Singer-songwriter Bettye LaVette

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Grammy-nominated soul singer-songwriter reflects on how people are discovering her, after all of her years in the business, and explains why she’s not bitter.

Bettye LaVette has been recording for more than four decades. 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 '00 release of "Souvenirs," LaVette became an in-demand performer and received a Grammy nod in '07. Her new CD, "Interpretations," hit #1 on Billboard's Blues chart.


Tavis: What an honor to have Bettye LaVette on this program. The soul music legend recorded her first top ten single when she was just a teenager living in Motown. Her latest project is the critically acclaimed new CD called “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.” From the project, here is some of the recording session of the George Harrison classic, “Isn’t It A Pity.”
Tavis: Bettye LaVette, an honor, as I said, to have you on the program.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you, Tavis. I’m so thrilled to be here.
Tavis: No more thrilled than I am. That voice, that voice, that voice. What do you make of your voice?
LaVette: I’m making of it that I can’t believe that suddenly people have discovered and it’s the things that they’re saying. I think that I waited for so long to hear them. You know, this is my 48th year in show business. Not in life, in show business (laughter).
So to suddenly have people saying these things, the things they’re saying, it’s just overwhelming to me that they would suddenly discover me and say those things. I always kind of thought eventually, if I stay here, they would discover me, but not that they would say the things that they’re saying.
Tavis: But to your point, what do you make of the fact that you been doing this for all those years, almost 50 years, and you’re just now becoming critically acclaimed, discovered?
I mean, this CD is being played, as I’m sure you have to know, everywhere. I mean, there’s not a magazine – there’s nobody in the music business who isn’t talking about this CD unless they’re under a rock somewhere. But why 48 years for that to happen, do you think?
LaVette: Well, it certainly wasn’t because I quit and joined church, no man was beating me up, I didn’t live in a car, I didn’t get strung out on drugs, I didn’t show up late for the gigs.
Tavis: You ain’t got no excuses (laughter).
LaVette: I can blame y’all (laughter) and none of it was on me.
Tavis: I like that.
LaVette: I was there. I could blame y’all.
Tavis: Blame us for it. Just blame us, yeah (laughter).
LaVette: I always attributed too that the fact that, at 16 years old, I’ve always sounded more like Wilson Pickett than Diana Ross, so that was a hindrance at one time. I’ve been saying, and I don’t think that anyone’s really looked at it, but my voice is very harsh and very real and very gruff.
I really believe that, now that people have seen actual murders happen on television, the things we’ve seen on television, the things we’ve been exposed to, I think we’re more raw and brutal now. I don’t think I have to be as girly and as cute and as feminine. I think that the public is more ready to accept [making noise] than a [making noise], you know.
Tavis: I feel you on that. I want to explore this a little bit more. What does it say, though, to your joke – maybe you were partly serious about this – to your point that we only have ourselves to blame for not discovering your talent. As prodigious as it is, it took us 48 years to figure it out. What does it say about us, though, that we didn’t discover you?
What I’m getting at is, if you had done some of those things, acted a fool like so many other artists have done, throwing temper tantrums and getting strung out on drugs, all the things that you say, not showing up for gigs, if you had done some of that and been a little ornery, maybe we’d have discovered you a little bit sooner.
LaVette: I don’t know. That’s a possibility. My manager who really put me on this track in 1969, Jim Lewis, he told me. He said, “You’re cute and you got a big booty and a small waistline, but you got to learn your craft, you’ve really got to learn your craft.” He said, “You may never be a star, but you will be able to sing and make money as long as you live if you learn how to do it.” That makes singing it.
I used to not sing certain songs because they were white and I was Black and I felt they wouldn’t sound correct. He said, “You’re a singer. You’re not a whiter or a blacker. You’re a singer. If you know the song, you know the words to it, you got somebody to play it, sing that joker.”
This has kept me, for the whole 48 years that I’ve been struggling, maybe the gig only paid $50 a night, but I worked for the entire 48 years. I had to learn to tap dance. I had to do more than what the gig called for, which I think made me a broader artist.
Had I had a huge record at 16, well, my goodness, I could have been forced to do the Twist for the rest of my life, you know. But because none of it worked, I wasn’t pigeonholed, so no one was expecting me to do anything, so I could do everything and I did.
Tavis: How do you navigate those almost five decades, though, without being bitter or were you at times bitter that other folk with less talent was selling their records?
LaVette: I’m from Detroit. All of my friends are rich. I mean, people that I actually slept in the same bed with not because we were having sex, but that was the bed to sleep in, and who slept on my floor became millionaires and left me there. Plus my first record was released before all of those people that you know of. So certainly I had bitter, bitter days and I quit at least six times a year, but somebody would call.
