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I have seen them all: Otis, Aretha, Al Green, Patti LaBelle, Gladys Knight, James Brown and on and on, all except for Otis multiple times. I’ve seen Bettye LaVette probably just six times ever. For whatever reason, for most of her dues-paying career, she and I were not in the same place at the same time. When I heard she was performing in San Francisco during the time I lived in Los Angeles in 2003, I journeyed north to see her: I went with Rudy Calvo, another longtime pal of Bettye’s and I will never forget that show, in the tiny basement of an Irish pub! Bettye had grown men growing, including Mike Kappus of The Rosebud Agency and that night proved fortuitous. Mike was blown away as was I and the small coterie of dedicated soul fans gathered to see a woman who had been singing her heart out for the preceding forty-one years, often before audiences of even fewer than those in attendance that night in 2003. Thanks to record shop owner John Goddard, Bettye had another gig the next night in Mill Valley and the heavyweights came out – Huey Lewis, Bonnie Raitt – and Mike Kappus took Bettye on as a client for The Rosebud Agency in the ensuing weeks.

Much has happened for the petite Ms. LaVette since. She was signed by L.A. punk label Anti Records; she appeared for the first time on late night television in the U.S.; she sang at the Kennedy Center Honors and blew the likes of Pete Townsend and Barbra Streisand away with her raw emotive vocal style; sang for President Barack Obama at his Inauguration; finally got a Grammy nomination; and got married!

Bettye’s been to the UK on a fairly consistent basis since the ‘80s, more frequently in recent times and having known her since our first interview for Blues & Soul magazine in the ‘70s, I always want to see her in person. Last year, it was the Barbican Centre. This year, The Jazz Café, an intimate venue that really allows Bettye’s unadulterated emotional vocal style and delivery to be heard at its optimum best.

I could go over the entire set, song by song…and thanks to modern technology (and specifically, YouTube), you can see virtually the entire performance in the clips with this review. Suffice it to say that with her brilliant band of four musicians (no background singers, no added horns, just keyboards, bass, drums and guitar), Bettye LaVette demonstrated why she is – in my honest (and frankly, expert!) opinion the BEST living soul singer on the planet! As my friend Amar – who was witnessing Bettye and hearing her music for the first time ever – says, she lives what she sings. Even though I’ve heard it almost every time I’ve seen her perform it, the Joe Simon song “Your Time To Cry” (aka “Your Turn To Cry”) brought a tear to my eye and a chill down my neck. “No Time To Live” (from her latest album, “Interpretations: The British Rock Song Book”) stopped me in my tracks – so poignant and as I myself grow a little older, so relevant with lyrics that made me truly sigh and ponder my own journey. Sung unusually but fittingly in the first person by Bettye, The Beatles’ lyrically second-person classic “Blackbird” (a tune that Bettye most recently performed at The Hollywood Bowl with a full orchestra)

took on a whole new meaning. There was the funky “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” (for the old soul heads in the house) and the real life “Joy”.

And then there was “Let Me Down Easy,” the heart-soul-and-gut-wrenching opus (co-written by Dee Dee Ford of Don Gardner fame), the 1965 Calla recording that first ‘introduced’ Bettye (then without the ‘e’!) to the small coterie of British R&B fans (such as myself and the late ‘UK godfather of R&B’ Dave Godin who played it for me that same year and left me speechless in the process). It wasn’t a big hit in the US and probably less than a hundred people bought it on the Stateside label when EMI bravely issued it in Britain. Bettye LaVette sang the song from a place that only she knows, a place that is deep within that most performers seldom if ever visit. Otis went ‘there’ with “These Arms Of Mine,” Aretha back in the day with “Night Life” and her own “Good To Me As I Am To You” on the rare occasions she sang it live. Lorraine Ellison went there on record (“Stay With Me”) and so did Dee Dee Warwick (“Gotta Get A Hold Of Myself”) and even my old pal Nina Simone (“I Put A Spell On You”). It’s a place of sheer abandon, of no-holds-barred vulnerability, of ‘take-me-as-I-am’ fearlessness. That she can access that place at will, night after night, is what makes Bettye LaVette the best living soul singer on the planet. Period. Bar none. No point in writing to me to express your indignation because I don’t think your personal favorite is the best soul singer in the world UNLESS and UNTIL you witness Bettye LaVette yourself. As the kids say, I’m out….

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create Records as a leading reissue label.

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