Since winning the W.C. Handy Award for Comeback Blues Album of the Year for her 2003 set A Woman Like Me, Layette, 69, been an in-demand interpreter of all kinds of music, singing "A Change is Gonna Come" at the 2009 Obama inaugural and a Who classic at the Kennedy Center Awards that brought tears to Pete Townshend's eyes.
She spoke from New Jersey about her long career.
Bettye LaVette: My mother said I could always talk, and I always talked just like this. Unfortunately, she wanted me to talk like a baby. But there were always adults around - there were no other children around. When there was other children around I treated them like I was the adult.
But I listened to the jukebox playing every day. Of course my parents went to work every day, but when they came home, along with every one else black in Western Michigan in 1946, if you wanted a drink after dinner, you had to come to my house.
Songfacts: That was in Muskegon. How old were you when you moved to Detroit?
Bettye: Maybe four. Between three and four. We moved to Pontiac, Michigan first. My family came to work for General Motors. And in Muskegon they worked in parts places and some of them settled in Pontiac and they worked for Pontiac Motors. And when they came to Detroit, they worked at GM there.
Songfacts: Was Detroit known as a recording capital then?
Bettye: Not a recording capital, but a music place. People who did record spent weeks and months there. I was reading one thing that was so funny. It said that Miles Davis had come to Detroit at one point in the '50s to keep away from drugs. Why wouldn't he go to Grand Rapids or somewhere?
But it was always known for music and a fast night life. There's got to be as many books written about black night life in Detroit as there have been written about Manhattan.
Songfacts: Was it a good place for you as a singer?
Bettye: I was a ninth grader. In 1962 in Detroit, to record was not a big deal actually. You either recorded or you produced or you built a studio. Or you practiced writing, or you played an instrument.
Churches have always been there, but it was becoming a recording situation. There were a lot of recording studios then, but they were all small. Then about the mid-'50s they started to get bigger and bigger and bigger. I'll never forget in 1964 I had come to New York for the first time. I was 18 and I was recording for the mafia. They called me into the office and said, "Do you know anything about this guy Berry Gordy or something in Detroit?" "Yeah, I know all about him. What do you want to know?"
Songfacts: They wanted to find out his secrets?
He was really taking everyone by surprise. There weren't any secrets at that time. Blacks didn't have any secrets because they couldn't do anything big without white people, so blacks didn't have any secrets right at that point. But it was as surprising to him as it was to them.
Everything was changing, and he was at the forefront of it. He had taken gleams from all the other black existences and put them with all the white things he knew. From Jackie Wilson becoming a star, he knew how it worked and how it was supposed to go, and he started to put it together.
And those records, you couldn't stop those children from buying those records. They did everything. I remember at one point people were paying money not to take Berry Gordy's money – taking payola not to take money from him. But they couldn't stop those children. They kept buying those records. They really did do everything they could to stop it.
Songfacts: It was all about the singles then, right?
Bettye: Yeah. I'd be the Queen of Singles.
Songfacts: Why, because they were easier to produce?
Bettye: You couldn't get the financing to do a whole album. And if you were with a big record company, you had to sell a million copies of a single or you had to sell several singles first. And all of mine were topping out at about 30,000. Everybody was liking them, and I didn't quit because people kept spending money on me. No one would spend a lot of money on me, but people kept spending their money on me, so it kept me from being discouraged over the years.
Songfacts: You had a couple of Top 40 R&B singles in the '60s, got signed in the '70s and cut an album in Muscle Shoals that didn't get issued. You had a disco hit in 1978 ["Doin' the Best That I Can"] and recorded in Nashville for Motown in the '80s.
Bettye: Somebody the other night aptly said I was the Zelig of rhythm and blues. Almost any scene that you see in the last 50 years.
Songfacts: You certainly have a lot of associations with a lot of singers over the years. Did you learn some things from being on the road in those early days with Otis Redding or James Brown that helped shape your career?
Bettye: No. James Brown's an asshole. And Otis was learning like me.
People always throw these names around, but do you know how many people I worked with - some of them as good, some of them not as good - whose names were not mentioned because they didn't become stars? But those names were valuable to me and certainly anybody handling publicity, those are the things to mention.
