DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
When you hear Bettye Lavette sing, chances are you won't forget her.
Ms. BETTYE LaVETTE (R&B Singer): (Singing) So I'm walking through the desert, and I'm not scared, although it's so hot. I have everything that I've requested, and I do not want what I have not got.
ELLIOTT: Nevertheless, for nearly 40 years she was forgotten by the music industry. If you wanted to hear Bettye Lavette you had to track down her few recordings or find her in a club.
She grew up in the same Detroit neighborhood as Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and Aretha Franklin. But she didn't make it to the heights that they did. After a Top Ten R&B hit in 1962, her follow-up singles failed and she bounced from record label to record label, never quite breaking through to stardom.
But she kept singing and fine-tuning her craft. Today she lives in West Orange, New Jersey, and she's riding a long-awaited wave of publicity and critical acclaim for her new album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise.
Bettye LaVette joins us from member station WBGO in Newark. Welcome to the program.
Ms. LaVETTE: Hi, Debbie, how are you?
ELLIOTT: I'm good, thank you for joining us.
Ms. LaVETTE: Thanks for having me, baby.
ELLIOTT: So one of the songs on your new album was originally a Lucinda Williams record, Joy.
(Soundbite of song Joy)
Ms. LaVETTE: (Singing) Joy, oh my joy.
ELLIOTT: I want you to tell us what you did with that song.
Ms. LaVETTE: Oh, baby, what kind of question is that, what I did with it?
ELLIOTT: You made it yours, you know.
Ms. LaVETTE: Well that would be what I would have to do, I mean if you found yourself with a new lover, would you want to act exactly the way his old lover did?
ELLIOTT: Certainly not.
Ms. LaVETTE: You know, it's the exact same thing. It wasn't making it mine, it, I'm a singer and that's the way I sing. It would have been virtually impossible for me to repeat Lucinda's rendition of it or make up a rendition that wasn't mine. That was the way I heard it and I was telling everyone when we first started working on it, I said, it's a shame, I would have to make the recording at least twice as long if I added all the places she went, which I also went, along with the ones that I did.
(Soundbite of song Joy)
Ms. LaVETTE: (Singing) Find joy. When I wake up (unintelligible) I was looking for my joy, went to New York and I was looking for my joy. Maybe in the apple I could find joy. Maybe in the apple I could find joy. Oh, my joy.
ELLIOTT: So you've been a lot of places. You've been to Memphis, you've been to Muscle Shoals, you started in Detroit. Did you ever find joy or even get close in some of those places?
Ms. LaVETTE: Well, you do listen to it to the end, don't you, Debbie? It says so I went to West Orange.
ELLIOTT: And that's your joy.
Ms. LaVETTE: And it just happens that everything not came together because I came to West Orange, but it was almost like a completely new life. My music director of thirty years had just passed away. I had all new people around me from beginning to end. It was really like stepping into a new phase. When people say a comeback, I've never been allowed to be this successful before. And all of my schoolmates and neighbors, of course, you know, being from Detroit in 1962, my schoolmates and neighbors were more varied than most people. It's not quite like being from Peoria, Illinois or something.
ELLIOTT: So music was a big part of your growing up, I take it?
Ms. LaVETTE: Oh, for sure, and then my family. I probably am the only black performer not to come out of church in my lifetime, in my upbringing. My family was a party house in 1946 in Muskegon, Michigan.
ELLIOTT: Oh, yeah?
Ms. LaVETTE: So they sold the corn liquor, they had the jukebox in the living room instead of the sofa, and I sat on top of the jukebox or stood on top of it and sung the songs along with them and people gave me quarters and my mother fried chicken and made barbecue and sold sandwiches and my father sold the corn liquor. They didn't have any gambling. They just danced and drank and ate.
ELLIOTT: So when did you make your first record? Didn't I see you were something like 16 years old and you started singing the blues?
Ms. LaVETTE: Yes, I was, and I was very embarrassed because this was the time of the Shirelles. I think Dionne Warwick's first record had just come out. They all sounded like girls. And I didn't think I sounded pretty, like them. And the people who were believing in me at the time, as are the ones now, the thing they liked about me was that I didn't sound like that, but as a young girl, I didn't want a record called My Man, and working in night clubs when all of my friends were on American Bandstand and doing festivals and sock hops and, it was a long time before I realized the uniqueness of my voice and accepted it.
(Soundbite of song My Man, He's a Loving Man)
Ms. LaVETTE: (Singing) My man, he's a whole lotta man. My man, he's a whole lotta man. Friends try to tell him to do wrong things. He let's them know that he's a one-woman man. My man, he's a lovin' man.
ELLIOTT: Now early in your career, you did have a manager who was really, really pushing you to fine-tune your voice. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Ms. LaVETTE: Yes, his name was Jim Lewis, and he was a trombone player, and he had worked in the 40s and early 50s with the Jimmy Lunsford Band and kind of a side man, you know, if something happened with one of the trombone players he would sit in. But just being there, that was the music he was from and he was like, these darn records aren't ever gonna sell, he really didn't think. Of course he was from the generation before me, so he thought nothing of my music. He said, this mess isn't gonna sell. Now mind you, I had a record selling and he's telling me this. You better learn how to sing some real songs so you can be a real singer and work when all of this B.S. falls apart.
