Singer-songwriter Bettye LaVette

The R&B songstress reflects on her memoir, A Woman Like Me, and her new CD, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.”

Bettye LaVette is celebrating her 50th anniversary with her fourth CD for Anti- Records, "Thankful N' Thoughtful," and her long-time-coming autobiography, A Woman Like Me (co-written with David Ritz). Raised in Detroit, she was influenced by the blues and recorded her first single at age 16. Although she failed to receive the same accolades as many other artists, she charted with "Let Me Down Easy," which became her signature tune, toured Europe's soul circuit and performed in Broadway's Bubbling Brown Sugar. After the 2000 release of "Souvenirs," LaVette became an in-demand performer and has since received two Grammy nods.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Pleased to welcome Bettye LaVette back to this program. The wonderful R&B singer is out now with a wonderful and very poignant memoir called “A Woman Like Me.”

In addition, she has a new CD out, a collection of covers called “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.” I love that tile.

Bettye LaVette: Thank you.

Tavis: “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.”

LaVette: And I am thankful and thoughtful.

Tavis: (Laughter) Good to see you again.

LaVette: It’s good to see you too.

Tavis: You’re looking well, as always. I have pondered – this doesn’t happen often to me. I generally have a pretty good idea of where I think the conversation ought to begin so I can get the first question out. But after that, I’m just following the guest. (Laughter) With you, I could -

LaVette: You mean I could do this?

Tavis: Yeah, you could do this, exactly. (Laughter) Well, I tell people, since you asked, I tell folk all the time that I think what makes a good talk show host a great talk show host is being a generous listener. More generous you listen, the better you are at what I do.

So when people think I’m actually leading the conversation, I’m really not. If you watch the show carefully, I’m listening to what you’re saying and I’m following you. So it’s like a jazz ensemble. I’m riffing off you.

LaVette: Right, right, right, right.

Tavis: So that’s how it generally works, except when I get a book like this. (Laughter)

LaVette: Oh, Tavis.

Tavis: I’m serious.

LaVette: I thought you were getting ready to go on -

Tavis: No, no, when I get a book like “A Woman Like Me,” I really don’t know where to start this conversation, because there’s so much in it. So here’s what I’ve done. I’ve kind of divided this book up, as I read it, into (laughter) the three overarching themes of your life, if I could be so bold.

LaVette: Okay.

Tavis: In no particular order – I call them the three Ms, easy for me to remember – in no order, the music, the money, and the men.

LaVette: Okay. Oh, I like that.

Tavis: That’s how I see your life. You like that?

LaVette: I like that.

Tavis: Can I get some of that?

LaVette: The music, the money, and the men.

Tavis: The money, and the men. That’s kind of how I see -

LaVette: I like that.

Tavis: – the overarching themes of your life.

LaVette: My only thing would be with the money, because there was less of it than there was men, music, or anything else, so. (Laughter)

Tavis: Having read the book, I don’t disagree with that, but it is a theme, from bad contract to your being ripped off – and I say money, I mean the labels, all that stuff comes under the money category.

So that’s kind of how I see it, so I’m going to let you start this conversation by telling me which category – look at the board here, which category do you want to pick to start?

LaVette: No, I’ve decided I’m not letting any of you guys off. I find that because of some of the things in the book, they are in conversation, in today’s conversation so salacious, and especially with Black men, they look at an older Black woman and they’re a little apprehensive. I just talked with Joe Madison for a while on the radio.

Tavis: Sure.

LaVette: So no, I’m not letting you off that easy. You start it.

Tavis: I’ll jump, then. (Laughter) You ain’t scared me. As my grandmother said, “Ain’t no thing but a chin wag.”

LaVette: Ain’t a’scared me.

Tavis: You ain’t – I ain’t skerd. I’ll go. (Laughter) All right, I’ll start with, I’ll take music for $500.

LaVette: Okay.

Tavis: All right. (Laughter) Here’s where I want to start with the music. I want to go to the back of the book, because oftentimes these blurbs mean something. Sometimes they don’t. These actually mean something.

So Elvis Costello says of you, “Anyone who’s ever heard Bettye LaVette’s voice will recognize how absurd it is that she may have been unsung.” Pete Townsend says, “Bettye LaVette is a voice from the wilderness. How did we miss her for so long?”