But these people were pretty young themselves and they weren't the people that you know now. While working with James Brown you picked up that you were going to outwork him. He wasn't going to give you any advice, or talk to you for that matter. But you would, watching his show, know what you're running up against. I think I have that work ethic having worked with him at the Apollo and on the road: I defy you to outdo me.
"My Man - He's A Lovin' Man" (#101, 1962 - listed as "Betty Lavett")
"Let Me Down Easy" (#103, 1965 - this time "Betty Lavette")
"Right In The Middle (Of Falling In Love)" (#103, 1982 - finally "Bettye LaVette")
"Bubbling Under" is a good description of her career, as she didn't reach full boil until her sixth decade. As Bettye explains, going hitless did have certain advantages.
Bettye: Perseverance, yes. But, too, had I been a success with my Motown contemporaries, my Atlantic contemporaries. I wouldn't have become as vast and broad a singer as I am now if I had a hit. That's what I would have had to stick with.
No one called for Bettye LaVette. When they called they asked for a female vocalist, so I had to learn whatever a female vocalist had to do on that gig, which meant I had to learn tap dancing when I went in for [the musical] Bubbling Brown Sugar.
When I first worked at the Carlyle I was fired from it because I was too loud. I didn't know anything but rhythm and blues and the only way I knew to sing was loud. That and Dr. John firing me are the only gigs I ever got fired from.
Songfacts: Well, I guess I'll have to ask you about that.
Bettye: That was one part of my claim to fame for about 20 years.
I'm not a background singer. I just don't think in terms of background parts unless it's something I want you to sing. I'm always thought of as "the one," as they say in theaters. The one with the white suit or the red dress. That means you would be in the center of the stage.
So I was with Atlantic and I just moved to LA and John had just moved out there as well. "Right Place, Wrong Time" was climbing and they had just released the single from the album, "Such a Night."
John and I became fast friends. My career wasn't doing as well as his and he was putting his tour together. He knew I could sing and I had never sung any background but I thought it was easy and he hired me. And, you know the song, right? Every time they did "dun dun dun dun woo," they'd say "woo" and I'd say, "Uh huh!" They'd sing, "dun dun dun dun woo!" and I'd sing, "dun dun dun dun woo-woo!"
He said, "LaVette! You ain't going to sing that background, are you?" I said, "I was singing it. I was trying to fill in." He said, "But I need you to supply that other voice."
And then when I did sing with him, I was always wrong. I wasn't in the right place. He gave me a half ounce of marijuana and a couple hundred dollars, and let me go. He said, "I love you and I love you forever."
The few gigs I'd taken in theater where I was the understudy, I caused so much trouble backstage so they fired me anyway. I thought I was the star and everybody else was there.
When Bettye got the call to play in the national touring company in 1979, she stayed with it for three years. In that time she worked with both high-speed rhythm tap dancing legend Charles "Honi" Coles and Calloway - Mr. Hi-De-Ho himself.
Bettye: That was the most fun I have ever had in show business in my life. Now, remember, I had never seen a show. The first time I ever saw people singing in front of a microphone other than at church was when we finally got a television. So then I would see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and that kind of thing. It would be a long while before they had local programming with black stars. Eventually I saw Ruth Brown and I knew I could be a singer, but at first I didn't think that I could because I couldn't be Ginger Rogers or Doris Day. I thought I could be one of those people in the jukebox, but not those people in the movies.
So when I did Bubbling Brown Sugar it was fabulous! A white tuxedo? Walking down these steps in a short dress with a tail behind it singing "Sweet Georgia Brown"? Are you joking? That don't happen in night clubs!
It was the most fun I had in my life and tap dancing was the silliest thing I've ever done. I just felt like a fool, throwing my hands around. The thing that made me embrace it was, I don't know any of my contemporaries who can tap dance!
Songfacts: You don't tap dance any more do you?
Bettye: No. I just learned for that part and it isn't something. I felt foolish doing it because it was such a different dance. You can do ballet or do modern dance sadly, but you can't tap dance sad. It's a happy dance and you have to look happy while you're doing it.
Songfacts: This phase of your recording career took off in about 2000?
