“This is my fourth career,” Bettye LaVette, the soul singer, jokes as we begin our interview ahead of her residency at New York City’s Café Carlyle.
LaVette was a sixteen year old from Detroit when she cut her first single, 1962s My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man. Jerry Wexler, the famed head of Atlantic Records heard it and got behind the promotion and it became a minor R&B hit. In fact, it’s still beloved by Northern Soul fans, a highly sought after early highpoint of a career that, remarkably, didn’t take off until about 10 years ago when, after bouncing around the music business for decades, LaVette connected with famed producer Joe Henry for the album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005.
An interpreter of songs in the truest sense of the word, the album began a new chapter in LaVette’s career. She remade songs by everyone from Fiona Apple to the Rolling Stones, brought down the house with Love Reign O’er Me when the Kennedy Center honored The Who, appeared at President Obama’s 2009 inaugural and stole the show at the David Lynch Foundation’s concert featuring a reunion of none other than Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, also in 2009.
I caught LaVette at the Carlyle the day after her sixty-ninth birthday. The upscale, intimate venue was the perfect place to showcase up close her unmatched phrasing and intense voice. Featuring songs from 2010s stellar Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook and her other recent, excellent albums alongside her brand new album Worthy, LaVette brought down the house.
I spoke with LaVette about a week before her Carlyle residency began, in a conversation where she happily discussed her long history in the music business and all the ups and downs she experienced along the way, as well as her unmistakable gift for getting inside a song.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I saw you at the David Lynch Foundation concert with Paul and Ringo and I told you afterward that I thought you stole the show. On top of Obama’s inaugural and the Kennedy Center tribute to The Who the late 00s were a remarkable time for you. You’d been around for more than 40 years at that point. Did it feel like things were finally falling into place?
Bettye LaVette: Oh no, no, no. I didn’t at all. I didn’t see it instantly. I certainly consider the President of the United States to be bigger than the Beatles, but each one of those events was very special. I was just fortunate. I always look at it, or I’ve come to look at it like recently, as just a bunch of things I was fortunate enough to be a part of. Over my career I’ve had a whole gang of things that happened to me that were very, very bad. When I recount them to people they say, “What, what?” But if I recounted things to you like doing the Kennedy Center, which then got me the inaugural thing, you’d also say, “What?” They happened the exact same way. Those remarkable events were just a few in a very long career. But there were a whole bunch of other things going on, like records selling in Europe (in the 2000s). There was a lot going on that pulled things together. It wasn’t any one singular thing. But still, 800 million people saw the inaugural festival.
Rock Cellar Magazine: That’s a big moment, isn’t it?
Bettye LaVette: You know, I would think that was my biggest moment. The next one was the Kennedy center. Then the Radio City thing. I think all of those things…because they were so big…I didn’t have one big thing happen like selling a billion records or winning Star Search or whatever. I had a lot of things that were smaller happen. I had a bunch of things happened to me that added up to one big thing. Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, I think that’s a testament to the fact that over the years you built a career amongst musicians and people who have good taste and knew who you were. Those things built on each other over the years and created opportunity, too. Bettye LaVette: They certainly have. That’s exactly how it happened. That is one of the components. The things that are being built each time one of my records sold. Certainly the Northern Soul crowd – and their love of Let Me Down Easy – have done a yeoman’s job. That brought me into contact with a little record company in Holland, which got me another little one. I had these three records come out at the same time and, if you put them all together, they still wouldn’t be big enough. But because they all happened at the same time, it let everybody in two or three segments know that I was still alive and I was recording. A whole gang of little things happened, but they had been years in the making. Almost everybody in every one of those things happened because of somebody who has known me for almost 20 years.
Rock Cellar Magazine: It’s interesting that you bring up the Northern Soul thing. That was where I really discovered you, via your older music.
Bettye LaVette: I’ve seen music grow in various generations, but Let Me Down Easy is the only thing I’ve ever seen that the same people kept buying over and over.
Rock Cellar Magazine: That set you up to connect with Joe Henry. I want to say that first record you did with him, Scene of the Crime, was maybe about eight years ago. Is that right?
Bettye LaVette: No, it’s been ten years ago, but a woman like me keeps getting overlooked. I won the W.C. Handy award and that was what got me to Joe Henry. That got me to (the record label) Anti-, and Anti- got me to Joe Henry. That was really how things got off the ground. The W.C. Handy award for A Woman Like Me. That attracted Anti-. The president of Anti- — Andy Kaulkin – came to see my show and said that he’d like to do a record with me. That man just embraced me and fell in love with me and introduced me to Joe Henry, who I’d never heard of, because I’m not a record enthusiast that much. So that’s how the Joe Henry thing came about. Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about your first album with Joe, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Was it your idea or Joe’s to do songs that were entirely written by women? Bettye LaVette: It was the record company’s. It was Andrew’s idea. He was kind of the guru for those first four CDs. I’m so proud of that work.
