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Bettye LaVette Reminisces About Her Early Influences and Experience, on Morning Jazz

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Before her show at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City, Bettye LaVette stopped by WBGO to talk to Gary Walker.

Their conversation touched on her early days in Detroit, the influence of her old producer Jim Lewis, and the evolution of her career. Listen below, and scroll down for an edited transcript.

What a thrill to have you here.

Oh, thank you, Gary. It's a thrill to be here.

“Let Me Down Easy.” We should set up do a little setup, as much as we can before that, to the early ‘60s. And what was going on in Detroit? Tell me about the scene, about the Graystone [Ballroom].

Oh, that was a to-do every weekend. And it was it was one of the only things for young people to do. Well, I think you had to be 17 to get in. But every Friday and Saturday, they had a record hop. And most of the artists, if you had a record being played on the radio, you performed there. So we actually got a chance to see any and everybody that had a recording. And then on Sundays, you’d to the to 20 Grand.

The golden room of the 20 Grand!

That’s it.

But the people that would hang out at the stone, like yourself, were other artists that eventually went on — I'm talking about, you know, David Ruffin slept on your mama's floor, for God's sake.

Yes. But I think at one point we did all know each other. We always joke and say: “white people think that all black people know each other.” At one point, because of segregation primarily, we did know each other, because we all had to go the exact same places.

For you it was the North End, wasn’t it?

Mm-hmm.

That's where Barry Harris grew up, too.

Everybody had something to do with the North End. If they're over 50, they've done something on the North End.

But those kinds of things would obviously influence Betty LaVette as a singer. I mean, that sense memory runs so deep for you, and it started at the age of 16.

All of it started me at the same time, the singing and the teen-aging. [chuckles]

Did you feel did you feel like you didn't have a childhood?

No, I’ve never wanted one.

Because, I mean, at 16, your first hit was “My Man.”

I don't remember when I didn't want to be an adult.

Is that for real?

And I have no desire to be young now.

Who is Clarence Paul? What kind of influence did he have on you on your musical life?

A great deal of influence. He was 18 years older than me. I was in love with him. He was the brother of one of the Five Royals, and he just knew a tremendous amount. And I picked up a tremendous amount from him. But I think my primary teacher, mentor, was a guy whose name was Jim Lewis, and he was the assistant to the president of the Musicians Union. And he almost insisted that I become a good singer.

And how did he do that?

Oh, five million different ways. One day he would lock me in his office, and the speakers were there, but the record player wasn't there. So he knew where the record player was, and I’d have to sit in there and listen to all is tunes by Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. And I said, “You just want me to be old, I don't want to listen to these old songs.”

But he kept after you, didn’t he?

Oh, continuously.

And how did that pay off for you?

Well, he told me early on, if I would learn a lot of songs and learn how to sing them, I could work until I die. And so far…

That seems to be working out, doesn’t it? I have in my hands here – you mention Jim Lewis, you also have to mention Rudy Robinson.

Rudy started working with me when I was about 17, or getting ready to turn 18. And he was with me until he died a few years ago. And there just wasn't anything about the piano he didn't know. But it was still the influence of Jim; he was influencing both of us. You know, because at the time, Rudy knew everything but he only wanted to play the current and popular stuff. And Jim forced him to pay all these old songs he was teaching me.

But he knew them all, didn’t he?

He knew all of them. And Jim was so stunned. Jim said, “This idiot has good sense!”

You know, Billy Strayhorn writes “Lush Life” when he's like 16 years old.

I know.

And you sing “My Man” when you're 16 years old.

But it took me 16 years to learn “Lush Life.” [laughs]

That's a heavy song, isn’t it?

Yes it is.

But was it Rudy that was also there at that time, for “Lush Life”?

It was about 16 years before I would sing it out loud. I sang it in my head for 16 years. But Jim just kept playing it and making me listen to it. And I was so proud of the first time that I let him hear it.

How did you and Hank Ballard come to make music together?

He was signed by a company that I was already with, Silver Fox International in Nashville. And they signed him, and his songs with the Midnighters were some of the first songs that I ever did onstage. So I was just thrilled to meet him. And he was — oh, god, much older than me was he? Maybe 20 years or so. But although they were his songs, I sang all of them into his ear. Because he had forgotten all the words.

