By 16, Betty Jo had become enamored with showbiz. She decided to change her name to something more dramatic. She knew a local groupie by the name of Sherma Lavett, liked the sound of the name, and thus, Betty Lavett was born. Singer Timmy Shaw brought her to Johnnie Mae Matthews, notorious Motor City record producer. Bettye's first single was "My Man--He’s a Loving Man.", in the fall of 1962. The record was quickly picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The record charted #7 R&B and put her on her first national tour, with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, and another newcomer, Otis Redding.
After a brief spell at Detroit's Lupine label, Bettye went back to New York and became the featured singer in the Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford Review, where their Small's Paradise shows became the talk of the town. Her association with Don and Dee Dee spawned her next big record, for the Calla label. "Let Me Down Easy", written by Dee Dee Ford, was an atmospheric masterpiece. Bettye's pleading voice, set against the moody string arrangement by Dale Warren produced a record that is on many "greatest soul songs of all time" lists. It went # 20 R&B in 1965 and led to an appearance on the television show, Shindig. It also put her on a tour with The James Brown Review.
Then back to Detroit for a one off single on Big Wheel and a series of singles for Ollie McLaughlin's Karen label. One of these songs, "Hey Love", was written expressly for her by Stevie Wonder. In 1969, Kenny Rogers heard her cover of his group's "What My Condition My Condition Was In", and suggested to his brother, producer Lelan Rogers, that he record her. This led to her signing with Silver Fox, and a trip to Memphis, where she made a string of records with a then unknown studio group, who went on to become known as The Dixie Flyers. The recordings were augmented by The Memphis Horns. The first release,"He Made a Woman Out of Me", went #25 R&B, even though it was banned by some stations due to it's risque content. It later went on to be a hit for Bobbie Gentry. In 1970, the follow-up "Do Your Duty" went # 38 R&B. She recorded a number of other songs for the label, some of which were issued on 45. The LP that was to come never did, due to a falling out between label head Shelby Singleton and Lelan Rogers.
In 1971, at the suggestion of her manager, Jim Lewis, she entered a talent competition, and won a Clio Award for a Schaffer Beer Commercial.
"Bettye has always had big ears and a wide open mind, preferring to fulfill the role of a song interpreter, rather than attempt to write her own material. Bettye’s near mystical ability to get inside a song’s lyric, melodic line and harmonic implications, in the process invariably making anything she covers her own, stems from the tutelage and guidance of her late manager Jim Lewis. A veteran of the big band era having played with the screaming and stomping Buffalo-based Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Lewis managed LaVette for ten years beginning in 1968 and constantly harped on her to listen to master song interpreters such as Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, pointing out the intricacies of phrasing and timbre manipulation that are part and parcel of the sonic art of any truly great vocalist." - Rob Bowman
In 1972, she was once again signed to Atlantic, through it's Atco subsidiary.
After a few recordings in LA, they sent her down to Muscle Shoals Sound, where, under the guidance of producer Brad Shapiro and accompanied by the famed MSS studio band, cut what was going to be her first released full length LP. The Memphis Horns were dubbed on, as well as strings at Criteria Studios in Miami. The recordings were mastered and readied for release under the title Child of the Seventies. A publicity tour was booked, but at the last minute Bettye was called and told, “We have decided not to go forward with the project. Please return the plane tickets”. She was never given an explanation and the devastation stayed with her for years to come. However, a 45 from the sessions, "Your Turn To Cry", was released and ranks high on the lists of most deep soul collectors.
1975 brought a brief stint with Epic, where "Thank You For Loving Me" went #94 R&B.
The follow up, a cover of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors", as good as it was, failed to chart.
In 1978 she cut a disco record, "Doin' The Best That I Can" with a 19 year old producer, Cory Robbins, for the West End label. (Cory went on to fame as the creator/producer of Run DMC.) Bettye wanted a release from her contract, and they agreed to it if she signed away all of her rights to the song. She did, and weeks later the record became a huge dance floor hit, selling over 100,000 copies.
In 1979-1982 she was asked to appear in the touring company of the Toni Award winning Broadway musical, "Bubbling Brown Sugar" in the role of Sweet Georgia Brown. She learned to tap dance, and was hired. She worked with Charles "Honi" Coles, and Cab Callaway while with the show. It was here where she learned more about staging than she had ever known.
In 1982, Bettye got a call from Motown. Lee Young, Sr. was president of the label at the time, and he liked Betty. She was signed and sent to Nashville and recorded the Tell Me A Lie album. Produced by Steve Buckingham, the studio players were augmented by The Memphis Horns. Two 45s were released, the first of which, the Sam Dees penned, "Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love)," went to #35 on the R&B charts. It also allowed for another television appearance, this time on Soul Train. However, a corporate shake-up removed Lee Young, Sr., and the LP itself was never promoted properly.
