Bettye LaVette's Journey To The National Stage If you've never heard of Bettye LaVette, the soul singer who belted out "A Change Is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi at the Inauguration Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan 18., you may be wondering why.

Bettye LaVette's Journey To The National Stage

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. During last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the most stirring performances was given by one of the day's least well-known performers.

(Soundbite of song "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little bitty ol' tent Lord, just like the river I've been running ever since It's been a long, long, a long time coming But I always believe that a change was gonna come...

DAVIES: That's Bettye LaVette singing the Sam Cooke song "A Change is Gonna Come" which he wrote 45 years ago, a year before his death in 1964. "A Change is Gonna Come" became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and captured the emotions many Americans felt this week as the country's first African-American president was inaugurated. Yesterday, by the way, would've been Sam Cooke's 78th birthday. But if you've never heard of Bettye LaVette and are wondering why, there's a story behind that. After a promising start in the early 60s when she had a couple of singles that became R&B hits, things just didn't work out for her. The 1972 album she recorded for Atlantic that was supposed to be her breakthrough wasn't released until 2000 when a French producer licensed it from Atlantic and started her comeback. Joe Henry produced an album by her in 2005. Her most recent recording is "The Scene of the Crime." Like her 1972 disk, it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Terry spoke with Bettye Lavette last year. Let's start with a song from "The Scene of the Crime" written by Willie Nelson. It's called "Somebody Pick up my Pieces."

(Soundbite of song "Somebody Pick up my Pieces")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I want to be taken out of contention. I surrender my crown. Somebody pick up my pieces. I think I'm coming down. Well, I sure thought I had it. But Lord it looks like it had me. 'Cause the thing I thought was heaven was just falling debris. I may not be crazy but I sure got a hell of a start. Somebody come here and pick up my pieces. I think I'm falling apart. But don't follow my footsteps...

TERRY GROSS: Bettye Lavette, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, what kind of places were using before starting your comeback in 2005?

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE (R&B Singer): Well, it wasn't a lot of places. I was in Detroit and I was working in little biddy places for $50 a night. And people where drunk or busy talking or dancing or whatever and I (laughing) was just around. But I wasn't doing any traveling much at all, just maybe, you know, the faithfuls in Europe who kept having me back there trying to keep me alive just from a love affair that started with me in 1965 over there. But that wasn't really working a lot at all. It was more - people paying house notes and car notes and whatever for me than me being able to do anything.

GROSS: So, people were helping you with your own bills?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Were you angry at your lack of recognition?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, for sure. It's not such much anger but hurt because it's, you know, it's just being completely ignored. It's not like selling Fuller brushes or something, you - it's you you're selling. So, when they don't buy it, they're saying, we don't like you. So, it's not my product. We don't like you. So, I - it was very hurtful, very, very painful, if it wasn't for the people who were propping me up.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, as you mentioned before, you grew up in Detroit. When did you start singing?

Ms. LAVETTE: My parents sold corn liquor from the time they came from Louisiana to Muskegon, Michigan where I was born until about maybe 1958. And there was always a juke box in our living room as opposed to a couch and stuff that are (laughing) in most people's living rooms. And so I have - I was privy to a whole gang of songs. So, I sung as soon as I could talk. My mother said I've always talked and sung like an adult. She said she used to talk baby talk to me to try to make me sound like a baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVETTE: But I pretty much always sounded like James Brown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's really funny. So what were the parties like when your parents sold the corn liquor and had to do that...

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, they weren't really parties. I meant you know, there was no gambling or prostitution or any of that. People just come and dance and drink for awhile. My mother, you know, Louisiana are strictly alcohol and food. So, my mother always had the food going. My father had the corn liquor going, and they would stand me sometimes on top of the juke box and I could sing along with the songs, blues songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were they songs with meanings that you couldn't quite comprehend yet?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I didn't know anything about them at all. I mean, I was 18 months old when, I think when I first started...


Ms. LAVETTE: Started singing out, first started talking about that point. But there were people - because it was segregation still. So, if you came to a little town like Muskegon and you were black, you couldn't drop by a restaurant or a bar anytime you wanted to, so they came to my house. So, I had the Five Blind Boys and the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soulsters and all those people at my house.

HANSEN: Wow, so what were - you mentioned some of the musicians who used to come to your house to eat and drink. What was some of the other music you were exposed to earlier on?

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, there was - you know, the gospel music because they would - when they would get drunk they would sing, there at the house, the groups that came, but I don't remember - because it was more of a - it was more conservative. They weren't a lot of people who sung secular music, who sang blues music or whenever they came to my house because there was this - always this drunk prayer-type thing going (laughing). So, we didn't have like, you know, there were no sermons or those kind of people. But of course, they were on the jukebox. And we listened to them, but the people who actually came to the house were chiefly gospel singers.

GROSS: Now I'd like to go back to 1962. I believe this is the year you started recording.

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: And you had - I believe it was your first record that became a hit on the R&B chart.

