With her powerful voice and magnetic personality, Bettye LaVette has had at least six different musical careers (and counting). She cut her first R & B singles as a teen for Atlantic, toured with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, James Brown, Otis Redding, played Broadway, wrote an acclaimed memoir (A Woman Like Me), sang for Barack Obama, and has finally gotten her due as an artist beloved of Millennials and the Northern Soul scene in the U.K. She recently released Blackbirds, an album of song covers by Black women who influenced her. Michael Shelley had a lively conversation with LaVette at her home in New Jersey
At age 74, Bettye LaVette, at home in suburban New Jersey, sounds positively mellow. Her answers are liberally peppered with f-bombs, but it is clear that she’s enjoying looking back and that the rough road is well behind her. The recollection of even the darkest of times comes with a sharp laugh, and a lesson learned.
She says she was born old. Her parents ran a club out of their living room, and as a toddler Bettye would entertain the patrons, and finish their drinks while helping clean the place up. Pregnant at fourteen, married at fifteen, first single out on Atlantic at 16. Her life and career were a rollercoaster. Lovers, record labels and cities flew by.
Her 2012 memoir, A Woman Like Me, is a highly recommended and an unflinching recollection of the highs and lows (including a stint working at the “Institute For Sexual Intercourse”) and the cyclical reinvention.
Around 2000 what Bettye calls her “fifth career” started with some reissues and the beginning of a string of new recordings that redefined her as an album artist, bringing her well deserved attention as a song interpreter of the highest order. That string continues with her most recent release, Blackbirds, on which she reimagines songs that made indelible impressions on her when originally recorded by her female African American predecessors and influences.
PKM: It’s an interesting time for your new album Blackbirds. Was Black Lives Matter happening when you were putting the album together?
Bettye LaVette: No, no, no. This is possibly the first time ever that the world has positioned itself to the release. Usually something happens, and everybody writes songs about it, but we had done this and then the whole world turned into what I was singing about.
PKM: So the idea was to pay tribute to your influences?
Bettye LaVette: I think my beef about Rhythm & Blues happened last year at the Grammys, because the people that were touted as Rhythm & Blues singers were Pop singers. So with this album, I wanted to just tap everyone on the shoulders and say “Here’s the bridge you came across on.” These people seem to think they invented what’s going on because it’s made such a big presence. It’s more money than entertainers have ever made in the history of entertainment. With all the writing and producing and getting all of the royalties instead of fighting for trying to get royalties just for singing… they’re getting so much I guess they do feel entitled. And these broads here are coming across on my back now, but these are the broads, on Blackbirds, whose backs I came across on, and that was the intention of the whole thing originally.
PKM: It’s interesting because artists like you clearly have a reverence for what came before you and maybe you’re right some of the younger people coming up don’t quite know the history of the music as well.
It’s just easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, because you have to remember how the lie goes and I’m lazy!
Bettye LaVette: Yeah! Jim Lewis, who was my manager for 25 years, and he wasn’t the greatest business manager but he was the greatest artist manager in the world, forced me to learn a lot of the tunes that were on this album. I was 17 or 18 when he met me, and I didn’t want to sing that. Sly and the Family Stone just happened, that’s what I was into. But he told me “If you learn these songs, you may never be a star, but you’ll be able to work the rest of your life… if you learn good songs and learn how to sing them.” I don’t know what’s being taught to young people today. I’m from Detroit and I always tell the story, there’s a place there called The Twenty Grand which is where everything happened, and Jim and I were coming from The Twenty Grand and there was a constant argument about the songs that he would assign me to learn every day, and I said “Oh shit, Sarah Vaughan can’t sing,” (Bettye makes the sounds of a car screeching to a halt) and he put me out on the freeway! He said, “You are too stupid to ride.” I don’t know if there’s any piece of advice that he gave me that I haven’t called on in these 59 years.
PKM: Let’s go back a little bit to your childhood. Your parents ran a club inside your house. Tell me about it.
Bettye LaVette: My parents worked every day. Most of the [automobile] parts factories were located near us, and this was 1946, ‘47 and ‘48 in western Michigan, which was Klan headquarters. The workers couldn’t go to a bar after work, they had to come by our house. The bachelors would come and my mother would make barbecue sandwiches and fried chicken dinners. We had a jukebox in our living room, and nobody could cuss but my mother, and she did! That’s how I learned to cuss so proficiently. And the police never bothered them because the police were happy that Blacks had somewhere to go and were not trying to force their way into restaurants and bars.