That’s the addiction in show business. It’s like, oh, you’re doing so bad and then somebody calls and says, “I got this great gig. It pays $100 and you’re gonna be seen by millions.” You forget all of that. You forget that and go and do that.
The thing with me, to my good, is that they kept calling. Maybe they were calling for little things and now they’re bigger things, but they never stopped calling.
When people say, “Well, what made you not quit?” People paying mortgage, by paying car notes, giving me cars, giving me clothes, giving me plane tickets, they believed in me. I didn’t. I just lived on their belief.
Tavis: But you have to really, really, really believe this is what you have been called to do. This is your purpose in life. This is your vocation.
LaVette: No. Belief will not work. It’s like love. I had to decide that. At some point, I had to decide how good I am or am not.
Tavis: How do you come to that decision?
LaVette: I don’t know how I came to it, but at some point, I came to the conclusion that I do this well. Belief and love will not sustain you in marriage or anything else. You have got to decide and I decided I was that good, but not just a random decision. That would be belief.
It was people. Why are all these people taking care of me? Why are people constantly recording these little records that only sell three copies? Spending all their money to do it. When this happened, Tavis, five years ago, this first coming up out of the creek, as I call it, no record companies owed me anything.
You hear these stories they took all my money. I owed every record company I’ve ever recorded for, every one (laughter). I borrowed all the money. They spent the money on me. The record didn’t sell, so I left them owing them money.
They could write it off, but I didn’t owe them unless the record started to sell, which they’re doing now. Every record company that has ever had anything on me has released it, but I paid them all. Believe it or not, I’ve just gotten my first royalty check three years ago.
Tavis: From your first record –
LaVette: – very first royalty check.
Tavis: Your first record came out in ’62 –
LaVette: – it’s the first royalty check.
Tavis: And you just got your first royalty check.
LaVette: Because I owed them all because I never sold any records. I owed them for the money they spent on recording the record. Then my manager was a great one of like, “Well, maybe this isn’t gonna sell because you lent her like $1,000, because you lent her $2,000.”
In doing that and the record not selling, I mean, no one owed me anything. I’m probably the only artist in the world that no record company owed a dime (laughter).
Tavis: How have you protected, taken care of, the instrument all these years because you sound great, obviously?
LaVette: Well, that was the thing that – Jim made it become a habit with me. He said, “This isn’t something you do part time.” You know, I used to work out. I was in the morning working out and crying. Nose running, working out, “No one’s ever gonna call, no one’s gonna call, no one’s gonna call.”
Tavis: You had a rhythm going, though (laughter). Nobody’s gonna call, yeah.
LaVette: There you go. But I did it. I know that I talk hard and I sing hard, so I had to not give up staying and partying. I had to learn over a period of time that your voice will be lost if you stay up all night, blow cocaine all night, smoke all night, drink all night and then sing hard all the next night.
You cannot do it. I don’t care who you are from The Rolling Stones to whoever the new people are, you cannot do it. So I’ve really had to adjust my life. As Jim told me, “Act like you’re a singer and stop acting like you’re from the north end of Detroit and you’re just hanging with your friends.”
Whether you’re making five dollars, you have to do the same show for five dollars that you do for $50,000, the exact same show because you want the exact same review.
Tavis: In this business, as you well know, to your point about working out, image, as they say, is everything. It may not be everything, but it’s close to being everything, particularly in this business. I’m serious about this. How much of your success now has to do with the fact that when the moment arrived you still looked so good?
LaVette: Oh, well, I just look like this to vex my contemporaries (laughter). But I’m the only one of them who can fit into a size six, so I just do that for that reason.
Tavis: (Laughter) Just to vex them, yeah. I love the honesty, I love the honesty.
LaVette: But keeping my voice, that’s all I have. I don’t know how to count. I mean, my first record came out at 16. How much did I learn in school that would afford me to be as successful in another business as I am in this business or as I could be in this business? So this thing that Jim instilled in me about being able to do my show stuck and I have to stay physically strong to be this size and sing as loud as I do.
When I come on stage, I feel as if I’ve been in a fight, like someone’s been just kicking me all in here. So your stomach and back muscles have got to stay strong. You can weigh 300 pounds if you want to. As long as you keep those two muscles strong, then you can holler loud and you can sustain notes and phrase notes.
Tavis: To your point now about your voice and the way you sing the song stylings of Bettye LaVette, when people weren’t falling in love with your sound, were you ever tempted or did you ever try over these 48 years to change your sound? Did you try to do that?
