a Woman's Had Enough
An interview with Ms. Bettye
Lavette at the Madison Blues Festival, August, 2003 by Mark Thompson and
Miss Peaches, a DJ in Madison.
A perennial cult favorite
in northern soul circles, singer Betty Lavette scored an R&B hit with
her debut single "My Man He's a Loving Man.Ē
Thompson: One thing from
your past. You did __Bubbling Brown Sugar__ with Cab Calloway on a tour.
I just wondered how that whole experience was
Lavette: That was the more
fun than Iíve ever had in forty two years! I didnít come from a musical
family and I wasnít in any choirs. The first time I sung was the first
time I sung. It literally all happened in about ten days. One week I was
Bettye Jo Haskins. The next week I was on the Atlantic Record label and
my name was Bettye Lavette. But they made me come back and pay for that!
Well get her later!
The __Bubbling Brown Sugar__
was from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rodgers thing. I thought I would come
out in a beautiful outfit, sing this one song and go out in the audience
and sit with my friends. Thatís what they do in the movies! So having that
black tuxedo on and those silver tap shoes and learning to tap and then
standing next to Cab Calloway and Honi Coles it was the show business I
got in show business to be in. And I loved it; I absolutely loved it and
would do it again at any time, that particular part. I donít particularly
like theater because Iím not an actress. But in musical comedy with a few
lines spoken, it was very easy for me. I was playing the part of Sweet
Georgia Brown, who was pretty much me! The tapping was hard. They taught
it to me and I did it. Iím probably the only tap dancing R&B singer
in the world!
Thompson: The other thing
I wondered about that whole experience was - do you bring from that to
your performance now?
Lavette: Absolutely. I look
completely different than all of my contemporaries. Before that I had pretty
much had your regular stand there and sing. Maybe I danced a little bit
more but only because I was younger. Now every position is staged no matter
how natural it may look. It comes from the theater. Itís a completely different
look. If I make a step, [I] do a whole step and make it very dramatic.
So I learned a tremendous amount. Right now, Iím calling upon every single
thing Iíve learned in 42 years. And I really believe that if the early
records had been hits, I wouldnít be this talented. Because I would have
gone with the record and that would have determined what I was going to
do. Not having a hit record, I had to learn anything that came up.
Thompson: - You have to
be the only artist I can think of that tried to get out of their contract
with Atlantic Records.
Lavette: - (laughter) Oh
no, there are some other stupid artists! Iím not the only one - maybe they
didnít do that particular stupid thing. Jerry Wexler gave me a release
from the contract. He said Iím going to give you this $500, honey, because
youíre going to need it! The man told me, donít leave now - weíve got a
new producer and were going to put you together with him. This was before
Aretha [Franklin] signed with them. At that time the word producer really
didnít mean anything. And the words Burt Bacharach meant absolutely nothing
and thatís who he was talking about. Who knew? Iíd of stayed had I known.
I went back three different times on labels that were owned by Atlantic.
Thompson: - If I remember
correctly, your new recording is only your second full LP or CD in forty
Lavette: - Yeah, because
the one I did for Atlantic in 1972 was just released two years ago by a
friend of mine in France. Here again, friends bought it and put it out
on his label. He got together with Munich Records, who called me over to
Holland to do a live CD. Again, two companies getting together to help
me- letís release both discs at the same time and try to give her a big
push. Thatís what they did.
Thompson: - That was another
question - how all of a sudden did you get discovered.
Lavette: - It was done deliberately.
They had never talked with each other before but Giles in France got with
Ben at Munich and said letís release them at the same time. They used the
same distributor. They were trying to get me an American deal. Although
they didnít ďLet Me Down EasyĒ has gotten me everything Iíve ever
got. When I was out playing, thatís what people wanted to hear. That song
has gotten me everything. When they called me to do __Bubbling Brown Sugar__,
they said we called you because one of the producers had remembered ďLet
Me Down Easy.Ē
Miss Peaches: Where do you
see yourself going at this time?
Lavette: - I wonít be pushed
into doing another CD because I want really want to take time and find
the tunes. I think I have to have another CD. We were hoping that maybe
I could at least get a Grammy nomination. That would give me a little more
time. But you have to sell a certain amount of records to get a nomination.