There is this theme amongst your fans and obviously that runs through your life that for so long you labored in obscurity.

With a voice like yours that is so regarded now by the president, by the Kennedy Center, by record labels, by fans the world over, how did you, vis-à-vis the music, labor in obscurity for so long?

LaVette: Well, it was some of the basis of writing the book, because the things – and now that I’ve written the book people automatically jump to the conclusion well, there you go right there, it was the drugs. I never had enough money to get strung out on anything.

And there you go right there, it was the – what? I didn’t do anything. It’s such an unusual collection of circumstances until it warranted, according to David Ritz and Penguin Publishing, a book. But it was always, if you follow the book closely, and it’s not hard to follow, it’s very short, unusual things that happened.

Who do you know in show business, when they’ve only been singing for, like, 2 months, their manager is shot and almost killed by the husband of the number one Black female singer in the world at the time, Mary Wells’ husband. So that kind of slowed me down, because then I had to come to New York and try and meet the people that he knew, because I didn’t know anyone in Detroit.

Each thing that happened, when the infamous 1972 album, which was never released on Atlantic, it was right in the middle of when Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler decided to separate. Jerry Wexler wanted to continue to do rhythm and blues music, or Black music; Ahmet Ertegun wanted to go with rock music.

They separated. Now this is something I’ve just found out recently. I never knew why the darn album didn’t come out. It did “Let Me Down Easy,” which was my next record that was I think bigger than my first, “My Man.” We later found we never knew what happened to the record company president. He was just found in a ditch in Arizona or Oklahoma or somewhere.

Just things that never happened to anybody else. They just aren’t things that ever happened to anyone else.

Tavis: Did you ever at any point think that the cosmos was lined up against you?

LaVette: Oh, absolutely, and here, you turn to several things. Several people turn to church, turn to God, turn to all kinds of things, and I turned to several things just to say well, what do you think about it? Astrologically speaking, it was saying, like, everything’s lined up against you for a long, long time. (Laughter)

I kept saying, see, that’s how I know this mess is nothing. How you going to just tell me everything’s lined up against me for a long time and you’re my neighbor? This is a guy that lives across the street from me. But he was absolutely right, and everything that anybody like that told me, everything that they said was absolutely right.

It wasn’t like oh, you’re going to be a millionaire one day. All of them said – the first little boy was just a teenager studying palm reading and just wanted to read everybody’s palm. He said, “Oh, you’re going to be really old when this happens,” and he was in earnest.

At this time I’m like 25 or 26. Really old like what, 40? (Laughter) You know? Of course that’s what I’m thinking, so around that time I really, it gave me some kind of solace. I got to be 40, this is going to happen now, boy.

So now my astrologer, who lives across the street, I’m checking with him once every 10 years or so, “How does,” he’s, “No, not yet.”

Tavis: Not yet.

LaVette: I said, “Do you know how old I am now?” (Makes noise) And true enough. Who gets a record deal with the president of a company who’s the same age as my daughter, and he just thinks – in fact, he constantly says – Andrew Kaulkin, the president of Anti Records, he says, “You rock.” I said, “No, Andrew, I roll.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

LaVette: I roll.

Tavis: Say at my age, I’m a roller. So I’m still on the music here. We’re going to get to the other two Ms in a second. What do you make in retrospect, and you talk about it, of course, in the text, what do you make in retrospect of how difficult it was, given that you have this great voice, you know everybody in the Motown family, you are from Detroit.

I’m not suggesting that the Chairman, Berry Gordy, had an obligation to sign everybody in Detroit who could sing; I know some folk in Detroit who can really, really sing who ain’t got a record label today.

LaVette: Yeah, right, right.

Tavis: But Detroit spits these artists out all the time, these great artists. But what do you make, in retrospect, of why that process for you was so difficult, when everybody else was getting record deals and getting records put out by Motown?

LaVette: Well at first, and it’s a thing that seemingly is overlooked by you and everybody else. When my first record came out in 1962 on Atlantic, Berry Gordy wanted to be with Atlantic. That was the biggest Black record company in the world at the time.

Then another thing that maybe we didn’t mention often enough in the book, I only wanted to be with Motown when the other stuff I was doing wasn’t working. Whenever the other stuff I was doing was working, I didn’t want to be with Motown. I knew everybody there. I was more exotic if I could say well, I record for a company in Chicago or a company in New York or a company in L.A.

