearly 60. â€œIâ€™m the oldest artist in the world thatâ€™s being accepted as a newcomer,â€ she laughs.
Now, just one year shy of 70, Lavette has a bracing new album, â€œWorthy.â€ Sheâ€™s chasing it with a two-week run at Cafe Carlyle, Tuesday through Feb. 7.
â€œWorthyâ€ reunites LaVette with the producer who shaped her breakthrough a decade ago, Joe Henry. The new disc, like her recent â€œThe British Rock Songbook,â€ features wrenching soul re-dos of lesser-known pieces from U.K. classic rockers. LaVette reinlivens songs by The Stones (1966â€™s â€œComplicatedâ€), Savoy Brown (1970â€™s â€œWhen I Was A Young Girlâ€) and The Beatles (1965â€™s â€œWaitâ€). She delivers them as ripping oratories, personalized by her emphatic reading.
LaVette says she chooses her covers first for their melodies. â€œThey should be blatant,â€ she says. â€œThey can be pretty or mean or loud, but they should never be mysterious. Then I listen to the lyric. Is it something a nearly 70-year-old woman can sing to your face and not look stupid?â€
Despite all the acclaim her covers have drawn, LaVette says she had a hard time getting a contract for the new album. Her deal with Anti Records was up. So she went to other boutique labels â€œto try to get some big money for the first time in 53 years,â€ she says.
â€œI went to Don Was (at Blue Note) and Jack White (at Third Man) and they said, â€œOhhh, I love you.â€™ But did they sign me? They sure didnâ€™t,â€ she says.
So LaVette went to England â€œas I have 92 times before.â€ There, she inked a deal with Cherry Tree Records.
Two years ago, LaVette layed out her long history of travails in a laugh-out-loud autobiography, â€œA Woman Like Me.â€ The book has just been optioned by Alicia Keys as a movie. LaVette pulls no punches in the tome, offering tart put downs of Diana Ross (â€œa stuck-up bitch with a small voiceâ€), Aretha Franklin (whom LaVette says deserved to be beaten by her first husband), and James Brown (â€œan especially ignorant manâ€).
Did she get any blow-back? â€œI wish I had,â€ she laughs. â€œIf they would just say â€˜sheâ€™s a damn liar,â€™ that would be great.â€
The book makes its own waves through LaVetteâ€™s forthright approach to sex. In the saltiest language, she details her affairs with a host of 1960s and â€™70s R&B stars. â€œThe guys all talk about their dalliances in their books. Why shouldnâ€™t I?â€ she says.
LaVette says she always identified more with men than with women. â€œIâ€™ve always had strong men in my life. I emulated them,â€ she says.
That carries over onto the way she sings. Aping belters like Wilson Pickett, LaVette sings in a muscular style. But she never lacks nuance. She forms her songs into plays, marked by wide emotional arcs. LaVette admits her approach can be a bit too real for some. â€œThis is strictly adult stuff,â€ she says. â€œMy album should come with some kind of X on it.â€
If such edge has made her more of a cult item than a household name, LaVette says sheâ€™s happy with that. â€œMy old manager said to me â€˜I donâ€™t know if youâ€™ll ever be a star, but if youâ€™re a good artist youâ€™ll work until you die,â€™” she says. “Ultimately, Iâ€™d rather be admired than be huge.â€