Featured Interview – Bettye LaVette

Cover photo © 2023 Marilyn Stringer

imageIt’s a mystery why, for some artists, it takes so long for success to arrive despite their unquestionably immense talent. Take the case of the sensational Bettye LaVette as an example.

Sure, the Michigan native has been one of the brightest lights in the blues world for the past 20 years, filling her trophy case with Blues Music Awards and Grammy nominations. But consider this: Bettye charted her first hit on the R&B charts at age 16 in 1963 – four full years before Aretha Franklin hit the bigtime – and she spent years on the road in long-running musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, singing – and tap dancing! — opposite Cab Calloway, too.

Bettye LaVette has enjoyed some amazing accomplishments in her life. But any true music lover will agree: True success for her was lo-o-ong overdue!

Her life’s been full of so many highs and lows, in fact, in her view, she’s on her fifth career – something she chatted about with Blues Blast in an animated conversation recently. Through it all, though, there have been constant: She’s always remained true to herself and she’s never shy about expressing herself.

Born Betty Jo Haskins on Jan. 26, 1946, in Muskegon, Mich., and raised briefly in Pontiac before her family put down permanent roots in Detroit when she was three, she’s the daughter of hardworking parents, both of whom spent their lives working in plants that made parts and cars for General Motors. She called Motown home for the better part of 60 years before settling in West Orange, N.J., with hubby/manager Kevin Kiley more than a decade ago.

“My folks worked together, and they sold corn liquor on the weekends,” she remembers. “In 1946, if you wanted a drink after work, you couldn’t go to a bar if you were black – so they came to my house. My mother sold barbeque and chicken sandwiches…and pints and half-pints, too.

“I joke that I was raised in an after-hours joint. But it was just a place where you could go and get a drink and something to eat. Everybody worked in the same place, and you could run a bill to payday — and on payday, our house was packed.

“But you couldn’t hang there unless you were close with my family. You couldn’t bring any girlfriends there either. Nobody could cuss besides my mother – and she taught me how to do it proficiently!”

Bettye’s dad loved R&B and gospel while her mom preferred country, and all of it played constantly on the jukebox they kept in the living room. Even back then, she was already a star, standing atop the juke while still wearing a diaper, and singing and dancing along with the sounds of B.B. King, Louis Jordan and Red Foley and Roy Rogers, too.

To her ear, all music was the same. It’s an attitude that’s served her well through the years, and something that’s apparent every time you pick up one of her albums because of her innate ability to put her own personal, soulful stamp on tunes from such diverse mediums.

Bettye was a born performer from birth, but imagined a career as a singer. Growing up in the ‘50s and early ‘60s when the races were still divided, all of the artists she saw on TV were white, leaving her with the belief that, as an African-American, she never stood a chance.

But all that changed one day when she caught the ear of Timmy Shaw, a soul singer whose most prominent 45, “Gonna Send You Back to Georgia,” reached the No. 41 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1964.

“Did you know you can sing?” he asked.

“I said: ‘I want to, and I’d like to,’” Bettye recalls, “‘but I didn’t think anybody else would think I could sing like a professional person.’

“And he said: ‘You don’t have to be grown to sing!’”

Soon after, Shaw introduced her to his producer, Johnnie Mae Matthews. Now known as the godmother of the Detroit soul scene, she was a singer, label owner and businesswoman, singer and label owner whose stable included both the Supremes and the Temptations before the rise of Motown.

At the time, Matthews was working with another artist to record the song “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” LaVette remembers. “But she couldn’t do it the way Johnnie Mae wanted to do it. She gave me a chance, and I thought to myself… ‘neither can I! (laughs).”

At the time, Bettye had no trouble singing the songs she heard on the radio. But doing one she’d never heard before…not a chance!

In a span of ten days, however, Betty Jo Haskins had performed a miracle, and the song in the can – and in the process, she’d reinvented herself as Bettye LaVette, adopting the name from her girlfriend, Sherma Lavette Anderson.

image“She was the groupie of the city,” Bettye recalls. “She knew everyone! She even knew their license plate numbers. I loved that girl – and my mother hated her! She had to be gone before my mother got home from work. But I thought she could just fly!

“After I chose the name and liked it, I’d forget that it was my name. People started saying ‘Miss LaVette…Miss LaVette…Miss LaVette’…and my manager would say ‘they’re talking to you!’”