So I only wanted to be with Motown when things were not working, but as to why he did not sign me when he apparently, and several others there, saw me there suffering, I think it was a lot of things that I learned later, like the thing with Atlantic.

I found there was a situation with he and the man I was in love with at Motown, Clarence Fall, who certainly would have been my producer. The other producers there would have felt they were overstepping, whatever. I wasn’t worth it to overstep him to do whatever, and so there were a lot of reasons I believe he didn’t sign me.

Then I think that with other companies during that time, stay a Stax, with an Al Bell or some of the other companies, I was so personally involved with some of those people it wouldn’t have been conducive to sign me.

I was 16 and 17 years old. There’s no way in the world I was going to be involved with the president of a company and not let anybody know it if I didn’t do anything but say – (laughs) I was going to say something. That was my only claim to fame, so I was going to say something.

So now being older, I understand many of them, at Motown it was just too convoluted. Just too many things going on that were against me. But here again, as long as something else, just as now, as long as something else was going on, I didn’t care about not being with Motown.

Tavis: So as you know, I know David Ritz well, I’ve worked with David Ritz on a number of projects, and I know how David works. So I know at some point, and I’m told that you -

LaVette: What, I had to slap him?

Tavis: Well – (laughter). That too. Sorry, David. I know at some point, knowing how David works, you sat down and you read this manuscript, read this book front to back.

You did not hold your tongue, which is your way, and you’re entitled to that. You did not hold your tongue when it came to talking about Motown or talking about some of the artists at Motown.

I’m talking now about Marvin Gaye, I’m talking about Stevie Wonder, I’m talking about Diana Ross. Some of the biggest names in Motown you’ve got some things to say about in this text. When you got a chance to look at the manuscript when it was all said and done, did you regret anything or do you not regret anything you said about any of these Motown artists?

LaVette: Oh, I regret the things that I said about me because I’ve got grandchildren, and even though they’re now 21 and 27, I feel better than if they had been nine or 10 or 15 and 16.

But the people that I know, you have to realize, I’m not talking about the people you know.

Tavis: Exactly.

LaVette: I’m talking about the people I know.

Tavis: I’m just asking the question.

LaVette: And like I said, I don’t know who they are now, because I haven’t talked to them in 40 years, but I knew who they were then. That’s what I’m talking about in my book. So the book is about me and the things that happened to me, so I’m not really talking about them. I’m only talking about them as they related to me.

I don’t know when I wasn’t with them what they did, but this is what happened when I was with them and when I was around them, and that’s a completely different thing.

One little guy wrote to my, what, Twitter or Facebook or whatever, I don’t know. He said, “I’ve been in love with Diana Ross all of my life, and I can’t believe the things that you said and I’ll never come to one of your concerts again, I’ll never buy one of your records.”

So I told my husband, I said, “I’m not responding to anyone in that form unless I know them.” I said, “But if I did respond to him,” I said, “if you don’t sit down and shut up, I’m going to tell you the entire story.” (Laughter)

Tavis: I’ll make you hear more of it.

LaVette: So just -

Tavis: Okay. That’s like a good segue to move on. (Laughter) Enough about the music. Let me talk about the men, and it’s interesting in this conversation already you have woven into some of these answers, because it obviously fits the narrative of what your life has been and is – these men.

How much of – and you kind of touched on this a moment ago, Bettye – how much of this obscurity that you had to work through had to do with men, for whatever reasons, legitimate or illegitimate, clipping your wings, holding you back, not pushing you out front?

LaVette: Well, only that once, and that was the saving grace. All these dangerous men that I was involved with, only one of them ever asked me, the one where we open the book, that was the only person that ever asked me to give him some money no matter where I got it from.

The other people really, really were involved with my career and really wanted to further my career. The person I’m talking about at the beginning of the book didn’t care what he furthered. It didn’t make any difference.

But everybody else I’ve met, the business itself, the music industry, has treated me badly, but people, by and large, and men even more, have treated me extremely well.

I’ve always been able to look like this, eat where I wanted, go where I wanted. It was just trial and tribulation for me because I wasn’t able to act in the auspices of Bettye LaVette.

Like I think at one point there I’m saying Martha Reeves and I could go out to dinner and I’m sitting there at the table and everybody would come over and ask for an autograph; they wouldn’t even ask “Who’s that?”

