Bettye LaVette knocked ’em all down like a bowling ball scoring 300: 19 sets with more than 50 musicians performed over a six-hour marathon at the 38th Blues Music Awards, the biggest, most stellar blues show on earth. This year’s version was the best I’d seen in 20 years. From young bloods like Toronzo Cannon and Thornetta Davis to road warrior vets like Kenny Neal, John Primer and Doug MacLeod, the performances were heart stopping as each artist bled out on the stage, a picture postcard of what the blues is capable of.
Then, there was Bettye LaVette
Bettye soared over them all with her interpretation of two relatively obscure songs: “Take Me Like I Am” by veteran Eddie Hinton whose work included sessions with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett, and “Bless Us All,” a Mickey Newbury song from her Grammy nominated 2016 CD Worthy. Time stood still, the crowd transfixed as she squeezed out the two songs as if her life depended on it.
Bettye won Soul Blues Artist of The Year at the 2016 BMAs and was up for the same honor again this year. She lost to an absent Mavis Staples, one more footnote in a 55-year career of incredible highs and jaw-dropping lows as she’s rubbed shoulders with legacy artists from a cross section of genres starting at age 16.
She reflects, “Stuff was happening so fast, and when I tell people I had a record on the charts before Aretha Franklin, they’re like what? When you think of Detroit, you think of being the lesser of them, and not being the greater of them. I didn’t have the success that my contemporaries did in Detroit, although I grew up in Detroit and knew them personally for a very long time until they became rich and famous anyway.”
Bettye broke onto the scene way back in 1963 at the age of 16 with an R&B top 10 hit. “My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man.” She toured with Otis Redding, James Brown and Ben E. King, but the title of her follow-up single in 1965 was prescient, “Let Me Down Easy.” In spite of staying “in the business” for the next 55 years, only six of her 45s charted R&B and none have ever broken the pop top 100.
That said, she is arguably the most high-profile African American pop singer to never break into the pop charts. Her “comeback album” A Woman Like Me, earned her a W.C. Handy Award in 2004. The Scene of The Crime recorded with alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers earned her a Grammy nomination on 2008.
At the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 her spectacular rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” prompted Barbara Streisand to whisper into Pete Townsend’s ear asking him if he really wrote that song. President Obama mouthed the words to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along with her and Bon Jovi at his inaugural in 2009 on international television.
Her 2010 CD Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook covered songs by the cream of the British Invasion rockers including the Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Animals. In 2012 she published her autobiography A Woman Like Me co-written by David Ritz, whose credits include Buddy Guy, B. B. King and Aretha Franklin. And a week after the BMAs this year she performed at a Carnegie Hall homage to Billie Holiday.
So, you may ask, why is Bettye LaVette not a household name like Aretha Franklin? You have to go all the way back to 1963 for the answer. A teenager with a top 10 R&B hit with “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man” on Atlantic Records, she then toured with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E .King, Barbara Lynn and newcomer Otis Redding. But her friends from Detroit were whispering in her ear.
“Yeah, my friends had told me I needed another record out, and Atlantic hadn’t put one out, so I should go to New York and get a release from my contract. I had no idea where I was supposed to go after that. I had no idea why I was supposed to do that. All I knew was that when I was 16, I was dumber than a door nail, really!
“And that thing of it is when I thought of myself as being young and sophisticated, I thought that going to New York was this young and sophisticated thing. The business side I had no idea about.
“When I came and asked for the release, Jerry Wexler was like, ‘Why would this little girl that no one has ever heard of want to leave Atlantic?’” Wexler was the co-founder of Atlantic Records responsible for launching the careers of LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and the Drifters.
“And I’m like, ‘I need to have a record now!’ Jerry wrote me his own personal check for $500 and gave me a release from my contract. He gave me the check and said, ‘You’re gonna need this.’ And he was right.”
By the time Atlantic released Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” in 1967, Bettye knew she’d made a terrible mistake. That song became Aretha’s signature hit, earning her two Grammys and establishing her as a vanguard artist in the feminist movement while Bettye was recording for small Detroit labels.