PKM: And there was no “Bettye, go to your room”? You were witness to everything?
Bettye LaVette: My mother said I never wanted to sleep and I wouldn’t take naps. I still hate naps, I feel like I’ll miss something. She said when I started talking, I started talking just like this, and I always cussed and I always drank and I could always sing. They would put me on top of the jukebox in my little T-shirt and diaper, and I could roll my stomach all the way down and all the way back up in time with the music. People would give me quarters and I knew all the songs on the jukebox. My sister was a teenager so all of the current songs were on the jukebox and my father loved blues and gospel, so I knew all the blues and gospel and my mother loved country and the current popular songs, so I had to be the only singer in the world who actually knew a song by Dale Evans and one by B.B. King.
PKM: So your parents were auto parts workers by day and club owners by night. It sounds like it wasn’t so much about money, but just them enjoying life.
Bettye LaVette: That was what they did when they were in Louisiana and they just brought it to Michigan with them, and most of the other Black people came from either Texas or Louisiana so they were all cousins or neighbors or whatever… and there was no fighting, unless my mother hit you. She ran the whole thing. And the biggest issue with my Dad was my Mom trying to find a new hiding place every day for the whiskey. This was corn liquor in a jug. She sold it in shots and pints and half pints.
PKM: So your dad would drink up the profits?
Bettye LaVette: My daddy was not interested in profits!
PKM: So, you got bit by the bug really early. Tell me about the Black Bottom neighborhood, which was the center of black nightlife in Detroit.
Bettye LaVette: That was where I wanted to be when I left home and I started singing. The first place I went was where all the El Dorados were parked and all the people that got out had on shiny suits and slicked-back hair. These were serious after-hour joints, it wasn’t like my house. I didn’t know anyone else who sang, and television wasn’t that big for Blacks at the time, so it wasn’t something that I thought I could do, I just knew some people did it, and I wanted to be around them. So when I went to Black Bottom the first time and to The Greystone and The Twenty Grand, I went as a groupie. I just wanted to be with them. I went for maybe a couple of weeks, and then another ten days and I was recording. My recording life started much different than anybody else’s. People talk about how they did all these talent shows and auditions, but when I went on stage with “My Man,” that was the first time I’d ever been on a stage in my life. I was a very uncontrollable young person so they wouldn’t let me sing in the choir, wouldn’t let me be in the school plays… they let me be in one talent contest in this small Catholic school and I sang “I’m A Hog For You Baby,” and Mother Nestor almost fainted!
PKM: So you were about 16 when “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man” came out on Atlantic. That’s quite a start.
Bettye LaVette: I had never seen a microphone or stood in front of one or held one or anything before that Friday when “My Man” came out and I had to go and do a record hop that night. There are pictures of it, and I look like somebody put a pole up my back, I’m standing so still and straight.
My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man (45 Version):
PKM: The singing on that record is very believable. You sound older than your years. Did that just come from the way you grew up or were you just born that way?
Bettye LaVette: I think I was just born that way and that’s it. My mother said I’ve always been grown. Now I didn’t know how to record, I’d only sung along with records. Johnnie Mae Matthews, who could very well be one of the first Black female record producers in the world, she had The Primes and The Primettes who would become The Temptations and The Supremes, she had all of these people under contract, and you may have seen the Motown movie, she threatened The Temptations and she threatened me and beat me up! Berry Gordy was still trying to get Motown up and running and she just signed all these singers. But she was just a bad woman, that’s why she never got her due. But I promised myself, now that I’m old, to mention her as often as I can, because she stood there and literally said each line of the song and said “Sing it just like me,” and I did that.
PKM: So when you say Johnnie Mae Matthews was bad, do you mean she was a bad-ass or she was not good?
Bettye LaVette: She was a mean woman. When I left her for Atlantic, after they bought my recording from her, I didn’t know I was supposed to get some money as well. And some people told me I should get some of that money and I went and confronted her and she snatched me up by my collar and said “Listen, you little bitch, you didn’t even know how to talk the week before last.” So, if she had not been like that, she probably could have given Berry [Gordy] a good run for his money, because she knew all of those people.
