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Bettye LaVette Story
Thanks to
Graham Finch
Artwork and Website Design
Thanks to
Lowell Boileau

You can see LaVett gained an ‘e’ on these 1965 Calla records.

 It turned out that Mr. West’s accident was a turning point in Bettye’s early career. With her manager incapacitated, she decided her future lay in New York and in late 1964 the 18-year-old traveled there to hook up with one of the few people she knew:

 “Frank Kocian was the accountant with Shaw Artists Corporation, which booked all the black acts in the world at the time. And by him being the accountant, whenever I wanted to borrow money - I would call him. Then after West got shot, I went to New York to see about him (West) - that was the auspices under which I went. Frank Kocian knew I wanted to stay, so he got me a place and asked me if I wanted him to be my manager: I said yes.“

 Bettye started singing on a review led by Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford, but instinctively hankered after another recording contract. An opportunity opened up while Don and Dee Dee were touring overseas, when Bettye bumped into producer Luther Dixon, then involved with The Shirelles.

 Knowing she could sing, Mr. Dixon whisked her into a studio that same day to record a song tilted (Happiness Will Cost You) One Thin Dime - penned by Carl Spencer and Bob Halley, the men behind Baby Washington’s 1963 hit That’s How Heartaches Are Made.

 This was the first time Bettye had dubbed her vocal on top of a track – her previous recording sessions in Detroit had been cut ‘live’ as the musicians played. The venture didn’t come to anything though. Holly Maxwell had a mini-hit with it on Constellation, but Bettye’s version stayed in Scepter’s vaults, only seeing daylight in 1993 thanks to Ace/Kent records in England. It’s on one of their great Soul compilations (Where The Girls Are: Volume 2).

“Then we met the gangsters at Calla.”

 After this non-starter, Mr. Kocian introduced Bettye to some well-connected people, including Nate McCalla: “Frank knew the people that owned Nate and said, ‘Well, I‘ve got an artist and they said - we got a record-company guy and we’re gonna start this other record company’. Then we met the gangsters at Calla.”

 Nate McCalla had an office on Broadway and his Calla label began life in ’65 with a 45 by The Leaders. Bettye went in armed with a ballad penned by Dee Dee Ford (hiding behind the pseudonym of Wreich-Holloway) titled Let Me Down Easy. Don Gardner was the producer and Bettye managed to get Detroit maestro Dale Warren to do the arrangement: an inspired choice.

 Dale Warren had started out at Motown and had arranged countless 60s Detroit songs – many now regarded as classics. Renowned guitarist Dennis Coffey, who played on Bettye’s later Detroit recordings, recalled what made Dale’s sound that little different:

 “Dale would have fewer violins in relation to the number of violas and cellos - he’d only have three violins, which gave his arrangements a darker sound.”

 There’s certainly darkness to Let Me Down Easy, which starts with somber Tchaikovsky-esque strings that herald Bettye’s emotive delivery, which - for reasons stated below - she vamps towards the end:

 “When I was recording the vocal, the guy I was thinking about came into the control room, so I was singing the song to him. When we finished recording, everyone in the control room was in tears: except him.”

 The lachrymose gem is universally acknowledged as one of the best all-time Deep Soul classics. It remains perfectionist Ms LaVatte’s favorite song: her mantra.

When you pass by me
say hello once in a while
When you pass by me baby
does it hurt so much to smile?

 One positive aspect of working for people with intimidating underworld power was that Bettye got to appear on national TV:

 “They had given Nate McCalla this record company because he had purportedly killed someone for them. I did not know all this at the time. They said, ‘Which television show would you like to do?’ They had control over all of them. I said I’d like to do Shindig, which was the biggest thing. I should have said Ed Sullivan. But I was 17 – I wanted to do what kids were doing. So I did Shindig. Just like that. I didn’t realize these were gangsters – I just thought they could do this because they were white.“

 Let Me Down Easy underachieved by peaking at 20 on Billboard’s chart, but her follow-up that autumn - Only Your Love Can Save Me - unfathomably failed to even break into the top 100. Bert Keyes did a great job on arranging the Nick Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Jo Armstead’s song, and Bettye again made a peerless contribution.

 Northern Soul fans have long enjoyed dancing to the flip - a raucous upbeat tune with Detroit roots - written by Bob Hamilton and Don Mancha, who had both been with Mr. West years before.
 Bettye’s third and last Calla 45 was in a similar vein – a spunky R’n’B valentine titled Stand Up Like A Man – that sold even fewer copies. Its mellower B-side - I’m Just a Fool For You - is now another popular dance record with Europeans.

 Regrettably, the early 1966 ‘rehearsal’ recording of Cry Me A River was never released, but is undoubtedly one of her very best: capturing as it does everything on that first heartfelt take. The song couldn’t be improved upon.

 By May of ‘66, Frank Kocian had bravely started his own record label, Big Wheel, which although based on Fifth Avenue in New York, was very much about the Detroit Sound that had become so universally popular.

Bettye LaVette with Freddie Buttler advert
Part of an advert that appeared in the Michigan Chronicle in August 1966 for a Detroit nightclub called Blues Unlimited.

 The first Big Wheel label release was (I’m A Fool) I Must Love You by The Falcons, a group that had begun as The Ramblers before changing to The Fabulous Playboys when recording for Robert West.

 The original group featuring Joe Stubbs, Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd et al split up, so Mr. West gave the Playboys that group’s name and put out Has It Happened To You Yet on Lu-Pine (Shortly after Bettye’s Witch Craft was released).

 The Falcons were put in the same boat as Bettye after Mr. West got shot - wondering what to do next - and when Frank Kocian arrived in Detroit as their self-proclaimed manager, they were more than happy to get back in the studio.

This Big Wheel advert appeared in Billboard in December 1966.

 The Falcon’s first two discs sold well, especially Standing On Guard, a B-side that made Billboard’s top 30 in October ’66.

 “We did those at Golden World”, Sonny told me. “Robert Babbit, Robert White, Uriel Jones, Joe Hunter, Dave Hamilton on vibes - mostly Motown musicians played on the sessions. Fantastic, they were just fantastic. Standing On Guard – we were surprised that the people liked it. The black stations in Detroit wouldn’t play it; because they said it wasn’t noisy enough.”

 That’s not a comment that could be leveled at Bettye’s up-tempo I’m Holdin’ On – the forth release on Big Wheel. Clarence Paul was the writer of both sides – the up-tempo A-side being paired with a song (Tears in Vain) that The Supremes had recorded quite a while before Bettye: “We cut it at United Sound with moonlighting Motown musicians, with even including Marvin Gaye joining in.”

 It has the typical Detroit 60s Sound, but it well and truly flopped and is one of Bettye’s more hard-to-find 45s. She hates it, yet Northern Soul fans pay good money for copies.

 The Big Wheel label put out just a few more singles before Mr. Kocian’s dalliance with the recording business fizzled out. His New York underworld associates warned him off, which effectively put Bettye’s career in limbo again.

Tears in Vain and I'm Holdin' On record labels
Both The Supremes and Stevie Wonder had previously recorded ‘Tears In Vain’.



Bettye LaVette Story

Graham Finch
by Lowell Boileau