“I don’t know what would have happened with the (Atlantic co-founder) Ahmet Ertugan/Jerry Wexler split where Ahmet Ertugan was on Aretha’s side, and Jerry would have been on my side. I don’t know how that would have worked out, but I would have been there. By the time “Respect” came out, I would have been there three years, so it was really stupid. I had no manager. So, I was listening to friends, friends who had never been out of Detroit as if they knew how the whole record industry worked.
“I just think that was a very bad move, and especially considering the producer that Jerry Wexler was suggesting was Burt Bacharach. I didn’t know anything about him then other than whatever he had done with Dionne Warwick, and I knew I didn’t want to sing like that, but I had no clue as to how I did want to sing or what I did want to do.”
By 1963, Bacharach had already written “Walk On By” for Dionne Warwick and hits for Marty Robbins, Perry Como, Gene McDaniels, and Jerry Butler. He would go on to write for more than 1000 artists, and his jazz inflected orchestral arrangements helped him earn six Grammys and three Academy Awards.
“You have to remember, you may be talking like a year. People don’t realize how rapidly things were changing then, and when I tell people I had a record on the charts before Aretha Franklin, they’re like what?
“That’s the ONE thing I’ve done that I would ever change. Everything else, even though some of it hasn’t worked out well, the general experience or the feeling that made me do it in the first place I would want to do again, but probably had I done the correct thing then, I wouldn’t have even been compromised in the future situations because my career would have gone another way.”
Bettye’s mom’s early advice to her young daughter would prove prophetic. She told her if one of life’s lessons costs you your ass, it’s better than if a teacher teaches it to you. That advice relates to what Shemekia Copeland calls the bullshit meter. And Bettye learned the hard way who was bullshit and who speaking from the heart. And you can hear that lesson in every song she sings.
She reminds me of Patti Smith and Johnny Cash. Not in what either one of them sings or sounds like her but in terms of her delivery. Like both Patti and Johnny, she lays herself on the line and bleeds out on virtually every song she does, regardless of whether it’s pretty or not, and regardless of what genre the song comes from. You intuitively know that this woman has been to hell and back more times than a cat has lives.
And she has a fierce sense of pride in her own identity which does not conform to any of the stereotypes of the various genres of music she dips into. Not the arrogance of rock, not the self-pity of blues, not the superficial beauty of pop coquettes. No, she’s more like Odetta or Nina Simone, a bramble bush of briers that stands tall and grows stronger, not letting anyone try to pull her out of her grounded strength without being pricked.
Like Patti, she announces I am woman, not as an example of “the weaker sex,” but the I-am-woman as in the yin to the male yang, the pillar of reason, the person with a sharp sense of personal justice, a realist who isn’t going to take any shit from her man or anyone else. Like Johnny, she’s a story teller with a voice that makes no apologies for its scars. You are compelled to hear each story and know by the timbre of her voice that she speaks the truth tempered by a life of personal heartbreak, lessons learned hard and triumphs learned harder.
Unlike so many female African American singers, she did not grow up in the church. She lived in Muskegon, Michigan, here her parents sold corn liquor from the house and played pop songs on a juke box in the living room. “My parents DID NOT RUN PARTIES all the time,” she corrects me. “My parents never missed a day’s work unless it was after my father fell ill. We lived in western Michigan during segregation.
“They sold corn liquor, and you couldn’t stop by a bar after work if you were black. You stopped by my house. They all ran tabs until payday on Friday, and they all paid. There was no fighting and if you were there, you had to be there with your wife or by yourself. They all worked together every day in the factory there in Muskegon making parts for the factories in Detroit. Not for Ford, Ford always made their own shit, but for Chrysler and General Motors.
“That was a small country town where people just came and re-enacted everything they had brought from the south. And the blacks, it was just a re-enactment. It was on a kinder basis. You pretty much could do what you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it with them (whites). Then, that pretty much was what it was in Detroit.
“You could do whatever you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it at the Hilton, and you couldn’t do it at The Sheraton. You could do it at Bates Motel, but you couldn’t do it anywhere you wanted to do it, but you could do anything you wanted to do. There weren’t a lot of blacks. It was tantamount to a more sophisticated Mississippi town. Everybody there was from Louisiana.