They used to tell the joke that whites think that all Blacks know each other, but at one time they did! Because they all had to go to the same place in Detroit because they couldn’t go anywhere else.
PKM: So pretty soon you were touring with the same people you had been dreaming about. Did it blow your mind?
Bettye LaVette: Every time Clyde McPhatter came out of his dressing room, I was standing there. I immediately fell in love with Ben E. King. I was in love with all of them.
PKM: You toured with James Brown a little bit. He was such a…
Bettye LaVette: Asshole? (Laughing)
PKM: (Laughing) I was going to say “crazy genius.” Was he a genius, besides his being an asshole?
Bettye LaVette: He was a genius at what he did. I don’t think he could have done what he did for anyone else, so he was his own genius. I’ve never seen a show that tight. I’ve never seen anyone in my life work as hard as James [Brown] and Otis Redding did. I mean I was tired when they would come off stage! James’ show was just flawless. Otis’ show was a little more rustic and unrehearsed, but James’ was hours of rehearsal. If you missed one beat, you were fined $20.
His dressing-room was right next to mine for the whole month that I was with them and I made an appointment just to speak with him, but I never got it done.
PKM: He never spoke to you?
Bettye LaVette: No, but he sent me a message through his road manager. “James wants you to move ‘Let Me Down Easy.’” Because it was causing a sensation and no, no, no, no, no!
PKM: I really loved your book A Woman Like Me. You really don’t hold back a thing. Sex, drugs and rock and roll – it’s all there. Is it that you just don’t care, or a feeling of “What have I got to lose?” or have you just learned that laying it all out there is just easier for you?
Bettye LaVette: It’s just easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, because you have to remember how the lie goes and I’m lazy!
I’ve never seen a show that tight. I’ve never seen anyone in my life work as hard as James [Brown] and Otis Redding did. I mean I was tired when they would come off stage!
PKM: The book is filled with great stories. It’s amazing how many people you have crossed paths with in your career. There are also a lot of pimps in the book. I didn’t realize how many people in the music business were pimps.
Bettye LaVette: They weren’t literal pimps. The person that I lived with, that the book opens with [the book opens with Bettye being dangled from the top of a twenty-story apartment building], he was a literal pimp, that is what he did. But the singers were not working all the time, but they knew women, either barmaids or women who worked at General Motors or Ford or Great Lakes Steel, and they had to look sharp. They had to be sharp. But they weren’t hitting the women or making scenes in the streets. They were trying to be stars. They just needed money and these women were willing to give it to them. Many of the performers had jobs, I always depended upon the kindness of strangers.
PKM: In 1965, “Let Me Down Easy” went Top 20, and I think your singing voice had developed a little bit in that short time. Tell me, is that something you worked on or did it just come with your physical maturity?
Bettye Lavette – Let Me Down Easy:
Bettye LaVette: It came with physical maturity. When I did “Let Me Down Easy,” I’d been in New York by then almost two years and I had worked The Baby Grand and Small’s Paradise and all these places I had read about forever in Jet Magazine, and New York, even today, will grow you up really fast. And everybody was eager to help me grow up for one reason or another. I just learned without even trying because I wanted to act like them, that was what I was really doing, mimicking grown professionals.
PKM: Over the years you’ve recorded singles for around 15 or 20 labels. I know there were some albums recorded that didn’t come out till later. Is there some reason, besides bad luck, that you didn’t get one company to stick with or become an album artist earlier?
Bettye LaVette: It really was a series of bad luck. Who else do you know who’s been singing for one month and the number one Black artist in the world’s husband shoots your manager who you’ve only had a month? It’s just that strange things happened to me.
PKM: Did that grind wear you down over the years?
Bettye LaVette: Yeah! I quit every time something bad happened and then the phone would ring, and I was back in it.
PKM: it’s interesting because your career for a long time was all these 45s and now your LPs are so dominant. You as an album artist makes so much sense now because of your maturity, but it’s almost like a schizophrenic career. You have fans who are obsessive 45 collectors and you probably have fans who love your new albums, but don’t even know about your R&B 45s.