Rock Cellar Magazine: I’ve read that you don’t really like some of the early songs you cut, like He Made a Woman Out of Me and Do Your Duty, those songs I’ve loved for a long time. You’re not crazy about those songs?
Bettye LaVette: Oh no, I like the songs. I didn’t like the records. I chose the songs. I’ve chosen all of my songs since My Man. But I didn’t like any of the records. And Let Me Down Easy I did like until stereo came in, but then I didn’t like anything anymore, because it was made for mono. See, I’m comparing these records to my friends. People don’t realize who my neighbors and schoolmates were. I’m from 1962 Detroit. I think people don’t realize it. People say, “Why weren’t you in Motown?” I was always with bigger companies, but anytime the sugar would turn to shit, I’d want to be with Motown.
Rock Cellar Magazine: But when you say your friends and neighbors, you’re talking about Ben E. King, Otis Redding…
Bettye LaVette: No, I’m talking about the people from Detroit. The people I was young with. I wanted my records to sound like Motown because they were moving right along into stereo and broader productions. My Man sounds as good as Money, but it doesn’t sound as good as Dancing in the Street. You know, we were all very young. I wanted my stuff to sound just like my contemporaries on Motown. Also, because of the nature of my voice, Motown and the people who were doing the Shirelles or “just like Ronnie says”, my voice didn’t sound like those. Plus, the first time I went on the road, I went on the road with grown people. The first time everybody from Motown went on the road, they went on the road with Dick Clark and the Sound of America.
Rock Cellar Magazine: By the time you did finally get to Motown, in the early ’80s, it wasn’t the Motown you probably wanted to be with though.
Bettye LaVette: No, not at all. I didn’t even know anybody there. We recorded a tune in Nashville, and I went to the offices in LA one time.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Yeah, but like you said, all of these little steps along the way built you to where you are today. Like you said earlier, this is your fourth career!
Bettye LaVette: That’s it. You know, in one of the tunes, one of the tunes on the new CD When I Was A Young Girl, there’s a line that says, “Yesterday’s illusions may be tomorrow’s smiles.” That’s absolutely it. Think about all my contemporaries, too. 95% of them, whether black or white, rock or R&B, are dead. I would have been too if I’d have been successful. I also would not have been as good as I am, because all I would have had to do is maintain my stardom. I wouldn’t have had to learn anything else. I wouldn’t have grown. Frank Sinatra had the opportunity to have three or four careers, and he got bigger and better with each one. Usually people just stay exactly where they are. Frank Sinatra kept having these different careers that just made him broader and broader. He learned to tap dance, learned to act.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, the thing for me, especially on your records of the last ten years or so, is the way that you interpret the songs. Your version of Love Reign O’er Me, a song Who fans of course know and love, but your interpretation of that was to me mind-blowing. I’ve talked to Roger Daltrey about this and his thing is that if he can’t get inside a song, if he can’t really own a song, he doesn’t want to touch it. He has to sing it from his heart and soul whereas most singers will just deliver the words. When I was kind of getting ready for this and thinking of my favorite performances of yours, that version of Love Reign O’er Me is certainly one of them. You really owned that song. What is it about your approach? It has to come from those years and years of success and failure, little steps forward and backward.
Bettye LaVette: I can identify with almost any situation because I’ve been in almost every situation. I can identify with anything from my puppy got killed to my manager got shot the week after I started singing. I’ve been in so many situations that I can almost relate to any kind of situation. As far as Love Reign O’er Me, that’s a song that I’d never heard up until that point in my life, and one that I really didn’t care for, because the lyrics were too random, as so many of the lyrics were in the ’60s, and you had to be a part of it to really understand it. When I came to rehearsal, I said that I couldn’t sing it like Roger does. I just didn’t know if I couldn’t sing it like that. I just couldn’t do it. The musical director said to the band, “Don’t play anything, just let her sing it.” I sung it the way I would if I had done it originally. And just the simplicity of the arrangement, because the band left all this open space out there just for me, let me fill it with something. I had to embrace the song if I wanted the arrangement, and I thought the arrangement the musicians came up with was just beautiful. I really had to come back and embrace the song, because that isn’t a story I would tell. I was young for such a brief time, and I tend to look at love a little harder, not so euphemistically. So different things happen with songs. There are songs that if I can’t identify with the lyrics I won’t do them. There are others that I’m satisfied with the way they are. Respect is one of them. I always use Respect as an example. I can’t sing like Aretha Franklin, but that’s the way I would have wanted to sing it. I can’t sing Midnight Train to Georgia. I’ve never wanted to sing those two songs in my life. I’m just as satisfied with them as I am with Let Me Down Easy. So if you sing it to my satisfaction, I probably won’t sing it unless there’s something about it that I see so differently that would make me want to do it. I wouldn’t just be attracted to doing a tune if I was completely satisfied with the way that someone did it, as I am with those two tunes.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Let’s talk about The British Rock Songbook album. I think for a lot of people, it was a surprising choice to do that, but again, you kind of took those songs and made them your own. Were you reluctant to do those songs?