The record is just not being distributed properly, so I canít sell the
certain amount. We donít have a deal in England. People are still buying
my first record, so I know they would buy the new one! I have no idea of
what happened, why thereís no deal. Iím scratching my hair out. I went
to get my hair done and my beautician said do you know that you have a
big bald spot here and one over here.
Miss Peaches: Does all of
this cause you to have any apprehensions?
Lavette: - No, no no, -
because I know whatís in my show, I know what I put in it. Anywhere the
show has been seen, it's worked. Whether I was broke, had a record, whether
people had ever heard of me or not. That was one of the things that my
manager, who is now dead, had instilled in me. He came from the big band
era. .He played trombone with Jimmy Lunceford. He didnít like R&B and
hated all of my records. He said this bullshit is not going to take you
anywhere. He said you better learn ďLover ManĒ and ďLover Come Back.Ē He
made me learn those tunes. Those are the tunes that kept me alive when
the records werenít selling. I could walk into a place and just stand at
the piano and sing. That was Jim Lewis, who managed me for 15 years. He
ignored the whole record business, which was not good on one hand. I could
of maybe gotten a deal at that time. He said, ďLook, youíre a good singer
- learn these songs.Ē He took me to vocal training, staging, everything.
And when __Bubbling Brown Sugar__ called, if I didnít know ďGod Bless the
ChildĒ and ďSweet Georgia Brown,Ē I wouldnít have gotten the part. How
many R&B singers do you know that know all of the words to ďSweet Georgia
BrownĒ? Jim said, You are a singer and you should be able to do it all
of your life, whether you have a record or not.Ē I'll be able to work until
I die as long as I can get up to the microphone.
And that just requires me
staying healthy. I have to workout; drink a certain amount of water. Iím
too old to be doing this nineteen-year-old show. Actually, I feel my entire
57 years!!! Iím only happy when Iím performing. Before I go on, I have
to go to the bathroom about 96 times. Then I can go on stage for five hours
and not think about anything. I donít think about anything on stage. If
you notice, there is a piece of paper in front of me (on stage). It has
everything Iím supposed to say because my mind goes blank when I go on.
I canít remember - I forgot to introduce my family one night! So they write
me little notes - say this, look over here, wave to this person.
Thompson: - I was wondering
if there is a particular instrument that you focus on or like to hear on
Lavette: - Yes, keyboards.
You know I had the same musical director and keyboard player for 30 years.
He just passed away a year ago January, just as all of this was getting
ready to start. I was floored for a moment. Mostly, everything I did and
acquired, I did with Rudy (Robinson). I said I just have to go on. And
these guys, my band, are so devoted to the music. They are rehearsing even
when Iím not there. They are running the show. Thatís why I am so grateful
to them. They just kind of rallied around me and take care of me. They
always want to know if - did we do that right? I just love it. So I listen
to that keyboard. Rudy and I did a lot of gigs together - just he and I.
And Rudy had such a great left hand. People would invariably come and say
- there are only two of you? Whoís playing bass? Rudy was right there with
the left hand (Bettye sings a bass line). So I was trained to listen to
the keyboard player.
Thompson: - Is there a keyboard
player youíd like to do something with?
Lavette: - Not really, because
most of the better players who record on their own arenít capable of accompanying.
I find that to be one of the harder things to do. Iíve worked with some
great keyboard players that played all over me because they were great
and they wanted to hear themselves. I donít know any keyboard player I
would want to work with that hasnít been just a keyboard player in a band.
His attitude is like mine - we both want to wear the red dress!
Thompson: - Is there anybody
youíd like to do a duet with?
Lavette: - At one point,
I wanted to do one with Bobby Womack. Then he started hollering a whole
bunch and his attitude changed. I thought he had probably hollered all
over me and Iíd wind up kicking him between his legs. I would be honored
and flattered if Ray Charles would do something with me because he sings
in a manner that accommodates my voice. I phrase very much like him. Thatís
where I learned a lot of my phrasing from. Also Booby Bland. If you could
put my songs in another tone, you would hear Bobby Bland. I phrase a great
deal like him, too. He and I were really big friends in the 1960s and 70s.
His wife pretty much keeps him away from everyone now. I actually did a
gig with him and didnít even see him. She literally saved him and Iím grateful
to her. I wish that I could see him but she doesnít know me.
Thompson: - How did you
come to do your version of ďDamn Your EyesĒ?