Recorded in 1962 and quickly scooped up by Atlantic Records, “My Man” became a major R&B hit in the winter of ’63-’64, resulting in Bettye joining Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Chuck Jackson, Barbara Lynn and Otis Redding for major tours.

“But I hated that song!” she insists today. “I was 16, and that was kinda ‘adulty’. My friends didn’t dance to that kinda stuff – but I like it now (belly laugh)!”

Barely old enough to understand the words back then, her delivery of the tune takes on a completely different dimension when she sings it in concert today. (Check it out for yourself here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDPXOoStt9I and here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OK0uNn9fi4k.)

She charted again a year later with “Let Me Down Easy,” which led to touring as a member of the James Brown Revue. But – as Blues Blast writer Don Wilcock stated the last time we talked with her, LaVette became the most high-profile African-American vocalist never to cross over into the pop charts.

Back then, it was a major source of frustration – so much so, in fact, that she asked label owner Jerry Wexler, the co-founder of the label and the man who invented the term “rhythm-and-blues” to release her from her contract – something in retrospect that she admits was the biggest mistake of her life.

“He asked me where I was going,” she says, “and I didn’t know. By then, I thought I could sing. I thought I could go to another company in New York and they’d make another record on me.

“Jerry gave me his own personal check for $500 and says: ‘You’re gonna need this.’ And he was right…I needed two more personal checks! Until I signed with Calla (a year later), I could call Mr. Wexler at home and ask him if he’d wire me $25 or $50, and he would!”

But, for Bettye, it was a very difficult era. Not only did her first manager lose his life in a car accident two months after her debut but Nate McCalla, the owner of her new label, was also slain in a mob hit, too.

The late ‘60s and most of the ‘70s came with major ups and downs. After signing with Silver Fox in ’69, she cut “He Made a Woman Out of Me” and “Do Your Duty,” which made it into the R&B Top 40. Then she returned to Atlantic and traveled to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama – where Aretha had tracked many of her hits — to record her first LP, Child of the Seventies. Sadly, however, that it sat in the can until 2000, when finally released under the title Souvenirs by the French Art and Soul imprint.

On a brighter note, however, she also won a Cleo, the highest award in advertising, for her work on commercials for Schaffer Beer in 1971, and she also scored a disco hit for West End with “Doin’ the Best That I Can.”

LaVette’s life took another, positive turn in ‘78, when she landed the female lead in the national touring company of the Tony-nominated musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, which recreated the sound and feel of a Harlem Renaissance era nightclub. For the next six years, her character, Irene Paige, danced and sang opposite Cab Calloway, the man who’d made it a smash hit on Broadway.

“They were looking for someone to replace Vivian Reed,” Bettye remembers, “and they couldn’t find someone who could dance and sing that LOUD. I could sing louder than her – and I could dance. They said: ‘Well, can you tap dance?’ And I said: ‘No-o-o!’

“But they taught me. Honi Coles (one of the true giants of tap and a man who later taught dance at Yale University) helped me. I didn’t become (Bill) Bojangles (Robinson, another tap superstar), but I did hold down my part. And it’s just the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.

“Dancing with Cab Calloway was like a fantasy for me. I’ve never had that much fun anywhere else in my entire life because that it was the way I thought showbiz was…that you put on something beautiful, come out and sing one song, stop the show…and then you’re gone!”

Toward the end of that run, LaVette signed with Motown and released Tell Me a Lie — her first officially released LP — in 1982, which included the Top 40 hit, “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love).” Despite its success, her career pretty much went into a tailspin for the better part of two decades.

The one saving grace, she says, is the adoration she received in Britain from fans of the Northern Soul movement, which filled nightclubs with music generated by black artists from Detroit and Chicago who released great tunes but were often overlooked because they were signed to small labels with little or no distribution.

image“They’ve kept me alive since Let Me Down Easy,” she insists, referring to the live set she released on Munich Records, the Dutch label. “Whenever I’m on stage over there, I say: ‘Really, you guys literally kept me alive!’ They would not let that recording die – thereby not letting me die!”

That disc also enabled her to regain some traction in the U.S. But her career really took off when Mike Kappus brought her aboard at his Rosebud Agency in the early 2000s.

A booking/management firm based in San Francisco, for years, it was the most important organization of its kind in the blues and roots world with a roster that included everyone from Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Muddy Waters to Jimmy Cliff, John Mayall, Duke Robillard and Tommy Castro.

When she came aboard, she admits, she had no idea who Buddy Guy and many of the other artists were and she knew little, if anything about the blues, too.