Bettye LaVette: A schizophrenic career, Michael. I think that’s perfect. I think that’s really what it’s been. I’m continually reinventing myself, and the internet and television has helped speed things up, but there are still groups of people who only know this or only know that. But I’m so grateful for the recognition of what I am doing now. It’s not “Hey, everybody loves her.” I’m being picked apart and liked, and I’m liking that. “Did you hear how she did this?” as opposed to “I just love that.”
PKM: That’s Interesting, because you have such a wonderful personality and so many great stories but at the end of the day it all comes down to your voice and your ability to make the songs come across on record and to live audiences.
Bettye LaVette: Well, there again is that truthfulness. When I try to feign a song, sometimes I hear what I’m saying and it hurts my feelings and it makes me cry and I have to make everybody else cry.
“There are so many people coming from Nashville to do George Jones tunes, but would she be interested in doing a song by The Who?” and I said “The what?” I never heard that tune before, and it just happened magically. Now I have Pete Townsend on film crying while looking at me singing his song.
PKM: You’re a big deal on the Northern Soul [in the U.K.] scene. When that first came on your radar, was it a surprise that there was a whole U.K. scene where people were appreciating artists like you that were maybe having a down time in America. Did that scene sort of save you?
Bettye LaVette: Oh absolutely. I couldn’t believe there were people who knew me in Scotland! When I go on the stage in England, the first thing I say to them is “You know you’re responsible for this.” Up until that happened, I was just a blithering mess. I was so hurt and so worn down… but someone has always called. Someone has always either taken all their money they saved to put me into a studio, or stole some money from somebody to record me. People say, “Why didn’t you quit?” and it’s because somebody always called.
PKM: Your career is marked by these bad luck and good luck situations.
Bettye LaVette: Yeah, and all the good luck things are as bizarre as the bad luck things. I had been singing for a week and I was on Atlantic!
PKM: Your Kennedy Center Honors performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” was a real turning point.
“Love Reign O’er Me” – Bettye LaVette, Kennedy Center Honors for The Who, 2008:
Bettye LaVette: My husband just called them because they were doing a tribute to George Jones and I had just recorded one of his songs. So we sent it to them and they called back and said, “There are so many people coming from Nashville to do George Jones tunes, but would she be interested in doing a song by The Who?” and I said “The what?” I never heard that tune before, and it just happened magically. Now I have Pete Townsend on film crying while looking at me singing his song. So everything either happened drastically bad or tremendously good. There’s never been any in between for me.
PKM: You were steeped in R & B. What did you think about disco when it came?
Bettye LaVette: I thought it was unnecessary and uncalled for. But my one disco recording has been rated as one of the top 100 disco recordings of all time. When I recorded it, I was doing Bubbling Brown Sugar on Broadway and this 18-year-old kid came to me and said, “I’ve got this song I want you to record,” and it was just a rhythm and blues tune that they later mixed to be disco. I’m sure I’ve never sung the song live in my life, but many people know me only for that!
PKM: It’s one of your five careers.
Bettye LaVette: Yes.
PKM: Around the turn of the century, a new chapter in your career started happening and eventually you got signed to the ANTI record label and they paired you with producer Joe Henry and you made this record called I Got My Own Hell To Raise that was really well reviewed and featured songs written by women like Aimee Mann, Sinéad O’Connor and Lucinda Williams. Did you relate to those songs as soon as you heard them, or did it take a few listens?
Bettye LaVette: I didn’t relate to the records, but I related to the songs. Those weren’t the kind of records I would have listened to, but the words were there. I mean, my God, Dolly Parton can write a song. Maybe I wouldn’t have it in my home by Dolly Parton, but it certainly wasn’t something I was opposed to singing because I loved the song.
PKM: You have been nominated for a bunch of Grammys. Is that important to you?
Bettye LaVette: Yes! And everybody keeps telling me “Grammys aren’t important,” and I say, “Oh yeah, then give me yours!” I just wish they would create a lane for me to vie with a 23-year-old with blue hair. If she wins what does that mean, she’s better than me? And it took me 40 years and she got that good since her 17th birthday? So I think there should be some kind of old folks category or something, but I think it’s disrespectful and I’m absolutely insulted to be vying with people who are younger than my grandchildren.