LaVette: I just wanted to sound like a girl so bad (laughter). I really did. But Jim here again was saying, “This is the way you sound.” He would play songs for me – one song recorded by 20 people – and see how different they sounded. But invariably, I would say, “I want to sound like one of those 20.” I never wanted to sound like me. I wanted to sound like one of the people he played the song by.
I was listening to another musician the other night on the television, one actor. He said, “One day it just came to me what I was supposed to do” and that was really the way it came to me after about 20 years.
I’m supposed to sing this just the way I’m talking to you now because that’s the honesty of me. My honesty doesn’t go into [making noise] or [making noise]. It’s however it comes out of my mouth and that’s the honesty of it.
Jim said that may not be beautiful to you at all times, but it be real. And as long as it’s real and exactly what came from your heart, there you go. I accepted that after a long while and that helped.
Tavis: You have referenced Jim now more times than I can count. I lost count at about eight. I’m trying to listen to you and keep counting. So you’ve referenced Jim now, Bettye, more times than I can count in this conversation.
I come to that because it seems to me that, when you’re trying to traverse a journey where nobody else gets it, it helps if you got one person, at least one person.
LaVette: Well, I thought for so many years he didn’t get it because I thought he wanted me to sound like Sarah Vaughan or like Frank Sinatra. I knew he wasn’t pleased with the way I sounded and I had records in the charts and I was wondering what is wrong with this guy? He just hates me and he’s chosen me to pick on to just defame and whatever. He took me in Billy Eckstine’s dressing room when –
Tavis: – Billy Eckstine, oh.
LaVette: Billy Eckstine hadn’t had a record in 20 years and I had one in the charts. He introduced me as a young lady who wants to be a singer. So he kept me in that mode. It was like I was never quite good enough.
Billy Eckstine is sitting there wishing he had my record contract and he introduced me as a young lady who wants to be a singer. So that immediately said, well, you aren’t as good as this guy who hasn’t sung in 20 years, so I was aspiring to be as good as him.
He kept me constantly trying to aspire to be as good – and I admired him so much – as good as the people he thought were good, but he had proof. He said when you can make – I was talking to one of our newer people’s managers on flight the other day. I said, “I really, really like him because he reminds me a lot of James Brown in the way he sets up his grooves, and he’s a rapper.”
I said, “But I can’t really respect him unless he can make his career sustain for more than eight years they’ve all been lasting.” Frank Sinatra’s career lasted more than 60 years. Mine has lasted more than 48. While it wasn’t a successful one, I was able to sustain.
I think this is what you have to do. No matter how big you are now, make it last 50 years. Pay all of your bills doing this and nothing but this and then I’ll be like, “Let me have your autograph.”
Tavis: You mentioned Frank Sinatra a couple of times. If I read my research correctly, at a point in your career, you actually took some time to study Frank Sinatra.
LaVette: No, I was forced.
Tavis: You were forced, all right. I’ll let you tell the story.
LaVette: I mean, I was a teenager. How interesting could Frank Sinatra be to me? He was very boring and I didn’t get what Jim was saying. He was saying, “Relax. Let the song come at you.” I said, “But even when it gets to him, he doesn’t say anything.” I mean, it was very boring to me, but when I got it, all of that came back to me.
As much as I like Ray Charles, I still was like, “Oh, I can never sing like him.” He said, “But you like him and you’re very much like him.” “I’m not like Ray Charles,” but when I did get it, I got it (laughter). Thank goodness, I did. He would be so pleased. He really would.
Tavis: Wow, I can only imagine. To the project itself, as I mentioned earlier, it’s called “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.” Tell me how this concept came to be, because you have worked this thing. Tell me about the concept.
LaVette: Well, I did the Kennedy Center Honors, the “Love Reign O’er Me”thing. So my husband, Kevin Kiley, said, “Why don’t you do a whole album like that?” I had never heard “Love Reign O’er Me” and was not a big Who fan or a Who fan indeed at all.
As I explained to my audience when I’m doing these songs – we’re in promotion of that right now – I say these songs were the songs of your youth, but they were the nemesis of my youth because there was no pop air play to be had for Black artists. These people usurped the airwaves, so they weren’t a part of my life.
So what I’ve had to do with the help of my fabulous co-producer Rod Mathis, and arranger – I haven’t worked with an arranger in 30 years. But I was able to sit and get him to suspend his thought – because this is a white guy who grew up with these songs – get him to suspend his thought about the songs.
Since I had no thought about them, they were just songs to me, so I could stand at the piano and sing them as they looked on the paper, which you know they were at one time before they became legendary. They were just words on a piece of paper. If Elvis Presley had sung them, they’d be different. If Tiny Tim had sung them, they’d be completely different.
