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Bettye LaVette Picks Up the Pieces of a Lost Career

Bettye LaVette has a favor to ask: "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," she pleads in a heartbreaking Willie Nelson song on her new album, Scene of the Crime. Her 61-year-old voice sounds a few steps lower and a lot grittier than it did when she had her first (and last) R&B hit, "My Man — He's a Loving Man," back in 1962. The new song makes her sound like a woman who's had one (or two or three) bottles of whiskey too many. She's "scattered everywhere" and well on her way to insanity. Backing her up: the churchy piano of Spooner "I Played with Aretha" Oldham, a wailing country guitar and the rootsy sidemen of Drive-By Truckers.

LaVette sounds as if she means every word of Nelson's sad song, but the reality is that she herself has picked up the pieces of a career full of heartbreak. She never made it big back in the day, but now, is there any indie soul singer who brings more guts, more conviction and more emotion to her singing? She finally got her propers in 2005 with the album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Her new CD returns to the Scene of the Crime, of course, but the crime lies in the number of years that record labels and critics spent ignoring her.

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This column originally ran on Oct. 19, 2007.

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Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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