In 1989, Bettye recorded a CDs' worth of songs for English DJ, Ian Levine's Motor City label. Although most of the instrumentation is synthesized, her vocals were, as always, impeccable 1997 saw a wonderful, but unauthorized, release of Bettye's version of Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes", on cassette only, by the Bar/None label.
All the while, Bettye was a cult favorite in soul circles, especially overseas.
In 2000, French collector/label owner Gilles Petard, while searching the Atlantic tape vaults, came up with the long-thought-lost tapes to the 1972 Child of the Seventies Atco LP . He licensed the tracks and released them in France on his own Art & Soul label as Souvenirs.
At the same time, Dutch fan Ben Mattijssen recorded Bettye at a live show in Utrecht, Holland and released Let Me Down Easy--In Concert, on the Munich label. These two CDs, released almost simultaneously, created a renewed interest in Bettye, and showed that she was still in excellent voice.
In 2002, thanks to Shanachie Records' president Randall Grass, Bettye was introduced to Grammy Award winning producer, Dennis Walker. Dennis got her signed to fledgling label, Blues Express, and they made her comeback CD, A Woman Like Me.
In late 2002, John Goddard, owner of world famous Mill Valley Records decided to give himself a birthday party. Being a fan of Bettye's recordings, he contacted Bettye and asked if she would come and perform at his party. He told her that he would make sure that everybody who was anybody in the area would be there. Amongst the many famous musical guests was Mike Kappus, president of The Rosebud Agency. Although she hadn't had a record out in years, his belief in the power of her live show prompted him to sign her for bookings.
After signing with Rosebud, A Woman Like Me was finally released in 2003. Bettye won the coveted W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for "Comeback Blues Album of the Year" as well as the Living Blues critic pick as "Best Female Blues Artist of 2004."
After her contract with Blues Express expired, Mike Kappus helped her look for a new label home. He invited Anti- Records president Andy Kaulkin to see one of her shows. On the strength of her live show, Kaulkin asked Bettye to sign a three record contract.
For the first project, Kaulkin paired her with Grammy Award winning producer Joe Henry, and suggested an album of songs written entirely by women. The resulting CD, I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, was on many critics’ “Best of 2005” lists. Due to an unfortunate error, the CD was never submitted to the Recording Academy for Grammy consideration.
In 2006, she received a well-deserved “Pioneer Award” from The Rhythm and Blues Foundation.
Her second Anti- album, The Scene of the Crime, was recorded in Muscle Shoals’ FAME Studios with alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers. On it, she transforms country and rock songs written by Willie Nelson, Elton John, and Don Henley, among others, into devastating mini-dramas. The title of the disc references the now infamous Child of the Seventies LP, which was also recorded in Muscle Shoals. The Scene of the Crime was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album” and landed on numerous “Best of 2007” lists.
In 2008, she received a BMA (Blues Music Award) for “Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer”. In December she performed a critically acclaimed version of "Love Reign O'er Me" at The Kennedy Center Honors in a tribute to The Who.
In January 2009 she had the honor of performing "A Change Is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi for President elect Barack Obama on HBO's telecast of the kick-off Inaugural Celebratory concert, We Are One. In April she shared the stage with Sir Paul McCartney & Ringo Starr at Radio City Music Hall for David Lynch's Change Begins Within benefit concert. A theatrical film release is planned.
In June 2009 a 6 song EP, Change Is Gonna Come Sessions, was released as a download only available on Itunes, Amazon, E Music, Rhapsody, etc. It consisted of songs that were composed by black writers.
In May 2010 her 3rd Anti- CD, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook was released to rave reviews. The concept was conceived by her husband, music maven Kevin Kiley, who was inspired by the critical acclaim that she received after her performance of "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. As the title implies, she re-invents songs from the British bands who were initially influenced by American r&b music. Bettye co-produced the record along with Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens, a relationship born at the Kennedy Center Honors and the We Are One events. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best Contemporary Blues Album”.
She has appeared on National Public Radio's World Cafe, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, and performed a Tiny Desk Concert. She has appeared in a Mississippi Public Broadcasting series, Blues Divas, and is in a film of the same name, both produced by award winning film maker, Robert Mugge. She has also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, The Conan O'Brien Show, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Lopez Tonight, Austin City Limits, The Prairie Home Companion, The Artist's Den, Good Morning America, The Today Show and The Tavis Smiley Show.