So I worked my way through them by changing a lot of the lyrics, making them more – I call these the adult renditions of these songs. Because, you know, these songs were written by 20-year-old kids and now a 65-year-old woman is singing them and they don’t have the same meaning and they don’t come to me the same way.
But at the same time that the producers of the Kennedy Center Honors, Rob Mathis who’s the music director and Michael Stevens who is a producer of the show, they approached me at the very same time my record company, ANTI, and my husband were trying to get this together and everybody agreed that would be a great idea.
I told my husband, “Will you listen to all these songs?” I said, “I am not gonna sit and listen to all these young white guys sing for hours.” So he got me about 500 songs and I chose 12 (laughter).
Tavis: I hear the point you made earlier about the fact that these songs represent a nemesis for you and a great deal of angst for certain artists, of course, of a certain generation. I get that. But to your earlier point, since they were at one point just words on a paper, have any of these songs come to grow on you?
LaVette: Oh, yeah. Now they mean other things to me, like “Knights in White Satin.” I could not find one person who knew what the song meant or who wrote it. All I say at the beginning of it is “This is a song written by Justin Hayward” and everybody’s like, “Who? What?”
I say I chose another nemesis of my youth in which to base this story, my daughter Terry. That is who I’m singing to and all of those lyrics directly apply to all the beauty I missed with these old eyes before and whatever it is you want to be, you’re gonna be in the end. The whole thing just played for it and wish you were here. They were singing about their drummer or guitarist, I can’t remember which, who had kind of flipped out.
I was singing out David Ruffin and Marvin Gaye, other people I knew who did not have a pot to do whatever in or a window to throw it out, and they became millionaires.
They were like just lost souls swimming in a fish bowl year after year and now I’m walking over that same old ground. I wish they were here to see me do this. They lent me money and just thought the best of me, but never got big enough.
That’s another thing people don’t know. When you aren’t as big as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, if you open for an act, you’ve got to be big enough to bring in some money or the big act is just carrying you along.
The Rolling Stones and The Beatles could afford to do that with Stevie Wonder and with Tina Turner. The Temptations and The Miracles, at the time, could have afforded to do it, but just to take a grown person with you and give them a salary? I never got big enough for them to help me.
Tavis: Yet you were big enough for Tina Turner to cover one of your songs. How about that?
LaVette: And Steve Winwood, one of his songs I covered, yeah.
Tavis: That’s amazing.
LaVette: So, of course, I’m very flattered that I was big enough as an artist due as an un-artist, but none of them called and said, “Here.” I was willing at the time to just go and open for free (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) But you know what? She ain’t doing that now (laughter). Bettye LaVette is back and can call her shots these days. Is it sweeter that it happened the way that it happened or neither?
LaVette: In some ways, it’s more satisfying than sweet because I’m like anybody else’s grandmother. I have no desire really to put on six-inch heels and go thrashing back and forth across a stage. You see, Tina only goes on the road every three or four or five years.
You know, I’m like any other old woman. This is not what I prefer to be doing in my spare time or in my off time, but this is the first time they’ve called.
It’s the first time I’ve ever had the opportunity to make any money and I’ve got to show up. I’m glad that I’m healthy and well and strong and able to do it, but I’ve got to give up most of my time to rest so I can be strong enough to do this.
So it’s a lot of things. It’s certainly something that I would rather have happened to me when I was much younger, but I have no desire to be younger. I have no desire to be younger. I’ve done all that.
Tavis: That’s a statement in and of itself. Now Bettye LaVette’s doing philosophy (laughter) and I love it. She does the CD and she does the heck out of it. It’s not often on this show that I go overboard saying to you how much I think you absolutely ought to add something to your collection, but if you don’t get this CD, there’s something wrong with you.
It’s called “Betty LaVette: Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.” Please add this to your collection. Bettye LaVette, I have enjoyed this. I thought you were coming on for ten minutes. I done talked the whole show.
LaVette: Oh, Tavis, thank you so much.
Tavis: Whoever was supposed to be on got blown out tonight. My apologies, but I’m glad to have you on.
LaVette: You have no idea how excited I am to talk to you.
Tavis: Oh, I’m glad to have you.
LaVette: Well, you know we all just think you look good enough to stop whatever anyway.
Tavis: You’re too cute. You better stop that. Is your husband here (laughter)?
LaVette: Left him home deliberately so I could say these things to you (laughter).
Tavis: It’s just on television, though.
LaVette: You’re too cool for that.
Tavis: Love you, Bettye. Thank you so much.
LaVette: Thank you, baby. Love you too.

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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm