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By Katherine Turman
It’s only taken Bettye LaVette 50 years to become an overnight success. Yet at 66, the saucy soul singer still laments, “That was my biggest grievance–I just want somebody to say my damn name. Even if you say something bad, just say my name.”
Since her first single in 1962–the Top 10 R&B hit “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man,” on Atlantic Records–the Michigan-born LaVette has been a singular stylist and name to be lauded, if only in certain circles. And for years, as she details graphically in her powerful new autobiography, LaVette traveled intimately in circles that included pimps, druggies, and the biggest musical talents in history, including Otis Redding, Ben E. King and Cab Calloway.
In her 50-year career to date, the former Betty Jo Haskins’ has never wavered from making music her own. At once a diva in the most delightful sense, as well as an engagingly bawdy broad, LaVette seems to have at last shaken her self-proclaimed “buzzard luck.”
Your new CD, Thankful N’ Thoughtful [Anti-], along with your just-released autobiography, A Woman Like Me [Blue Rider Press], seem to be the close of a chapter–and also, a matched pair.
It is, and believe it or not, we were working on the book and on the CD as two separate entities. I said about the CD: ‘This is going to have no theme, just give me some songs, I’ll pick some I like and I’m gonna sing em.’ Then, after a while, working on the CD, I told my husband, ‘this CD sounds like this book.’ The publisher and the record company got together and they also said there’s a 50th anniversary. We hadn’t gone into it with any of that in mind.
In reading your book and press, it seems as if you’ve gotten raves your entire life. Have you ever gotten a bad notice?
[Laughs.] One that I know of. If I got any more, people don’t tell me about it. Years ago, when I was doing “Bubbling Brown Sugar” [opposite Cab Calloway in 1978], nobody had ever heard of me in whatever town we were in. They reviewed me, about me being added to the show and doing the Vivian Reed role. They said I was making a vain attempt at sounding like Motown. I said, call and tell them ‘I invented Motown.’
Ry Cooder opined that perhaps you were “too ferocious for mass white taste.” Who is your audience?
It’s becoming now the audience that I’ve sought all of my life and the audience that [longtime mentor/manager] Jim Lewisgroomed me for. I wanted to be contemporary, to do whatever my friends were doing, and he was like ‘you may never become a star, first of all, and these little people that you–when he said ‘these little people,’ he was talking about the hottest acts of the day!-are not going to be around for as long as you are. I was always mumbling behind his back because I just knew he didn’t know that the hell he was talking about. Because he was old. But he really instilled what I’m calling on now in terms of being an artist. And just the atmosphere of being surrounded by so much competition kinda formulated my basic attitude. If these people were still alive and still strong and not sick, they’d still be doing these shows the same way. The same way they told me Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf kinda jousted with each other until they died.
You do your renditions of others’ music, and on A Woman Like Me, you take on the Black Keys, Bon Jovi, Gnarls Barkley and Tom Waits. It seems every potential tune was presented to you with a specific audience in mind.
By my record company [Anti-] being so young and hip, they want me to be young and hip. They know I’m old, but they think of me as young and hip! They’re working in that way. So that’s one audience. Then I’ve got my booking agency, who are about my age, and they actually did book Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker, and they think another way. Again, there was Jim Lewis making me learn everything. The tune he made me learn that got me the first gig in New Orleans that kept me working for two years was “Moon River.” He made me learn “God Bless the Child” and “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which got me hired on the spot for “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” None of my contemporaries probably knew the words to ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar,’ and neither would I, had he not made me. [Laughs.] I thought, When in the hell is anybody going to listen to ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’? We ain’t going on the road with the Globetrotters!
Have you met Tom Waits, whose song, “Yesterday Is Here,” you cover?
I haven’t seen him perform live. That’s only because I wouldn’t even go see Jesus himself walk the water. [Laughs.] But he came to see me. I was as astounded as you are! He came in the dressing room and kissed my hand and said ‘that was amazing,’ and his wife was with him, and they were wonderful. My band was standing there with their mouths hanging open.
A lot of your book is very forthright, harrowing reading regarding the proverbial sex and drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll–or soul. Before writing your autobiography, had you read many others’ books?