ELLIOTT: And you're thinking, I am a singer, what are you talking about?
Ms. LaVETTE: I'm thinking, I am a star, what are you talking about? But I look now when I hear them talk about these little children and they're like the next Sarah Vaughan and the next Aretha Franklin and just stifling their growth, really stifling.
If you think tonight, if you've only been singing a year and you think tonight you're Aretha Franklin, what is there for you to learn? But Jim never allowed me to think that I was any of those, any of the people. Well, certainly Aretha Franklin was a contemporary, so he wasn't even talking about her.
But he was talking about the Sarah Vaughans and the Billy Ecksteins and the Billie Holidays and he was, when you are their age will you still be singing? And he worked on that. It makes me rest good at night to know that unlike, well, I'll call names, unlike probably a Beyonce or Alicia Keyes or any of the young people, I know that I could go in a little danky place, if all of this falls apart, if everything falls apart, I can go into a little danky place, sit down next to a keyboard player, and I can sing Lush Life for twenty dollars a night.
ELLIOTT: Now on this latest album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, you're singing ten different songs that are all written by women and not one of them is exactly known for rhythm and blues, right?
Ms. LaVETTE: Right, but they are now because they're being sung by a rhythm and blues artist. At one point they were just words on a piece of paper. If Red Foley had done them they would have been country gospel. If Roy Rogers had done them they'd have been cowboy. If Dolly Parton, when she did it, it was bluegrass. I'm a rhythm and blues singer, and whatever it is I sing, it's rhythm and blues because it's coming out of my mouth.
ELLIOTT: Let's listen a little bit now to the difference in your song and let's say Dolly Parton's version of Little Sparrow, which is on this album.
(Soundbite of Little Sparrow as sung by Dolly Parton)
Ms. DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Little sparrow, little sparrow
Precious, fragile little thing
Little sparrow, little sparrow
Fly so high and feels no pain
ELLIOTT: That was Dolly Parton, now let's listen to you're version of Little Sparrow
(Soundbite of Little Sparrow as sung by Bettye LaVette)
Ms. LaVETTE: (Singing) All my sisters, you better listen to me
Never trust the heart of a man
Till you hear it crush you just like a sparrow
Love so bad you never mend
ELLIOTT: Now that's different.
Ms. LaVETTE: But look at how different I am from her. Although I used to wear the same hair and makeup.
ELLIOTT: You had big hair?
Ms. LaVETTE: Well, everybody had big hair in the Sixties, and the more wigs you could buy and the taller you could make them, the better. But no, really, I just think it's a great song and the time I heard it, I heard it just the way I sung it. That's what I heard when I heard it.
ELLIOTT: So how do you describe the difference between what you do and what she does with the song?
Ms. LaVETTE: It's just harder and more grabbing you in your collar. You know, she sings very birdlike and I sing very aggressive.
Ms. LaVETTE: (Singing) Oh, oh sparrow.
Ms. LaVETTE: It's so funny. A thought just came into mind, I'll be doing B.B. King's, gosh, maybe I shouldn't have even started the story because now I can't even think of the young lady's name. Marcia Ball. And they have our pictures next to each other in the advertisement. And she's sitting so demurely at this piano and she just looks gorgeous and my picture is right next to her and it looks like I'm trying to bite you. Just come out of the picture and bite you.
ELLIOTT: You're biting us now, you're tired of waiting for that big break to come and you're just gonna bite off you're little piece of stardom, huh?
Ms. LaVETTE: There you go.
ELLIOTT: Now, let's talk a little bit about your history. You cut this album with Atlantic Records in 1972. And then the company decided to shelve it. And you took that pretty hard, I take it.
Ms. LaVETTE: Oh, honey, and they took it so casually. They just called and said, Send back all these plane tickets we just sent you to go on this promotion tour, that's how close we were. And we decided not to go forward with the project. I said, Oh. Honey, I got under the dining room table and I stayed there two or three days. Me and a jug of wine. I just came out and went to the restroom. My mother was bending under there constantly saying, why don't you eat something and stop crying and drinking this wine.
ELLIOTT: Did they give you any reason?
Ms. LaVETTE: You know, they haven't, but since I've been able to get around here recently, I figured that if I keep going to awards, dinners and whatever, I might run into Ahmet Ertegun and I'm gonna say, Why?
ELLIOTT: Ahmet Ertegun was head of Atlantic Records back then.
Ms. LaVETTE: Yes.
ELLIOTT: What made you finally come out from under the table and put away the jug of win?
Ms. LaVETTE: Oh, honey, somebody called with something else. That's all it has ever taken to get me out of my depression, just put it in a song and go on.
ELLIOTT: Bettye LaVette is currently celebrating her 60th birthday and her latest album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. And as she's done for four decades now, she's still raising hell on the concert circuit.
Bettye LaVette, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
Ms. LaVETTE: Thank you, Debbie, so much for having me.
(Soundbite of I've Got My Own Hell to Raise sung by Bettye LaVette)
Ms. LaVETTE: It's mine, this body, this voice, cannot be stifled by your deviant ways
So don't you come here with that, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
ELLIOTT: To hear more from Bettye LaVette, go to our website, npr.org. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News, I'm Debbie Elliot.