“Growing up,” she says, “I didn’t know there were different genres of music. I knew songs by B.B. King, which my father liked, Tex Ritter and Frank Sinatra, who my mother liked, and I knew everything that was contemporary because I had a teenage sister. I didn’t look at songs in genres, I just looked at them as songs.

“And Mike Kappus – who literally saved my life – did more blues than anything else. He just wanted the world to know that I lived. He put me on every little festival that he could find – and that let ‘em know that I was there.”

Through thick and thin, LaVette has always seen herself as an R&B singer. But thanks to Kappus, the blues world opened her arms to her in a manner that R&B never has. It began in 2003, when she recorded A Woman Like Me for Blues Express. It soared to the top of the charts and earned her a 2004 W.C. Handy Award, the precursor to the BMAs, for comeback artist of the year – an odd category considering it was her first blues go-round.

In the years since, she’s compiled 22 BMA nominations, including three wins as soul-blues artist and one as contemporary artist of the year, she’s picked up six blues Grammy nominations and she’s a 2020 Blues Hall of Fame inductee, too.

Almost all of that attention came when Bettye was going to record I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise and Kappus arranged for Dennis Walker to produce her. Walker had supervised major recording for Robert Cray, another Rosebud artist, and the lineup included Cray’s longtime bassist, Richard Cousins, and drummer Lee Spath, who was behind the kit for their most successful album, Strong Persuader.

“I had my keyboard player of 30 years, Rudy Robinson, to come in and put that rhythm in it for me,” LaVette remembers, “and I think I fired Dennis’ guitarist because I thought he was too strange.”

Released on the Anti imprint, it achieved huge international acclaim. But the best was yet to come. The follow-up, Scene of the Crime – which was recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals with the Drive-By Truckers — debuted at the top of the Billboard blues chart and earned her first Grammy nomination a full 45 years after she’d made her debut as a recording artist.

“I’m so-o-o happy that the blues world embraced me,” Bettye insists. “I’m proud and excited about that.”

What truly separates LaVette from the pack is her innate ability to put her own personal bluesy and soulful stamp on the works of artists from completely different fields – many of which other blues singers wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

It’s a skill she acquired thanks to Jim Lewis, who served as her manager prior to her Brown Sugar days, she says. “He made me learn those kinds of tunes when I really didn’t want to…(Billie Holiday’s) ‘Lover Man’ and (Sinatra’s) ‘Drinking Again.’

“I said: ‘When am I gonna sing this shit?’ And my little band was like 17, 18 and 19, and they were like: ‘Oh-kay-y-y-…

“He would lock us up and make us listen to this through the speakers, telling us: ‘If you learn these tunes, you’ll be able to work for the rest of your life…’ We were like ‘uhm’ – but everything he said to me was correct!

“I wouldn’t have gotten the role in Bubbling Brown Sugar if he hadn’t made me learn ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ I think I’m the only rhythm-and-blues singer in the world that knows all the words to ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ There’s no reason for anybody else to!”

It’s played a key role in all she does today, including being called upon to sing “America the Beautiful” at an event in Detroit and contributing a cover of “Streets of Philadelphia” to Ladies Sing the Boss, the recent compilation of Bruce Springsteen tunes. A powerful voice in the fight against racial injustice, her 1999 EP, Change Is Gonna Come Sessions, breathed new life into the works of Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn, Bill Withers, Sam Cooke and Jimmy Reed.

imageAnd she receives praise from outside the blues world.

Keith Richards declared himself “a member of Bettye’s fan club” for her cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Salt of the Earth” on her Grammy-nominated Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook CD, which also drew high praise from The Who’s Peter Townshend, along with John Bon Jovi, Steve Winwood and Elton John. And her 2018 CD devoted to the songs of Bob Dylan, Things Have Changed, followed suit.

“I love that (title) song, and what Steve Jordan was able to do with it,” says Bettye referring to her current producer, a world-class percussionist who credits include extensive work with Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder and David Letterman and who now tours with the Stones.

“When I hit the stage with it, I dance. Bob doesn’t! That’s one of the things I love most about working with Steve. He knows exactly how I want to do something. All he has to do is hear me sing it with no music at all and he knows what I’m talking about.”

That disc was a Grammy finalist for both best Americana album and best traditional R&B performance, and Bettye’s incredible reworking of the title track proved so influential that country artist Margo Price and indie artist Adia Victoria have used similar arrangements in their own performances, too.