Bettye LaVette sings “One More Song” live at home, from her album ‘Blackbirds’ – The Bettye LaVette Band: Brett Lucas – guitar, Darryl Pierce – drums, Evan Mercer – keys, Rocco Popielarski – bass
PKM: Tell me about singing for and meeting Barack Obama.
Bettye LaVette: I am still breathless. Eight hundred million people saw that performance and it was just breathtaking.
PKM: Did you get to talk politics with Barack?
Bettye LaVette: No, I wish I had. They were all very very gracious and I have one of the most wonderful pictures in my living room that you would ever want to see.
PKM: Tell me about drugs and alcohol. Any regrets about that?
Bettye LaVette: Well, I never got strung out on anything, so the only regret I have are the friends that I’ve lost. At one point, everybody was blowing so much cocaine, the words “strung out” weren’t even mentioned, it was ”Hey, you got one and one?” I didn’t know any record company presidents or any artists that weren’t blowing cocaine. I fortunately never had enough money to get strung out. But, it wasn’t a thing that was looked down on. Everybody did it. I might be able to attribute it to my attention span being so short, it’s hard for me to do the same thing all day long every day, so maybe that’s why I didn’t get strung out. But marijuana is still my thing. I think it’s just the greatest thing in the world, and I’ve thought that since I was 13 years old and I have smoked a joint every day of my life since I was 13.
PKM: You’re such a good interpreter of songs. What is the preparation process? Do you just listen and internalize and it comes out, or is it more intellectual than that?
Bettye LaVette: It’s absolutely arrogant. When I listen to a song I like, I don’t even hear who’s singing it. I think only of how I’m going to sing it. I haven’t thought about another singer since I was about 20. Really. When I was younger and I heard a song, I thought you had to sing it just like that, and my manager Jim said, “Sing it the way you feel it,” and I said “I don’t feel it.” I couldn’t understand how you make a song your own. I just couldn’t take “Moon River” and make it mine. And when it finally clicked … I was singing “Georgia” one night and it just came to me. I thought “I’m going to just sing this the way I want to sing it, even if it don’t go like that.”
PKM: Tell me, is the recording process quick or slow?
Bettye LaVette: I record one take, if there’s any mistakes, I’ll record one more and maybe one for the producer, but that’s it. All of my stuff is done by the end of the week. I hate to record because it’s so repetitive and doing it over… why not just do it really good the first time? I hate to rehearse and I hate to record. So I just do it right so I don’t have to do it again.
PKM: Your take on “Strange Fruit” from your new album has gotten a lot of attention lately. It’s such a devastating song. Do you think music makes a difference? Do you think you can change people’s minds or attitudes?
Strange Fruit – Bettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette: I don’t know that it can, but I think that when you look at the direction that music is going you tend to know what’s being thought about by people. The writing that I’ve seen about this rendition of “Strange Fruit” has been greatly received and accepted. I’d like to think that it could change something. You can hear it more torridly when I sing it. Somebody said, “The song was already drastic, and then they let Bettye LaVette sing it.”
PKM: Can you put your finger on what’s going on in America or why?
Bettye LaVette: I know why. Since 1937, or when that song first came out, things haven’t changed very much. But this year feels different. Different than the Sixties, different from anything else I’ve ever seen, and I think that’s due to my granddaughter’s group. I think this one is going to be different and I think some things are going to be changed. I really feel more hopeful about what’s going on right now.
This systemic racism is so embedded in us, we know what not to say or where not to go, where not to stand and people like my granddaughter are like “How come I can’t go there?” Questions I wouldn’t have even asked. I knew I couldn’t go there. And I think that’s going to be the thing that is going to pivot on. “How come I can’t do that?” I really have great great faith in what’s going on right now.
PKM: Sounds like you’re in a good place.
Bettye LaVette: I am lucky in so many ways. As I get older, the age is helping me realize how really lucky I am. I think I had a fixed dream at one point and now I’m just taking it as it happens. I’m taking all the good things and making a new dream. I’m grateful for what’s happening right now. I have everything I have ever wanted, I would love for it to be bigger and more aggrandized, but I basically have what I’ve always wanted, a husband who loves me, a wonderful home and being admired and spoken about by people that I admire, and I’m pretty cool.
All photos via Bettye LaVette Official site
Bettye LaVette doing a blistering cover of “Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan, on eTown: