Artist to Artist: Bettye Lavette–Amazing Grace

In this age when those thirsty for stardom wait in lines for hours–even days–to audition for any number of televised talent competitions promising to make them “the next big thing,” it is easy to forget that most of the artists who’ve made a lasting impression were not of the overnight success variety.  When it comes to building and sustaining a career and amassing a catalogue of work that stands the test of time, one could argue that even the most promising reality talent competition winners–with a few notable exceptions–seem to run their course after just a couple years.  And perhaps that’s because the moniker in and of itself is deceptive–because truthfully, most artists’ reality involves years and years of starts and stops, ups and downs, incredible successes and seemingly insurmountable disappointments; most artists’ reality is that, despite their talent, drive, hunger, determination, and work ethic, this thing called music is a fickle, unreliable love, and there are absolutely no guarantees.

Still, with all the uncertainty the music business brings, there are rays of light, tiny vibrations that explode and shake the status quo to its core.  One such supernova is the inimitable Bettye Lavette.

Née Betty Jo Haskin in Muskegon, MI and raised in Detroit, Bettye Lavette released her first single, “My Man, He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962 at just 16 years old.  And although she definitely had the chops, was right there in the midst of all the excitement with Motown, and recorded a string of successful singles for numerous labels, Bettye’s uphill climb continued well beyond the so-called Golden Era of soul and R&B.  The 1970s saw short-lived deals with major labels like Atlantic and Epic, and in 1982 Bettye recorded an album for Motown and even appeared on Soul Train.  While she may not have been a household name as ubiquitous as some of her peers, Bettye Lavette developed a devoted following overseas and, like anyone with a clear mission and purpose, kept working.

Bettye continued to record and perform throughout the 80s and 90s, and in the early 2000s the tide finally began to turn when she released her W.C. Handy Award-winning album A Woman Like Me on the Blues Express labelA short time thereafter Bettye signed to the independent label Anti- Records, which has released projects by artists as diverse as Michael Franti + Spearhead, Mavis Staples, Kate Bush, and The Swell Season.  It was this partnership with Anti- that would bring Bettye Lavette to my ears for the first time in 2006, when her hauntingly brilliant arrangement of Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” came coursing stealthily through the speakers of my Mac iBook G4.  The opening track on I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, Bettye’s first album for Anti-, “I Do Not…” joined gems such as Joan Armatrading’s “Down to Zero,” Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” and Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” (a line from which inspired the album’s title) in a collection of songs all penned by women songwriters, reworked to suit Bettye’s voice and energy.  The album also featured tunes by Roseanne Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, all delivered with soulful conviction and reminding listeners at every turn that this was not merely an album of covers: On the contrary, Bettye Lavette is a master of interpretation, incorporating other artists’ words and works and infusing them with her entire heart such that the finished product often tells a completely different story than the original piece.  It tells her story, to be sure.

In 2007, Bettye released her follow-up album The Scene of the Crime, boasting her skillful renderings of songs written by the likes of Elton John and Willie Nelson, and one of the few songs she has ever co-written–a song called “Before the Money Came.”  She brought the audience to its feet with her searing performance of “Love Reign O’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Centre Honors.  In 2009 came Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, wherein she introduced a new generation of rock music lovers to classics by Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, and the Rolling Stones.  That same year she once again wowed the crowd, performing at President Obama’s pre-Inauguration concert with Jon Bon Jovi and others at the Lincoln Memorial.

Fueled not only by the critical acclaim her recent works have garnered from the press, the music industry, long-time fans and newer ones, but more importantly by a lifetime dedicated to song and several lifetimes’ worth of stories to tell, Bettye Lavette is hitting us with a double-dose of supreme goodness this week with the release of her new album Thankful N Thoughtful (Anti-), and her autobiography A Woman Like Me, co-authored with David Ritz (Blue Rider Press).  On the music front, Thankful brings songs like Bob Dylan’s “Everything is Broken,” The Black Keys’ “I’m Not the One,” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” to life through Bettye’s soulful voice, while the title track comes from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 album Fresh.  And her memoir, titled after the aforementioned album of the same name, promises to inspire and thrill readers as Bettye recounts her life as a singer, wife, mother, and grandmother, witness to and catalyst for the kinds of experiences and adventures no proper rock n roll story would be complete without.

Bettye sat down with to share with us just some of the jewels she’s added to her crown during her fifty year journey in the music business. You’re quoted as saying you like taking younger artists’ work and adding “age and experience” to the mix.  I have to say, when I first heard your interpretation of Sinéad O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” it stopped me in my tracks; I was in my teens when her original version came out and a fully grown woman when I came upon yours!  Where would you say your ability to infuse these songs with your own distinct energy and perspective comes from?

Bettye Lavette: That was a bit of a misquote.  This isn’t a thing that I do all the time; most of the things I do have been written by older artists.  Usually I’m about the same age as the artists that I do.  Somebody asked me about “Crazy”–usually my tunes relate to my life.  And I said, “If he’s crazy at this age and I’ve been in this business 50 years, then I’m extremely crazy!”  He said crazy, I said crazier! During your live performances you talk openly about the ups and downs you experienced early on in your career, and the disappointments you’ve had to overcome.  Was there any point along the way when you thought, ‘maybe this isn’t for me.  Maybe I need to hang this up?’

BL: Yeah, every time something went really, really wrong I quit.  I never physically made moves toward quitting, but in my heart I’d quit.  I depended a great deal upon people telling me, “Don’t quit,” but at some point I’m saying, “but I’m 50, 55, 60.”  And they kept saying don’t quit.  Some helped pay my car notes.  I was always treated well by my supporters, but the record industry didn’t do me so good. Recently there has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding an upcoming film about Nina Simone, in which Avatar star Zoë Saldana is slated to portray Ms. Simone.  And earlier this year, Aretha Franklin was quoted as stating that she would like Halle Berry to play her on the silver screen.  If I were producing a film about the life of Bettye Lavette, who would you want in the lead role?

BL: I really don’t know a lot of the young actresses.  I watch politics and old movies all day.  I don’t know who would play me young–I don’t even know who acts well enough to portray me when I was young, and I wasn’t even acting!  I know some people who could maybe play me older. What are your thoughts about shows like American Idol, X-Factor, and The Voice?


BL: I’m opposed to anyone becoming a star in 18 weeks!  I know how long it took me to have the wherewithal to stand in front of people and impress them.  I can do that now.  It doesn’t take a long time to become entertaining.  It takes a long time to become good.  You’ve got a new CD entitled Thankful N Thoughtful.  On this record, you’re tackling some pretty heavy tunes by artists such as the Black Keys, Bob Dylan, and one of my favorites, Patty Griffin.  And the title track is actually a song originally recorded by Sly and the Family Stone.  Given that your autobiography and new CD will be released within days of one another, is there a correlation between the songs on the new album and the book?  Would you say the album is like a soundtrack to the book?

BL: It just happened to come together.  I was working on the book and the CD at same time.  And we realized the book and CD were the same thing.  I was working on trying to make the album not be thematic, but it just turned into my life right before my very eyes! Let’s talk about your autobiography A Woman Like Me.  What inspired you to do the book at this time in your career?

BL: I am from Detroit, and I know all of these people from Motown and the business under different circumstances.  And I’m forever telling stories.  I’ve been in this business 50 years and I have something to say about everything.  So one day my manager Eric Gardner said, “Would you like to write a book?” He’d been my manager for 3 weeks.  The next day I did the Leno show and David Ritz came in.  I thought he was coming to meet me, but he came to write the book!  So I’d say, “I know everyone in Detroit over 50 who is Black.  I’ve seen them drunk, naked, etc.” And David Ritz would ask, “Which ones?  And where were you when this happened?” I thought it would be a series of me making these statements and him writing them down. When they sent me the finished book I told my husband, “It’s a book about me!!!” What draws you to a particular song or a particular artist’s body of work as you select tunes for your projects?

BL: Melody, first.  Sometimes I’m disappointed because I’ll fall in love with the melody and the lyrics don’t make sense.  The lyrics have to make sense for me. Who are some contemporary artists–regardless of genre–of whom you are a fan?

BL: I’m not very much of a music enthusiast; I’m more of a movies and politics enthusiast.  I see some hope and promise in some of the music that I hear now, but none that I’m a particular fan of.  They don’t put much into it.  Music isn’t what entertains me–I hate to record and rehearse, but when I’m on stage I’m having a good time and I really enjoy it.  Now I can’t think of anyone I’d go to see for an hour and a half. You were gracious enough to share some words of wisdom with me following your performance at Yoshi’s in San Francisco earlier this spring.  With such an extraordinary story of your own, what advice would you pass on to aspiring artists–and particularly those who are perhaps older than what the industry typically prefers–as they work to carve out longterm careers in this business?

BL: All I can offer is, know your craft.  And if you know how to do anything else, do it.  There are no children in this business, and getting old is not for sissies.  Think about what you’re doing and stop thinking about what you see on TV.  Everyone isn’t making the money of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, but there’s another niche you can get into.  Look at it as a real career, a real profession.  You have to study it and do it.  I wasn’t willing to try something else–I’m like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.

I had a manager–Jim Lewis, to whom the book is dedicated–tell me, “You have to learn to sing.  You may never be a star, but if you want to be a singer you’re going to have to do more than you do with this.”  He made me learn “God Bless the Child” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” for Bubbling Brown Sugar.  He made me do tunes I hated, but I had to learn to tap dance, sing jazz tunes, sing loud, sing soft.  The thing that keeps me from  having fear is that he made me learn and what I know, I know.

Get to know Bettye Lavette up close and personal.  Visit her official website,  Her new album Thankful N Thoughtful is available at music retailers and on iTunes, and her memoir A Woman Like Me will release in hardback on Sept. 27 and is also available for e-readers.  ‘Like’ her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter, and if she performs in your town, be sure you’re the first in line for tickets.

–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA, currently performing with San Francisco-based soul band Midtown Social.  Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, and follow her on Facebook and on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.

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