Music Break: Bettye Levette – Blackbird

August 29, 2020

NYTimes:

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.”

2 Responses to “Music Break: Bettye Levette – Blackbird”

  1. Jean swan Says:

    Now I will be singing over and over: 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 ariseBlackbird singing in the dead of night Take these sunken eyes and learn to see All your life You were only waiting for this moment to be freeBlackbird fly, blackbird fly Into the light of a dark black nightBlackbird fly, blackbird fly Into the light of a dark black nightBlackbird singing in the dead of night


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