So it was like that, and once again, going back to vicariousness, how many people get into this business who are from such a small little thing in Detroit that became so big? If you come from New York and you were in show business, I met half the people in New York.

But in Detroit, this was a whole segment of the Black population that was in show business that I knew from a very young age. So it remains vicarious, it just isn’t – the first time I ever walked on stage in my life I had a record on the charts. I had not sung in church, I had not been in various groups. I was only 16.

Tavis: Well Bettye, but thereafter, you’re right, and that’s one of the things that I was saying about the book, is that your career takes off pretty fast initially, but I’m asking you about men, because later, after that success, you got a pimp dangling you out the window.

LaVette: Yeah, and he’s – but what I’m saying is he’s the only one who has actually tried to, to quote you, “clip my wings.” He did not want me to seem bigger than he was, even when I was working and that was okay with him, because I was making money because I was singing and making more money than actually a prostitute makes in a night.

So that was fine with him. But the other men that I was involved with were like I have Bettye LaVette, who is a great singer. They felt that way and tried to get me record contracts and did whatever they could. They were probably just a myriad. Little record deals that aren’t even mentioned in the book, little records that no one ever heard.

Tavis: I tell you why I’m pressing this. I’m pressing this because as reasonably well as I know you, having talked to you over the years, I’m pressing because after reading the book and now talking to you about it face to face, I just find it hard to believe, or maybe I’m misreading this, I just find it hard to believe that where the men in your life are concerned, many of the choices that you made to be with them, that the only one you seem to regret in this conversation is the pimp. You don’t have any other regrets?

LaVette: No, no, because none of them ever treated me badly. All of them taught me something, all of them spent their money on me, all of them tried to get me a plane ticket to wherever I tried to go to audition or whatever.

Everybody tried to help me, and he did as well, just in teaching me just how to order various things off of a menu in various ethnic restaurants, various nationalities.

But the other men, that’s why it’s so strange that I wouldn’t have gotten out of that situation more rapidly. It’s the only man that ever raised a hand to me. Everybody else just thought I was a perfect little doll who could sing, and that was the way they treated me.

Many of the pimps who had other women who were making lots of money with – maybe we weren’t together long. I needed them to get from one bridge to another, and I needed men who had money because I never thought in terms of being fed or whatever, just being Bettye LaVette is an expensive measure.

Just eating and staying somewhere can be done. It can be done either through the government or through whatever, your family. But being Bettye LaVette was an expensive project, and when I did – it was the kind of adage, it’s just as easy to love a broke man as it is to love a rich one. (Laughter) So I had to just (unintelligible).

It’s just as easy to go to bed with a broke man as it is to go to bed with a rich man. I always wanted to be Bettye LaVette more than I wanted to do anything else, and they always helped me with it.

Tavis: That third M. So we talked about the music, to the extent that I can in the time that I have, talked about these men, and the money. You said earlier in this conversation that the business, the music business, has been very, very unkind. That’s not the word you used, I’m paraphrasing – unkind to you over the years. What’s your biggest beef with the industry in retrospect? You’re doing find now -

LaVette: Well, you know what? I was trying to find out how I was going to tell you this, but right now everybody is discovering me and being very, very wonderful. Do you know that you’re the only Black person, you and Joe Madison, who has extended themselves to me?

I’ve been in “The New York Times,” “The Wall Street Journal,” “Time” magazine, all the major newspapers.

Tavis: Look in that camera and tell -

LaVette: On all the major television show.

Tavis: Hold up. Look in that camera and tell them, “This ain’t the first time I’ve done it, either.”

LaVette: Sung for two presidents. Tavis was the first to embrace me.

Tavis: Thank you. There you go. (Laughter)

LaVette: We have written, called, BET, Oprah Winfrey, “Ebony,” “Jet,” the NAACP, they have not said one word. I am so embarrassed, I am completely, all of these white people around me have saved me. They’ve come and saved a dying Bettye LaVette and a dying Bettye LaVette’s career.

I would think that maybe you don’t jump on the way you do to Beyoncé or Ne-You know, or whomever, but I would think you would find it unusual that an old woman my age, an old Black woman, who came from an old Black family who’s never – I’m the first person in my family to make $100 in one day – that these things that Oprah has told young things on her show, these things that we have aspired to as Black people, not one of them have extended their hand to say well, gosh, I’m just amazed that you’re still alive, if no more.