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: "My Man is a Loving Man" that was like your first 45, right?

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: OK, so how did - you were what, 17 when you made this?

Ms. LAVETTE: Sixteen.

GROSS: Sixteen, how did you get to record so young?

Ms. LAVETTE: It was - in Detroit that wasn't a difficult thing to do, maybe getting on the Atlantic record label right away was something phenomenal. But in Detroit every third person either song produced or wrote or at a record company. So, it wasn't - it wasn't difficult at all in Detroit in 1962 to record.

GROSS: Who...

Ms. LAVETTE: All you got to do is show up.

GROSS: Who asked you to do it?

Ms. LAVETTE: A young man who's name was Timmy Shaw(ph) who was a local artist, original artist more or less and none of his records that had ever been really big. And it wasn't the thing where he wanted me to sing. He was trying to cajole me into something else but he said, I can make you a star, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. LAVETTE: So, he introduced me to his manager and produce for Johnnie Mae Matthews who was one of the first female producers probably in the world and certainly the only black one. And she was producing him and everybody, she had everybody that Berry Gordy had at one time but she was just such a crooked woman, she lost them all.

GROSS: So, you got the R&B hit. Did he get you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The guy who is using this as an excuse.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, I became a National Artist. So, that took me out of town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right. OK. So, you just gave this clutches.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So, let's hear it. This is like your first hit, an R&B hit from 1962. And this is Bettye LaVette.

(Soundbite of song "My Man, He's a Loving Man")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) My man. (your man, your man) You know, it's really all right, (your man) My man, (your man, your man) He always treats me right, (your man, your man) Never run the street and leave me alone. So glad this place is right here at home. My man, (your man, your man, your man) Well, he's a loving man, (your man, your man, your man) People will talk until they break up your homes. And they'll try to tell you.

GROSS: That's "My Man, He's a Loving Man," Bettye LaVette, recorded in 1962. Bettye, it sounds so low-tech. Describe what the recording session was like.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, it took about an hour. It cost about a 100 maybe dollars, a hundred and maybe twenty dollars. And that was mostly in drinks for the musicians. The guitar player, I can't even think of the boy's last name right now. But he was only about - he was younger than me. And they actually snuck him out of his bedroom window to come to the recording session.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's great.

Ms. LAVETTE: I mean, it was just the most amazing thing in the world. It was just amazing. I was making a record.

(Lauging) It was amazing. And then when they played it on the radio, five days later (laughing) because you could just press it up and walk right into the radio station and say, here play this. And slip somebody $50 or $10 or whatever it was. And so when I heard it on the radio five days later, I just went - ran down the streets screaming. I mean, nobody else in my eighth grade class had a record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Eighth grade.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well I was about- I should have been about in the 9th grade, I guess ninth or 10th grade.

GROSS: So, so...

Ms. LAVETTE: But I wasn't, I was recording.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What changed in your life immediately after the record started getting airplay?

Ms. LAVETTE: Nobody in my family had ever been anywhere or done anything or had anything. No one had ever had any education, any money, had never traveled, nothing. And all those people who on that red and black label that we - that I had seen so many years on the juke box in my house and - that I had danced so much after school to, I was on the road with them in like a matter of days.

GROSS: Like who?

Ms. LAVETTE: Clyde McFadder, Ben E. King.

GROSS: The Drifters?

Ms. LAVETTE: No - it was later before I worked with The Drifters. But - Otis Redding. We were all, you know, because you tended to - companies tended to send a whole group of their artists around then. So, all those people were on either Atlantic or one of this city hertz(ph). And I guess Otis Redding and I were the brokest people there. He had the same little shoes and suit and every night. And I had my two little gowns that I had. (Laughing) But everybody else, you know - I mean Ben E. King had gotten be with The Drifters. Clyde McFadder gotten be with The Drifters. Clarence Frogman Henry who - it was his very first big record but it was bigger than mine and Otis. And Barbara Lynn, it was her first big record, but she had been singing for a while. But I think the brokest people probably were me and Otis. So that caused us to spend a lot of time together because we weren't the big stars.

GROSS: What was he like? What was it like to know him?

Ms. LAVETTE: He was the most wonderful person in the world. And when people say that, they're talking about the Otis Redding they know now. I don't know what he would be like now or I don't know what he would be like as a legend. But then, he was just a broke guy from Georgia (laughing) who I didn't find very sophisticated and who loved me very much, but I was from Detroit and blacks at the time, felt that if they were raised, born and raised in the North were a little bit better than blacks who are born and raised in the South. So, he just chased me around a lot and I really kind of thought of him as just maybe one of the other guys who liked me. Had I known he was going to be Otis Redding, I probably would have acted a little better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you think of his singing then?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I just thought he was one of the greatest singers I've ever heard in my life and still do. He - all the things that I thought about him that I thought would make him a great suitor, when he was on that stage, he looked different. He was just a totally different person on the stage.