“In Detroit, here again, there was a black guy there. His name was Boswell. He owned a chain of drug stores. You could do anything you wanted to do, but you couldn’t do it with whites. I would have loved to be 20 years old in 1925 in Detroit, but I would have wanted to be three shades lighter than I am, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be white. I just wanted to be able to fool ’em.
“My career has pretty much been saved by whites and investigating all of them there have been more Irish ones of them than anything else, and the ones that have asked me to marry them have all been Irish, and my husband (of 15 years, and an Irishman) actually seems to like black music more than I do.”
An examination of her whole career shows a woman of immense talent whose greatness shows through in spurts. “Let Me Down Easy” on Calla Records went top 20 R&B in 1965, got her on Shindig and put her on tour with The James Brown Review. She jumped from label to label and Jim Lewis became her manager in 1968.
Rob Bowman writes about Lewis’ influence: “A veteran of the big band era having played with the screaming and stomping Buffalo-based Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, Lewis 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.”
Constantly restless, she fought an ongoing battle over her self-esteem. “When Atlantic didn’t release Child of The Seventies (in 1973) I went and got up under my dining room table and stayed two or three days just drinking wine and coming up to go to the bathroom, but then somebody called and I was over that, and it was the same thing here and Jim (Lewis) certainly expounded on me and made me believe that luck is when preparation and opportunity meet, and he told me to constantly be prepared. So, emotionally I wasn’t stunned. I felt if they ever heard me, they’d like me. I was more stunned that somebody was hearing me than that it was happening.”
Bettye’s most interesting album of this century is Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, 13 versions of songs from the British Invasion that almost makes the diehard blues fan believe that those boys from the U.K. got what it’s all about. She shrugs off her amazing versions of these chestnuts as simple renderings of lyrics on a piece of paper.
“I’m not really a great music enthusiast….If blues was something that had not been beaten out of me, it has been embarrassed out of me. I didn’t even know who the fuck Buddy Guy was until (my agent) Mike Kappus (of the Rosebud Agency) put me on so many blues shows. I’d never heard of Buddy Guy, Marcia Ball. I’d never heard of Mike Kappus’ whole roster, no one on it. When I heard the Interpretations album, I only knew two of those tunes. I had never heard of the rest of them.”
When Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues heard her version of the band’s signature song “Nights in White Satin” on Interpretations he wrote: “’Nights in White Satin’ has been covered many times, never more movingly than by soul singer Bettye LaVette. When I heard her version the first time, I was sitting at my computer one morning, and I burst into tears. Suddenly it all made sense to me. I had written it at age 19, going on 20, and it was like I had heard it for the first time at age 65. That was very refreshing.”
“But you know what they are amongst old white rock fans,” says Bettye. “(they’re) iconic records. If they had brought the song to me, it would have been a rhythm and blues song. It’s just words on a piece of paper. And so the person that sings it did it because it’s whatever kind of song, whatever the singer is, and it’s so much easier for me to sound like me than it is to sound like Justin Hayward. Really! Honestly, it is!
“If people would just slow down for a moment and think about it, and stop idolizing these records, just 60 years ago, when Cole Porter wrote a song, no matter how big the artist was that did it, Cole Porter was still the writer, the brilliant one. But then all the writers went to put on Chinese suits and go on stage. So that’s another thing. I think the writers should stay in their places. I think Burt Bacharach was the last one to move, and they had to make him move. He said, ‘I’m a writer,’ and I think when people say that, you should accept it. I think these songs are just words on a piece of paper until the person interprets them or sings them.”
A sense of cynicism and anger injects itself, however, when the mirror is turned, and she reflects back on the British rockers making millions off old American blues songs. “If it had not been for the abolitionists during slavery, this thing would never have worked out for my folks. But if they could have gotten all the rest of the whites to agree with them, do you know how different it would have been?