The idea for that CD came from a friend, Carol Friedman, the photographer whose work graces its covers and the woman who introduced Bettye to Jordan.

“I said: ‘If you find a fool to pay for it, I’ll do it,’” Bettye laughs. “She took it to Verve and suggested Steve, and they liked the whole idea.

“Steve is the first seriously speaking black producer I’ve had since Johnnie Mae Matthews, and – like me — he’s also had the opportunity to play all those other different places that make us different from most black performers.

“I’ve recorded with Nashville musicians, been a nightclub singer and toured on stage, and he’s done things, too. When I say ‘Bob Dylan’ and ‘Barbra Streisand’ to him, it doesn’t mean anything. He just wants to know how I want to sing it.”

It’s that attitude that paid off in spades with their follow-up, Blackbirds, on which Bettye reinterpreted material recorded by black women in the ‘40s and ‘50s. On the whole, it’s a powerful statement about the social injustice that continues today, but it offers up an olive branch for peace and understanding, too.

The album opens with Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge,” about romantic betrayal but a theme that can be applied to any kind of heartbreak, and it includes a stellar reworking of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” along with material from Dinah Washington, Ruth Brown and Nancy Wilson.

“I like ‘I Hold No Grudge a lot,” LaVette insists. “I had it 20 years before I got a chance to record it. I was in a beauty salon in Detroit and it came on the jazz station. I said: ‘If I ever record again, I’m gonna record that tune.’

“Fifteen years later, I was doing something for David Lynch, the movie producer, and the man who wrote the music for all of his movies – Angelo Badalamenti, who just died a few weeks ago – came up to me and said: ‘I love your voice. Years and years ago, I wrote a song (“I Hold No Grudge”) for Nina Simone, and I just think you’d be perfect for it!’

“When Blackbirds came up, I said: ‘This is it!’ I got a chance to send it to him, and he said: ‘I can see Nina smiling!’”

It was an especially well-timed release, considering it came out in 2020, a year that witnessed the senseless murders of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and others, events that triggered the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and major protests across the country.

“If Jim were not dead, that would have killed him,” Bettye jokes. “He wanted me to sing those songs so-o-o bad!

“He had all these wonderful, big arrangements made, and you should have heard me and my little band at the rehearsal. I mean, we didn’t have any feeling about ‘em of our own. We just played exactly the way he said to do it. They just played the notes, and I just sung the words.

“When Jim played Strange Fruit for me,” she says, “I said: “Really! Enough is enough! Nobody wants to hear that!’ It certainly wasn’t topical to me at age 17 in 1963.

image“He would have adored that album!”

LaVette was getting ready to tour in support of Blackbirds when the calendar turned to January in 2020, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Its scheduled release date was the day that America entered into COVID quarantine, killing her plans. Making matters even worse, she says, she’d also filmed a TV commercial for Corona Beer that included ‘50s superstar Hank Ballard, but it aired only once because the company was forced to close its breweries during the shutdown.

“I said: ‘I can’t get a fuckin’ break here,’” Bettye remembers jokingly, but noting that there was a major  upside. “All I did for the next year and a half…I didn’t have to get my hair or nails done, didn’t have to buy any plane tickets, didn’t have to pay any musicians. So every penny that I made was mine.

“It’s like the old saying: Every cloud has a silver lining. I’ve been very fortunate! My biographer, David Ritz (who penned LaVette’s memoir, A Woman Like Me) wrote a book about me and other rhythm-and-blues singers. My chapter is called ‘Buzzard Luck’ – and it’s true!

“I’ve had some awful, awful things happen. But I have some of the greatest things – unusual BIG things — happening, which have helped me hold on and which I’m really grateful for, too.”

That includes just having put the finishing touches on her next album, which remains top secret prior to its release. She’s unable to talk about other than to reveal that it’ll be issued on Jay-Vee Records, the imprint Jordan owns with his wife, Meegan Voss – the former lead singer in the all-girl punk bands the PopTarts and the Antoinettes – and that its planned June debut.

“I think it’s the most unusual thing I’ve ever done,” Bettye says happily, “and I want to tell you all about it. I told Steve that it’s very hard to get an old woman excited, but I’m teetering on the very edge of excitement. I want to go over to everybody’s house and play it for them, but…

“All I can say is thanks to all the fans out there for not forgetting me for all these years!”

Check out Bettye’s music and find out where she’ll be appearing next by visiting her website:www.bettyelavette.com.

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