 See, now the key phrase she said is ‘All of those songs were his songs. All of those songs were their songs. All their songs were the British rocker songs.’ (We'll get to that a little bit later.) ‘All those songs were Bob Dylan’s songs.’ But when Betty LaVette takes a song, it becomes hers. Even when Hank Ballard is standing right next to her, she stole the damn song from him! I'm going to let you hear a couple right now. Hank Ballard and Bettye LaVette. And then another one that I think you're going to know.

You know that tune, associated perhaps with Janis Joplin. But if you're really into the soul of this kind of music, you really know that song from Aretha Franklin's older sister, Irma.

Yeah.

And that's where you got it from.

It wasn’t from Janis Joplin.

You cover a lot of this ground in your live shows, don’t you?

Well, especially in these duo shows that I'm doing, that's primarily what they're for. I guess I'll spend the rest of my life introducing myself, but I do talk a little bit more until my show is about my life. Not so much the people I've known, but just what's happened to me personally, from Muskegon to Detroit. You know, my first songs that I ever learned were on the jukebox in our house in Detroit. My parents sold corn liquor, and we had a jukebox in the living room, and I learned all the songs on it.

And that's probably why David Ruffin came over and crashed on the floor: had a jukebox in the house!

No, he had come from somewhere else. And he was just drunk. He fell asleep. He had somewhere to go.

But this kind of sense memory that you pull from, in your live performances and on record. Just like the book — “A Woman Like Me” is a recording that Bettye had out in the early 2000s. And it should be a movie.

I agree! We are working feverishly on that.

Yeah. ‘Cause I'll tell you, when Bettye LaVette sings a song, my friend, you're going to know what it feels like “When the Blues Catch Up to You.”

You also listened to the jazz instrumentalists, too.

At Jim’s insistence. He wanted me to be not only a good musician, but he wanted other musicians to respect me. Like singing songs in the same key. He made me put all of my songs in different keys, so I would appear to be smart to the musicians. You know, there's so many singers that sing in one key, or right close around it. But he just had said me do a myriad of different kinds of songs, which would require me to do call him a lot of different keys.

How did you become attracted to the British songwriters? Remember the first time you heard that stuff?

Yeah. Jim made me do “Fool on the Hill.”

For real?

And then I recorded “A Little Help From My Friends.” But he made me do things like “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” and I recorded “Feelings” and things that otherwise would never have done. …Jim used to, when I recorded “Feelings,” I had never heard it before. He just got me the sheet music, which he often did. And then that forced me to sing it my way, because I didn't know how it went. So a few of my songs turned out much different than the recording, because I had no idea how the recording went. Rudy would just play it and I would sing it.

Which one of these do you think you belong in the most, from the British? What was your favorite? Because I have favorites.

One of my favorites is “Maybe I'm Amazed,” because I really, really am truly amazed at how much I let Kevin be Bettye LaVette. He's involved in everything that I do. And that has never happened before. I'm amazed at how often I have to call on him, and how much he deals and how much I'm able to glean from him.

There's one of these recordings, I've got it right here. The one that features you from the Kennedy Center. What was that about?

“Love Rein O’er Me”?

Yeah.

Once again, he was responsible for me doing the Kennedy Center Honors. They were honoring George Jones, and I had just done “Choices,” a George Jones tune. And they told him that everybody in Nashville was coming to honor him. So there wasn’t any room for me, really. But they had a song left. And Kevin let me hear it, I said, “I am not singing that. I’ve got one chance to appear on national television. I am not singing that.” And it turned out to be the biggest thing that I've done so far! I mean it's created, you know, generated more conversation. And every time they take it off of YouTube, somebody puts it back up there.

The last time you came to WBGO, you brought your whole band.

Yes.

And the focus was on Things Have Changed. Have things changed?

Oh, yes, tremendously so. I mean, I’m recognized at the airport, in the supermarket. Because everybody knew me in Detroit, I said “I am going to stay here and starve. I’m going to be working at McDonald's and people are going to become in ordering and asking me to autograph their bag.”

I don't think that's going to happen. I don't think so at all.

Oh, well, I don't now. But I've had many more outlets and more things to do before I get to McDonald’s now.

Over the course of your career, do you have anything besides a number one hit — do you have any thing that you would like to do that you haven't been able to do thus far?

I’d like to perform at the Grammys. And I’d like to have one. But Kevin and my manager, everybody's kind of talked me into this Grammy nomination thing because, I fuss about it throughout my whole show. But Kevin said “There were only five of you that were nominated, and you were one of them. Five times you were one of them.”