CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Not everybody gets to be an overnight sensation. Not everybody gets to be a superstar. Bettye LaVette has been trying off and on for about 50 years."I'm not even a has-been," the 67-year-old soul singer said. "I'm a never-was."LaVette headlines the first "Mountain Stage" show of the new season, Sunday night at the Culture Center. She said it's been a strange 50 years, and now at nearly 70, she still doesn't know what to make of her career."It's not a Beyonce thing. It's not a Justin Bieber thing. It's not even a Tony Bennett thing," she said. "I've never had enough success to call myself a has-been."
Yet, she's got her stories, and she has a lot of them, if anybody is interested. LaVette released her memoir, "A Woman Like Me," a year and a half ago."The book is about who I was and how I got to be who I am," she said.LaVette, who was born in Michigan and raised in Detroit, came up in the Motown music scene of the 1960s.She said, "I knew Aretha, Marvin and Diana when they were 23 and 24."That would be Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross."The book is about what we did and what we thought and acted back then," she said. "These are the people you know. They were the people I knew."Back when none of them was famous.LaVette thought she could have and maybe should have had a career like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, who, like her, grew up in Detroit, but mainstream success eluded her.She released her first song when she was just 16, but she bounced around from record label to record label, and while often critically acclaimed, didn't find a larger audience until the 1990s.
Part of that, she figured, was her own fault.In 1964, LaVette was signed to a record deal with Atlantic Records, but after songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Jailhouse Rock," "Stand By Me" and "Kansas City") left the label, she decided she wanted out of her contract.
"I was 18, and I went up to Jerry Wexler, the head of Atlantic records and told him I wanted out," she said. "I was going to go find Mike Stoller."Atlantic Records let her go, and LaVette didn't find Stoller until last week. She met him at a tribute show."I told him he was my first bad mistake."While super-stardom might have eluded her, she's had some success.
Through the years, LaVette kept performing. While her album releases were sporadic, she did work on Broadway for several years. In the past decade and a half, she has kept a busy schedule of record releases and live shows."My first step was in 1962," she said. "It took almost 40 years to get me to the next step."
She's still hoping to take a few more steps, although LaVette acknowledged that she's had some setbacks. The past year was disappointing. Her latest record, "Thankful N' Thoughtful," again got good reviews, but didn't exactly have incredible record sales, even though she toured like crazy."Last year, we did eight countries in Europe, seven provinces in Canada, 20 states in America, including Alaska," she said, "plus Africa, Mexico, Australia and Japan."It was so much that she hardly knew where she was most of the time."It all looked the same to me," she said. "I come in through the backdoor, and it could be Spain or Toledo, Ohio."Her memoir, she said, also didn't do as well as expected, although LaVette said the film rights have been optioned for a film. No one is working on it, though.Still, as much as 2013 was a disappointment, she looks forward to the things this year brings. LaVette is celebrating 50 years in music, and she's got her health.She laughed about it."I can still wear a size 6," she said, "and I can still stand in high heels."She hasn't given up yet.Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.
________________Want to go?
With Bettye LaVette, David Broza, Matrimony, Declan O'Rourke and Noah GundersenWHEN: 7 p.m. SundayWHERE: Culture Center TheaterTICKETS: Free. From "Mountain Stage": "It's been a long week for a lot of West Virginians with the water crisis. We're offering up this Sunday's show for FREE, as our way of helping folks get back on their feet.
INFO: Call 800-594-TIXX or visit www.mountainstage.org