“I talked to British guys who said they went to all boys’ schools, and they would get under the bed and pull the sheets down and whatever, and they had this little pen light, and they would be playing ‘Let Me Down Easy’ on the floor under the bed, and I’m like why would English white boys want to listen to ‘Let Me Down Easy?’ But it’s there I think that the realness is there, and I think like anything else, everybody doesn’t see and capture and accept realness.
“I’ve had people send (my husband) Kevin messages. One lady said she fully enjoyed my show, but she said she wasn’t going to come anymore because it was just too hard. It hurt her. (Chuckle) And that you could hear this at a young age, (Note: I told her Jimmy Reed moved me at 18) you’re rare! You’re not regular. And the whites who do not feel the way you do didn’t do it out of meanness. They did it out of ignorance. And you were rare that young to listen to Jimmy Reed and like it.”
Eric Clapton once told me he couldn’t be Buddy Guy because he didn’t have the experiences these blues guys that he idolizes had, but I think the Stones came closest to the bone and sometime Eric Burdon of the Animals did, too.
“You know, my husband is Irish. It’s one of the greatest moments of my life to see him standing there looking at Pete Townsend looking at me. That was just great for me because (he always loved) this British invasion. When you said this British Invasion, that makes them the other immediately – that music that was crossing over, Motown was even stopped for a moment from getting airplay for things like WABC in New York where you’re heard in 90 states. I think that Buddy Guy, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, I think all these people are really grateful for what eventually kinda came out because of these people.
She drips with sarcasm. “(But) we were not sitting around saying, ‘Wow, these guys are really playing our music and becoming millionaires.’ That’s bullshit, and if you can find me a black guy, including Buddy Guy who can tell me that in 1965 as they were coming out of starvation themselves, they were saying ‘Oh, my goodness, I am so grateful that these white British guys are becoming billionaires with our music?’ That just did not happen, and no, the Animals do not sound black, and I know how y’all feel about the Rolling Stones, but shit, I don’t even try to figure out why people like things. That’s the thing about this business is that it’s a matter of opinion, but I’ve been listening to music since the first time this person picked up a drum stick or whatever, You cannot tell me how great something is because you like it. You cannot tell me how great it is based upon it. Now maybe you can play something, if you can sit down and show me the genius in whatever this is.
“If you sit down at a piano and break all of this stuff down which I’ve done because I do a lot of the Beatles’ tunes, the only thing I can see with the Rolling Stones is, yes, they did come close, but they didn’t become hits. They became millionaires and didn’t become hits. AND they didn’t have these fantastic notes and musical orations that the Beatles did. I take issue with them, and the fact that I was at the Carlisle and Mick Jagger was standing right on the floor above me and wouldn’t come down on the floor below me and say hello to me. So, I take issue with all of that.”
At 71, Bettye LaVette can sometimes come off as worn leather that’s wet, but beneath the tough exterior, she’s every bit a woman whose music stole the show at this year’s Blues Music Awards making one wonder where she’d be if she hadn’t walked away from Atlantic Records as a teenager.
“I’m 71 years old, and I’ve kissed enough asses until my tongue is slick. I can’t do things the way you predispose them. Or that was one of the things the way the motion picture they were trying to make from my book (A Woman Like Me). The first person they had do a screen play, he wrote a whole screen play, and I knew he would have to embellish things to make the movie worthy, but he couldn’t just change the characters or have my mother say something that she should never say in 91 years.
“So, that fell apart, but I can be tender, and I can be sweet, and David (Ritz, biographer) is my age, and I think he wasn’t going to say anything that I didn’t want him to say. I think he knows that even though I had never written a book before – this is my first – and I know he knows how I want to sound under all circumstances, and he got to know me that well, and then he spent time here in my home with me, and he said what I wanted him to say and he knew what I didn’t want him to say. I told him I didn’t care what he said, but we will say it the way I want to say it.”
I told Bettye that she reminded me of folk legend Odetta in our interview. Both can be very feminine but at the same time very sure of themselves. There’s a dichotomy. On one hand she’s soft in terms of her femininity, but on the other hand she’s not going to let anybody give her any shit.
“Yup. That about sums it up,” she said. “Do you want to just write that, and we’ll just go home?”
Visit Bettye LaVette’s website at: www.bettyelavette.com
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.