Bettye: For me it was 12 years ago with A Woman Like Me, which won a W.C. Handy Award, and I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, which was critically acclaimed but, as I say in my writing, "close shooting don't kill no birds." Then we went on to earn the first Grammy nomination and then the next Grammy nomination.
Songfacts: You worked with Joe Henry on I've Got My Own Hell to Raise and now again on Worthy. What do you like about working with him?
He's younger than I but he's such an old spirit - it's like he's from another time. And that works well for me because I'm an old spirit.
Songfacts: Do you come up with all the songs then?
Bettye: I chose all of the songs. I'm not one who looks for them. However, I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is a music historian and collector, so he already knows a gang of them. Now that we've been married, he's on a constant hunt and we keep an ongoing list of country tunes, popular tunes, various different categories. I like so many different kinds of tunes so that's why we categorize them.
And he's learned to stop looking for tunes for a black chick soul singer. He just listens for a good song, because all of it was at one time just words on a piece of paper. A gospel person would have made it gospel, a jazz person would have made it jazz, I make it rhythm and blues. No matter what the intentions were. So we just find really good solid songs that a grown old woman could look an audience in the face and sing.
Songfacts: These seem to be some unexpected choices. For example, the Beatles' "Wait" and the Stones' "Complicated."
Bettye: He knew about these songs when they were out. I grew up listening to black radio. My husband is Irish. He knew all these songs and he was familiar with them. And I don't think he ever forgets a song. I think every song he ever heard he still remembers. And he sings and plays here locally with local musicians.
He sees I'm willing to apply my voice to anything I like, and since the songs didn't mean anything to me, they aren't the altar I worship at the way people heard them growing up in the '60s. I don't have that reverence for them. I don't have anything that would hinder me from making them a totally different tune.
There's so many things that will happen to me in a song.
Songfacts: What are you looking for in a song? Something you can connect to?
Bettye: I like things that are undeniably good. On this last thing, we did "Thankful N' Thoughtful," a Sly & the Family Stone tune. It's incredibly funky. It's got a couple of lyrics - it could have some more but it's incredibly funky. It's kind of a silly song, like the one I did on [2007 album] The Scene of the Crime, "Before the Money Came."
It has to be a clever kind of joke with clever words. But it all has to be believable and grown up. There will be no youthful moments here. None. And I'm very proud of that. On the new one, I love "Unbelievable," which is about as humorous as I want to get now. If I'm humorous at this point, it has to be a complaint.
Songfacts: That's a Dylan song a lot of people don't know.
Bettye: I was so glad. Because I don't know what they've heard of him and what they haven't. I've been thrilled that not so many people know this, but they do remember it when they hear it. It's like, "Wow, I haven't heard it. That is so fun." I enjoy when you either take something that has been known and make somebody feel completely different about it, or you take something that is almost obscure and make them listen to it.
When I was doing the interpretations album, [Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook] we tried to contact as many of the artists as would accept calls. So far Paul and Mick haven't called me back. But Justin Hayward, he said he wrote "Nights in White Satin" when he was 18 or 19 and he never understood it until he heard me sing it. [This is no exaggeration. When we spoke with Justin Hayward in 2013, he said of hearing LaVette's version for the first time: "There have been hundreds, maybe thousands of covers of 'Nights in White Satin,' but that was the first time I heard it for real."]
Songfacts: So did Dylan call you back?
Bettye: No, we can put him on that list too.
But we did a gig together at the end of last year and I asked his bass player if he had heard my version of "Broken," and he said he loved it. When Dylan came out, everything had to be cordoned off and nobody could come within 25 feet of him. So now my band wanted to stay and see him and I wouldn't stay to watch Jesus walk the water. I said, OK we'll listen to one song. So he came out and the band came out. I said, "Hey Robert Dylan," and the bass player tapped him and said, "That's Bettye LaVette." We almost fainted. I was getting ready to hug him. He walked over to me, he grabbed my face and kissed me full on the mouth. Of course, my band fainted.
But nobody could take any pictures. My thing is: I didn't need to be kissed by another musician - I needed a picture. That's the only way that it would help me. I've been kissed by everybody. But my band now is more impressed with me.
November 4, 2015.
Get more at bettyelavette.com.
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