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When 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 years?
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 stage.
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 his tunes.
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 so rapidly.
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.

Discography -

Souvenirs - Art & Soul - 2000
Let Me Down Easy: In Concert (live) - Munich - 2000
A Woman Like Me - Blues Express - 2003


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