‘I am here, too’: Bettye LaVette takes her place in American music history

Bettye LaVette’s first single in 1963 was a major hit, but for the next 40 years, the R&B singer bounced between label deals and near-destitution as her peers such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross became superstars. LaVette grew up in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, but the label’s founder Berry Gordy Jr. never brought her onto his roster.

But LaVette is having the last laugh. At age 74, she’s now enjoyed five Grammy nominations and numerous lifetime achievement awards. LaVette’s new studio album Blackbirds is the ninth record she’s released since 2003, when she kicked off a late-career resurgence.

She brought The Who’s Pete Townshend to tears when she performed Love Rain Over Me at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. It led to her performing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

Her talent for finding new emotion in other people’s songs is such that Justin Hayworth from the Moody Blues once told her that he’d written Nights in White Satin, but he never understood it until she sang it. Her voice, both on stage and in person, is what makes LaVette so extraordinary.

After all these years, she’s in a league of her own. Bettye LaVette is the last of the great women of R&B’s golden era.

LaVette joined us for a conversation about her long career as the underdog of American blues.

You have a real way with a song. You get to the heart of a song. How do you find and select the music that you’re going to put on your records?

My husband is a music enthusiast. I really am not, but he has heard everything that’s ever been recorded in the history of the world. He files everything. Up until we were married 15 years ago, I had a million little snippets of paper — a song I heard in a restaurant, a song I recall from my youth — and he took all of those and put them into my file. So, I have a file ready to go.

I suppose you don’t just have to like a song, but the song has to like you as well?

Oh, it’s very, very personal to me. That’s why no one could choose songs for me, because you don’t know whether I feel like what it’s saying. Commercially speaking, there are some songs I’ve had to do … but that’s when it becomes a thing that a professional singer does. But when I record my own album, I have to choose all of the tunes.

Your parents sold corn liquor out of your living room when you were a kid, and there was a jukebox in there. Who was in that jukebox when you were a child?

My father liked blues and gospel, and my mother liked popular music and country-western. My sister, who was just turning 14, liked contemporary music. For her then, that would’ve been like B.B. King and Chuck Willis. For my mother, it was the Grand Ole Opry and all the sings on there, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra. For my father, it was the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys and the Swan Silvertones. In 1946 in western Michigan, if you wanted a drink after work, you couldn’t go to a bar. You had to come to my house. So, all the people who came to our house were mostly people they worked with every day, and they both worked every day, hangover or not. In our house, you could have the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Swan Silvertones, the Flying Clouds of Detroit … I knew all the songs on the jukebox and I didn’t know they were different. I knew them because I liked the songs. I was probably the only kid who knew songs by Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, B.B. King and the Soul Stirrers.

When I ask female singers who inspired them they often give me a list of great women like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, but your voice is totally original. I’m guessing some male singers influenced you growing up.

Well first of all, I started to say I don’t know anything I’ve heard a woman do that I wanted to do. But I don’t know anything I’ve heard a women do that I can do! So, I had to find my feeling down in this pitiful range that I have that kept the nuns from letting me stand with the girls, because my voice fit in so well with the boys. All kinds of guys [were influential], from Roy Rogers to Ray Charles. I wasn’t trying to sing exactly like anyone else, but I had to understand that I didn’t have to, that it was okay to sound like me, and to just let my voice and feeling take me where they may.

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In the early ’60s, you toured with James Brown. The story goes that he asked you not to end your show with Let Me Down Easy, your hit at the time. What was that about?

Let me get this straight: He didn’t ask me anything. He didn’t speak to me the whole while. His manager came and told me that James wanted me to move Let Me Down Easy in my rotation. I think I was doing no more than five songs, but I was coming on right before him … There’s no way I could have taken the show. He was terrifying me because his show was so strong. I couldn’t do that then.

Can you tell me about why you chose to record Nights in White Satin?

Oh, everybody’s always been in love with that melody. Everybody knows it. If you’re a singer, you want to sing to that melody. I just didn’t hear the song the way [the Moody Blues] did. When people look at interpretation … I can’t sound like other people, and I’d sound funny singing it like them with my voice. It sounds so much more relaxed and comfortable if I just sing it the way it comes to me. Remember, these were just words on a paper at one point. So, if you brought them for me to record, that’s the way I would have sung it.

You bring up a good point because you’ve recorded a lot of Bob Dylan music. With Bob Dylan, you really have to search for the melody a lot of the time.

The thing with him is that you have to find the parts you need. He repeats himself with eloquent words. He is a wordsmith. What I did was I found out what the story was about … Some of the songs have five or six verses. I just took the strongest line out of each verse. That was all I had to say about it. You know, Black women can get an argument shut down real fast.

I heard you say once that you and him have something in common: You both like to complain a lot. 

That’s what I’m saying. Whatever it is, it’s always about how wrong everybody else is and how bad they act. It sounds just like me, like when I [feel like] all the world is against me! Since we do have that in common, it was very easy for me.

Tell me about your performance at the Kennedy Center Honors. Was that a moment that felt like you had arrived? It was just phenomenal.

It was a moment of complete satisfaction. I call it my Three Stooges slap. I wouldn’t slap anybody, but you know how the Three Stooges slap goes. When I walk out on the stage — still being able to wear a size six — there was Beyoncé to the right of me, Aretha was in the centre, Barbra Streisand was up in the balcony telling Pete Townshend to be quiet. These women, all of their careers have happened during my entire failed career. All of that was happening while nothing was happening for me. All I had ever wanted to be was with them. And that Sunday evening, I was. It was such a gratifying moment for me. I am here, too. I work on this craft. I’m good at it, and I work on it. That’s one of the greatest things that’s happened to me.