Lavette: - I was on my way
to do a gig with Rudy as a duo and I stopped on the way, bought the record
and took it to him. I really felt this tune and I felt that Etta (James)
threw the tune away. This was a woman that I wanted to be when I was a
kid. However, it just was not her song. It was mine. I feel like she could
have sung it better than she sang it. I heard all of the ins and outs of
it. I did the arrangement myself. It just fell into my mouth. I usually
donít do tunes by living females.
Thompson: - Are looking
for new songs?
Lavette: - Yes, so if you
hear something you think I can sing, send it. I have to hide from Kevin
(husband) when we get up in the morning because you know that he has everything
that was ever recorded. Kevin says, ďBaby, I got ten tunes I want you to
hear.Ē Iím like, Kevin - do I have to listen to all ten now? And this is
every day!! However, he has made me fall in love with James Booker, a piano
player from New Orleans, and with Delbert McClinton. Iíve chosen two of
Thompson: - Etta James does
several McClinton songs on her latest disc, _Let It Roll_.
Lavette: - I just found
that out last week, so we are trying to get the CD to see which ones she
did. Weíre hoping that itís new stuff.
Mark Thompson: How is the
new CD being received?
Bettye Lavette: I am so
grateful that people are taking pictures and writing. Iím just grateful.
With all the publicity Iím getting, just imagine if the record company
spent any money. This could finally save me. But the owner does this for
a hobby; thatís the way heís handled it Heís paid everything, spent almost
$100,000 on this album. He doesnít know anybody (in the business). It took
me a year and a half to find him to get it out. He wouldnít sell it to
anyone. He wouldnít license it to anyone or lease it to anyone. Doesnít
he want the money back?
Thompson: Well, itís out
there now. Iíve seen it in stores.
Lavette: Yeah, itís out
there, thatís the only thing he has done is the Borders thing. Shanachie
Records, Randall Grass almost everything you see being done has been spearheaded
by him. He has been acting just as if I were recording for him.
Miss Peaches What do you
think about the last year and a half the disc not getting out?
Lavette: (Itís hard. Itís
hard to be completely upset because so many people are trying to help.
And so many people are trying to help the record company as well because
it is a brand new record company. This is the first thing theyíve had that
has gone international as well as national. Iíve got the greatest producer
in the world; heís a triple Grammy award-winning producer (Dennis Walker)
- Iíve never won anything! Iím thrilled about the production and I like
these tunes. Iíve never liked any my recordings. Iíve liked the songs,
but not the recordings. But I love all of these! Iíve just got to hope
that people will continue to write about me and try to make something happen
with this one so I wonít be forced to try to pull another one together
Miss Peaches: How long has
it taken for you to get the new one out?
Lavette: It took 1 1/2 years.
It was released in January, 2003. It took so long to get it out; the publisher
let some of the tunes go that Dennis had written for me and one of them
wound up on Shemekia Copelandís album. It was written for me, so I was
like ahhhhhhhhh! You see how my hair is. I scratched all my hair out just
worrying about this over the winter, was it going to come out? Couldnít
find the guy!
Thompson: How did you hook
up with Dennis Walker?
Lavette: Randall Grass,
he called me about seven years ago and he said he was calling to say he
was a great fan. He said he had bought one of my records eleven years ago
in Panama, no less, and a mutual friend gave me your number. He wanted
to call and say I think youíre great! So we started talking and of course
he tried to get Shanachie to sign me. Itís really unusual to have that
much money spent on a dead artist. So Iím very fortunate in that. So Randall
couldnít get them to sign me. He said Iím going to find you a producer,
or a gig or a manager or something. And he called maybe a year later and
he said he wanted me to I want you to talk to this guy Dennis Walker. Dennis
called and he sounded like such a hillbilly! And I thought this guy canít
write any songs. So I told him to send me some of his stuff. So he sent
me ďForecast Calls for Pain,Ē ďA Woman Like Me,Ē and ďRight Next Door.Ē
He writes stories and Iím not really a singer, Iím a storyteller. Dennis
gives me something to say. He gave me actual stories to tell.
Thompson: - Thank you very
much for your time.
Lavette: - Thank you so
much, so very much for everything that you are doing.
Souvenirs - Art & Soul
Let Me Down Easy: In Concert
(live) - Munich - 2000
A Woman Like Me - Blues
Express - 2003