Bettye Lavette with Harrison Kennedy and Voodoo Roots at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queen's Quay West), Saturday (June 21), 8 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
For deep soul fans, Bettye Lavette's name is synonymous with heartache. Besides recording some of the most moving vocal performances of the 60s - just the thought of that impassioned plea in her breakup classic Let Me Down Easy (Calla) is enough to knot up my stomach - she also has the dubious distinction of having cut one of the great lost albums of the soul era.
After signing to the R&B powerhouse Atlantic label in 72, Lavette naturally thought she had it made. In fact, Lavette was almost certain of it when she was sent to record in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with producer Brad Shapiro and a session crew of the very best musicians working in the churchy Southern soul idiom. It couldn't miss.
"As great as those Muscle Shoals players were and as many big sessions as they had done," explains Lavette from her home in Detroit, where she grew up having songs written for her by Motown legends-to-be like Stevie Wonder, "they made it feel like the tune we were recording was the only thing on earth that mattered.
"But it did throw me for a loop when one day they told me they were taking a short break to celebrate. One of their records had just gone gold."
When the sessions were over, so were Lavette's own gold-selling dreams. Atlantic decided to shelve the finished songs for her planned Child Of The 70s album, and the tapes sat in the label's vault for nearly 30 years.
It took intrepid French soul fan Gilles Pétard, who'd struck up a friendship with Lavette during a chance encounter backstage at a Grace Jones show in New York, to locate the masters. And it's Pétard who finally issued Lavette's long-thought-lost work.
The brilliant Souvenirs (Art & Soul) disc not only includes all 10 songs Lavette put down in Muscle Shoals, but also some of her fabulous singles tracks, including the brush-off swinger You'll Never Change and a smouldering take on Neil Young's Heart Of Gold that actually improves on the original.
"Of course, when I found out that they weren't going to release my album for 'quality control' reasons, I was devastated. I crawled under a table and didn't want to come out.
"At the time, they had Aretha Franklin, who was huge. So if I'd been in their position, I probably would've wanted to put every dollar behind her, too - but it took some time for me to deal with all of that."
While Lavette's recording might not have been up to the incredibly high standards set at Atlantic by Franklin, songs like It Ain't Easy, Outside Woman and Ain't Nothing Gonna Change Me are way above average for the period and at least on a par with the work of contemporaries like Denise LaSalle, Mitty Collier and Ann Peebles.
Yet surprisingly enough, Lavette sounds not the least bit bitter about the experience. With an impressive new bluesy soul album, A Woman Like Me (Blues Express), solidly written and produced by groove-conscious Robert Cray collaborator Dennis Walker, Lavette is ready for her close-up.
"Listening back to those Muscle Shoals recordings now, I can see why the label might've had a problem with releasing the album. The songs go off in all different directions, and because I didn't have a Bettye Lavette sound developed yet, they didn't hang together like an album should.
"In a way, I think it worked out for the best. If I'd had a hit record 30 years ago, I would never have had the experiences I did, like working in musical theatre, which made me the more complete artist that I am today.
"My voice has deepened, and I really think I'm singing better than ever."