Bettye and Shuggie in San Javier
Hot on the heels of the Cazorla Blues Festival comes the San Javier Jazz festival. The name is somewhat redundant, as Uriah Heep are appearing this year, and if they’re jazz then I’m a teapot. but, be that as it may, at least the festival, strung out over an entire month and situated in a town only a couple of hours away from where we live, affords the possibility of seeing world-class talent under the Spanish sun.
The night we picked featured Bettye LaVette, a singer who’d only come to my attention via Jools Holland’s BBC2 show ‘Later’, and who’d greatly impressed. As Bettye herself said on the night, “It’s only taken me 50 years to become an overnight success..” Approaching 70, she’s had a long, hard career in the music business, starting with her debut single in 1962: “My man- he’s a lovin’ man”. Raised in Detroit, she flirted with fame over the years. A brief stint with James Brown, a stage musical with Cab Calloway…but for the most part Bettye languished in obscurity.
It was the interest of Gilles Petard, a French soul music collector, that began to shine a light on Bettye, after he sought out and acquired the rights to her unreleased Child of the Seventies masters, having been played the mono recordings by Bettye herself. It was finally released, decades after its creation, as Souvenirs in 2000.
But it was LaVette’s appearance at the Kennedy Centre Honors, where The Who were honorees, that really gave Bettye’s career the necessary momentum. An amazing performance of Love reign o’er me had the Kennedy centre audience, most unaware of Lavette at that point, on their feet, and Townsend and Daltrey moved to tears. Just check it out:
It highlighted her ability to turn a song inside out, de-construct it, and make it her own. This led to The British Rock Songbook, a wonderful collection of British rock classics that Bettye performs as if her life depends on it.
Bettye at San Javier Jazz – Photo by Rafe Marquez
Seeing her live was a privilege. Her band, tight and funky, and able to draw subtle nuances out of every arrangement were a perfect complement to her rich raw vocals. Opening with Lennon and McCartney’s ‘The Word‘ she simply stole the show. ‘Love reign o’er me’ sent shivers down my spine, and when she announced a Neil Young cover “Heart of Gold” with the tongue-in cheek statement “but I sing it better”, you damn well believed her before she’d even sang a note.
I met and chatted with her bassist, James Simonson after the show, a real nice guy, who was still buzzing about meeting Marcus Miller at the North Sea Jazz fest just days ago. We got into ‘bassist’ talk for a while. I asked him to pass on my compliments to Bettye and the band, and I bought The British Rock Songbook that very night. Bettye’s message, throughout her long career is an unspoken, yet potent one: If you’re good, believe in it, and don’t give up. ever. As she approaches 70, Bettye LaVette’s got a helluva lot more to give.
Shuggie Otis. I knew the name, but was fairly unacquainted with his music. However, a quick rummage through my record collection revealed that I owned “Strawberry letter 23″ by The Brothers Johnson on their greatest hits CD. This was a Shuggie-penned tune, and this recording of it gave Shuggie his big break. Just listening to it, you can hear how he was to become a huge influence on the likes of Prince and Lenny Kravitz. It’s a great piece of pop-funk-psychedelia. I awaited his performance with interest. With a 9 piece band, the arrangements were superb, and the musicianship absolutely top-notch. Shuggie’s fluid guitar playing, especially when he played the blues was also pretty impressive. But…..
….the guy was on another planet. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but the end result was that it seemed like he just couldn’t be bothered to reach the notes when he was singing (or finish sentences when he was talking) in contrast to Bettye, who, although not speaking Spanish spoke slowly and clearly to the audience. Shuggie was a disaster. I was willing him to sing properly. Every now and again he would seem to remember where he was and a couple of lines would suddenly leap out clear and powerful, then just lapse away again. When they played ‘Wings of Love’, a fine song with a fantastic arrangement, beautifully performed, his voice just destroyed it. He also looked like he couldn’t get away fast enough, and his son and brother who were band members sort of hung around on stage to try and get everybody to ask for an encore, which he eventually gave. These people paid to see you man. You are an undeniable talent. Stay focused, and make the effort.