No. I’m really not that interested in what anybody else is doing. Or what they’ve done. I thought that in writing the book it would be more like you and I are talking, me just telling you stories. But the thing about writing the book is, when I tell people I’m from Detroit, they said, “Oh, do you know anybody at Motown?” I say, “I know everybody in Detroit, who’s black and over 50, no matter what capacity they’re in–government, whatever,” because if they’ve over 50, they’re about my age and were born in segregation, and at one point, we all went to the same places. I’ve seen everybody over there either drunk, or naked or completely broke–or all three. With writing the book, the next thing was: Which ones? Then: What were you doing while you were doing that? So it turned into something that I hadn’t imagined. [Laughs.]
Bettye LaVette, “Love Reign O’er Me”
The last few years have finally been good to you. Where does the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors appearance fit in your life?
The Kennedy Center Honors and the 2009 inaugural [where she sang a duet of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi] were the two greatest things that have ever happened to me. They were unbiased, fair shots. [KCH producer Michael Stevens] did not know who I was. He heard me sing a song on YouTube, and asked me to sing this song [The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me”] that nobody else wanted to sing, or were frightened to sing it. I had never heard it, so it didn’t bother me!
Onstage at the Kennedy Center Honors, who could you see in the audience?
I could see Roger [Daltrey] and Pete [Townshend] and Barbara Streisand to my left, up. I could see Aretha Franklin directly in front of me, and Beyonce to the right of her. And I could see Mary J. Blige to the right of her.
Regarding that performance, the New Yorker said that you did “nothing unintended.” Do you ever improv?
I’ve always had to do this as a competition, because I was always trying to catch up. So now it’s kinda hard for me to relax and kinda sit back and be a grandmother and hum along. If there are other people, I still go on stage with the intent of kicking your ass–no matter how nice you are, no matter how much fun we had in the dressing room.
In 2010 you recorded Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, yet the British Invasion was not necessarily a positive influence in your career. How did it effect you?
It effected all of black music. They had to make room for it on the white stations, and the white stations had just kinda made room for us. So they became really, really critical on what was going on white stations after that, you either had to be “blacker” or the Supremes. But I’m married to an Irish guy [Kevin Kiley] who grew up with those songs. He’s a record historian, musical collector. He knows so much more about me and music than I do. I don’t find that interesting–I like politics and black and white movies, and I investigate those, but I don’t find music that kind of interesting or entertaining. It’s something I’m grateful to be able to do. Singing, especially, you can either sing or you can’t. You can only be taught to sing correctly. So it is a pure gift, and I recognize it as that.
How many other artists have you found who feel that way about music?
None, actually. The one person I’ve heard say something like this was a movie director–he’s done some of my favorite movies, Frank Capra. They were at his house in an old interview on Turner Classic Movies, and said, “You don’t have your Academy Awards up?” He said, “I don’t even look at those movies. I think they were good and I’m proud of them, but now I can do something else.” I love that, and that made me love him even more.
As title track to Thankful N’ Thoughtful says, things are finally coming together. Are you waiting for the other shoe to drop?
The thing of it is, as time went by, I learned to know what part is luck and what part isn’t luck. If anything happened to any of this that they’re doing right now it would be sabotage, because everyone’s doing exactly what they should be doing. I’ve never had that before. For one thing, this is the first manager, Eric Gardner, that I’ve had in almost 40 years. I’ve never had the entire team all believing in me and all working on my side. I’ve never had that in my entire career.
And with all your ups and then disappointments you never considered quitting?
Well… I don’t know anything else that I would want to do. I don’t know anything else I can honestly tell you I would do. There’s no need in me taking people’s money and lying. Because I wouldn’t show up. If I did show up, I wouldn’t want to stay all day, even if I did show up. I certainly considered quitting all of the time. But I always considered quitting and marrying some rich person, or inventing gold. I never envisioned quitting and getting a job. I’ve never allowed myself to think that way. [Laughs.]
So at 66, you’re turning over a new leaf. What do you hope for your next chapter?
I’d really like to make this more comfortable. People tend to think in a vacuum, they think because all their friends have heard of me or are talking about me [that I’m famous]. That’s still not happening enough for me to have a bus tour for me to go from town to town. Right now I’m known from city to city. We’re collecting the towns. Now, people in towns have to come to the city to see me. We’re hoping the book and CD will generate enough stuff [to change that]. And they could let me have a stupid Grammy, that would help! [Laughs.]
What happened there?
Someone forgot to submit paperwork on time. That was the first time. Next time [Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook], I was nominated for Best Contemporary Blues Album, but somebody decided that Eric Clapton was a better rhythm and blues singer than I am.
LaVette appears for A Woman Like Me Sept. 28 at Barnes & Noble, Union Square, and performs live on Friday, September 29, at the Highline Ballroom.