Bettye LaVette: How many people do you think are more surprised that I did that, the British Rock Songbook, or that Rod Stewart did the American Songbook? When I hear a song, I think it helps me not to be a music fan. When I hear the song, I hear me singing it. I don’t hear whoever is singing it singing it. I hear the song. That is all I hear, the song and what I’m going to do with it. I haven’t heard anyone sing a song and think anything about what they were singing or doing that would be useful to me since At Last came out by Etta James. That’s the last time I heard anybody singing anything that I wanted to sing just like and could not find another way to sing. Ever since then, when I hear a song, I hear the way I would sing.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, let me be more specific. I think there’s a good example in The Beatles’ Wait, on the new album. To me, like Love Reign Over Me, it’s a completely new interpretation. Beatles songs are so ubiquitous in the world today. You have to be familiar with the original arrangement, but it’s completely new and reinvented.
Bettye LaVette: It is not reinvented! It’s sung by me. People might accept it as a Beatles song but I accept it as a song they wrote. It’s a different thing. I really just approach the song differently, as I said. Certainly now, of the songs I did on Interpretations, I’d only heard seven of them. We did thirteen songs, and I’d only heard seven of them, because there was such a thing as black radio at one point, and there was so much of that that I didn’t have to listen to anything else. Photo: Carol Friedman The things that got across usually got across to me through Sarah Vaughn and Ray Charles and artists like them. I loved variety shows, so I heard the people who were on the variety shows sing the Beatles songs, but I didn’t hear the Beatles songs on the radio. I heard the songs just as Ray Charles heard them, as songs. That used to be a normal thing. Songwriters used to write songs, and then they’d mind their own business, and singers sung them.I say that with anger! Because that used to be a thing. You would get the sheet music, and you would sing it by yourself if you knew how to sing. There wasn’t a reinvention of it. That’s the way Fanny Brice sung it. That’s the way Louis Armstrong sung it. I think that’s the natural order of things and how it should be. Just in terms of writing, this singer-songwriter-producer thing… Shit, if you can’t sing your own damn song, they don’t care.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, I think it was that way for a very long time, wasn’t it, too?
Bettye LaVette: Yes it was, it was like that from the beginning until recently. When you could sing, write, produce, and play an instrument, you were called a genius, and you were called a genius because those things were rare. Now we have a new “genius” every sixty days.
Rock Cellar Magazine: But not all of those songs are going to stand the test of time either, are they?
Bettye LaVette: Oh no, they aren’t. The thing of it is that when I think about the money now, when I think of the singer-songwriter-producers, and the money that they get for all those things, and how long that money is going to have to last, more than likely people aren’t going to be re-recording most of those songs the way they do Yesterday. So whatever money, it may be millions now, but unless it’s invested absolutely correctly, the money from the one hit they have may have to last them fifty-something years. As long as My Man has lasted me.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well let’s talk a little bit about the run of shows at the Carlyle. A lot of performers have mixed feelings about doing a residency, but how do you approach doing a series of shows at the same place over an extended period of time as you would differently to a tour? You get a feel for the room, but there’s also a fatigue as a performer, I think, that sets in doing the same thing every night. How do you see it as a performer?
Bettye LaVette: It doesn’t bother me. I appreciate the difference from the festivals and a bigger nightclub. It’s very intimate. I do songs that I would never do. There are certain songs that I don’t do on festivals. Some of them are soft and I feel so tenderly about them that I only do them in places where people are very close to me. There’s a song from my Motown album actually called Before I Even Knew Your Name I Needed You. I had done the song to show my then-manager Jim Lewis that I could sing softly. I’d practiced and practiced and practiced. When I did the song, I wanted it to be very clear. I wanted it to sound as much like a girl as possible. When I do that tune, it breaks my heart. I realized when I was writing my book that everything that he told me and everything he was trying to tell me was in there. So the only time I’ve ever sung it in my life since I recorded it was at Joe’s Pub and at the Carlyle, because they are intimate spaces. I doubt I’ll sing it anywhere else. My husband gets angry with me because if I find a show that works, I don’t hardly want to mess with it. He says, “Well, what if somebody comes every night?” I said, “They shouldn’t come every night!” But my husband forces me to change things around. And there are so many songs. I have so many songs now, and I really do feel bad when we’re doing a string of 90 minute festivals, say 20 in 25 days, and I’m not changing anything. You’ll have to force me to change clothes! But when I player smaller places, I wear more clothes, higher shoes, because I can sit on a stool. I really get a chance at a place like the Carlyle to finally be in the show business I thought that I would. I thought I would be really, really famous by now and just relax in some big hotel somewhere, and that’s where I would die. I didn’t know that I’d become a part of the hustle!
Rock Cellar Magazine: Well, but you’re still here, and you are able to do those things.
Bettye LaVette: Yes. I’m absolutely amazed. I can remember strolling back and forth past the Carlyle. The man at the front door would say, “Go on miss, you can’t stand around here.” So things have sure changed.