They’ve written more about drug dealers who have become successful rap artists than they have about me. So that’s the beef I have with the business right now. The other beef that I had before is that – it wasn’t really a beef. I only have that beef with Ahmet Ertegun with Atlantic and with Berry Gordy, and I don’t know why no one over there tried to help me on some levels.

As I said, on other levels I can completely understand why. Then it was such a family over there. I probably would have been disruptive, like I was when I did plays and whatever. I was disruptive. I don’t play well with others.

Tavis: I don’t mean to disparage the Motown family, because I love Berry Gordy, love Stevie, love all those people.

LaVette: I do too.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) I love them. Some people have said, though, it wasn’t even so much a family as it was a clique.

LaVette: Well, it became a clique when cliques became popular, but when they started it was a family.

Tavis: Okay.

LaVette: They didn’t – if you’re going to pronounce the word “clique,” it certainly wasn’t known or used or thought about then. It started off as a family. It was a big family like when I usually – almost every Black family went to school with a family that had 16 or 17 children, they could all fight. You didn’t mess with none of them. Motown was like that.

So I was thrilled to be with Atlantic or in New York or in something that was more savoir faire. People keep confusing that in the book, thinking that I was trying to be with Motown. There was no reason to try and be with Motown. But I just have those two grievances, but the business, whenever they heard me, they signed me and gave me another chance, just those two people, and now the Black industry, which is embarrassing and hurtful.

Tavis: I’ve got 20 seconds to go. What’s your best advice, your greatest piece of advice for those who, whatever industry they are in, have been laboring at it for all this time and the sun hasn’t broken through yet?

LaVette: Be proficient. Just really get really, really good at it. I always ask people when they say, “Well, I’ve been in show business and I read your story, it was so inspiring,” and I said, “Well, can you sing?” “Well, my mother,” (laughter) and that’s the question.

Tavis: But can you sing? Yeah.

LaVette: If your mother and the church and everybody says you can sing, that’s probably not a good thing. I didn’t quit because people were spending money on me. I assumed they thought I could sing because they were spending money, but if all your friends just thinking and there’s nothing else happening, you should probably stick with what you actually know how to do.

Tavis: Well, a whole bunch of us think Bettye LaVette can sing. You know why? Because she can. Her new record is called (laughter) “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” which I didn’t even get a chance to talk about.

LaVette: Well, we’ve got to say this real quick.

Tavis: Say it.

LaVette: We’ve got to say that I am thankful and thoughtful, and that I am not covering songs, I’m interpreting them.

Tavis: I like that. You always, every time you come on my show I look at the show once it’s over, and I just look for all the times you corrected me in the show.

LaVette: Oh, Tavis.

Tavis: Today you did it four times, but I still love you.

LaVette: Tavis. (Laughter)

Tavis: The new interpretations from Bettye LaVette is called “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.” The new book from Bettye LaVette is called “A Woman Like Me,” and I love her, and I wouldn’t have her any other way anyway.

You know what’s great about this is it is so rare, I’ve been doing this for 20 years now as a broadcaster, and it is so rare to have anybody sit in this chair or on my radio show where you know that everything they say, whether you like it or loathe it, whether you agree or disagree, everything they say is going to be authentic.

It’s going to come from a place of truth and honesty and candor. That’s a talk show host’s dream.

LaVette: Oh, baby, thank you.

Tavis: I mean that. You are my girl.

LaVette: Thank you so much. I want to tell you these two things too.

Tavis: Sure.

LaVette: Every time I’ve been with you, something really wonderful has happened. When you first came to the Hollywood Bowl, that just went over so big and just took me so much farther.

Then the next time you came to see me in the little dinky joint where I was singing with just a keyboard player, I got a manager, the first manager that I’ve had in 40 years, Eric Gardner, who was the cause of the book and was the cause of the movie we’re now talking about.

Tavis: So next time you come back here, there’ll be a movie.

LaVette: Yes. (Laughter)

Tavis: The Bettye LaVette story. Well, the seat is yours any time you want it.

LaVette: Thank you, baby, thank you so much.

Tavis: Love you.

LaVette: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

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Last modified: June 17, 2013 at 2:00 pm