DAVIES: Singer Bettye LaVette speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2007 with Bettye LaVette who sang at last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

GROSS: In 1972, you recorded an album that was never released until 2005.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: And this is, you know, a kind of famous album now. And...

Ms. LAVETTE: It's more infamous than...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: More infamous, thank you. Yeah. It was supposed to be released by Atlantic Records. It was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama but it was never released. It just lay in the Atlantic vault until a French producer licensed it from Atlantic and released it in 2000. It was initially supposed to be called "Child of the '70s." What were you expecting the outcome of this album to be?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I really thought that - I had everything that all the components that I thought would work. I had recorded it on Muscle Shoals where all the hits were coming from. I have Wilson Pickett as producer, Brad Shapiro. It was on an Atlantic label. I just get had everything that was supposed to happen. And then it didn't, so all the thoughts right after that were suicidal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What did they tell you when they didn't release it?

Ms. LAVETTE: They said, send the tickets back. We've decided not to go forward with the project. Those were their exact words.

GROSS: That you know...

Ms. LAVETTE: I don't even know who it was that call me.

GROSS: But you had already finished recording it. Hadn't you?

Ms. LAVETTE: It was - I have the plane tickets to go on the road to promote it.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Ms. LAVETTE: They had already done everything.

GROSS: Oh, well. I was thinking we could hear "Your Turn to Cry." You want to say anything about the song. Why it was chosen?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I just chose to hear again because I liked it. But it was - I thought that it sounded - up to that date better than anything I had ever recorded. And I was just completely confused as to why I said, I kept comparing it to everything else that was out. And everything was just beginning to go stereo too. So, when all the new stereo albums started coming out then it really didn't sound very good to me. And I kept trying to show my - see myself why they wouldn't do it. And then over the years, I completely convinced myself that they just - it wasn't good.

GROSS: You were convinced that it wasn't good.

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: OK, let's just prove that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And play "Your Turn to Cry." And this is from the 1972 Atlantic album that was never released until it was licensed by a French producer in 2000. And the French release is called "Souvenirs." The subsequent American release of the album is called "Child of the '70s."

(Soundbite of song, "Your Turn to Cry")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I gave you all of my love. But you treated me like a fool I even gave up a right for wrong Trying, trying to get along with you When I wanted to hold you close You are always too tired Well, you have some place to go? Listen, babe Walking out that door Telling you goodbye I can't take it no more It's your time to cry Oh, it's your time to cry Oh, I tried staying with you Because of….

GROSS: That's Bettye LaVette recorded in 1972 and the song - the album that this song was recorded for has been subsequently released (laughing) just a few years ago under the name "Child of the 70s."

Ms. LAVETTE: See, you and your audience are going to be as confused as I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What were the other - yeah, go ahead.

Ms. LAVETTE: And all of these happened 30 and 40 years ago, so I did just remember it all is just daunting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, the funny thing is, is that now you're being praised for the stuff that nobody wanted to even release...

Ms. LAVETTE: Yeah.

GORSS: You know, 35 years ago.

Ms. LAVETTE: Yeah.

GROSS: That must be kind of confusing?

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, it's, you know, to have all of these energy happening to you at 61 years old is - it is consuming, you know, it's taking virtually everything every bit of energy that I have and everything that I have ever learned. But I'm glad that I have a lot of energy left and then I learned so doggone much because it's all coming in handy now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your new CD is called the "The Scene of the Crime," and the crime that you are referring to in "The Scene of the Crime" is the fact that after recording this album, it was never released.

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: It just sat in the Atlantic vaults until 2000.

Ms. LAVETTE: They didn't even know they had it.

GROSS: They didn't know they had it…

Ms. LAVETTE: They didn't even know they had it. That they thought that it had been lost in a fire and Gilles Petard came to New York and asked them could he search for it physically and he did.

GROSS: He's the French producer who actually released…


GROSS: It in 2000.

Ms. LAVETTE: Yes, yes, he was been...

GROSS: So...

Ms. LAVETTE: Friends with me for almost 30 years. The first 15 or 20 years that we knew each other, it was pretty through correspondence. It was a long time before I met him. He got me a gig in Paris and I thought I get a chance to meet him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, he actually had to physically search through the archives of Atlantic to find it?

Ms. LAVETTE: I had a reel-to-reel copy of it. A friend at a studio here in New York, stereorized my mono reel-to-reel version of it, and I let Gilles Petard hear it. He said I've got to find, this has got to come out. It's just got to come out (laughing) and he…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to, you know, congratulate you on the success that you're having now.

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, thank you, baby.

GROSS: And, yeah, long time coming very well deserved and…

Ms. LAVETTE: Absolutely.

GROSS: Thank you again, Bettye LaVette for being with us.

Ms. LAVETTE: Thank you, Terry, for having me.

DAVIES: Singer Bettye LaVette speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. Her most recent CD is called "The Scene of the Crime." She gave a memorable performance at last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. HBO will be rebroadcasting that concert this weekend.

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