Singer Bettye LaVette Brings More Than 50 Years Of Rhythm And Blues To St. Louis Show
Bettye LaVette seemed to be on the fast track to stardom in 1963, when at 17 she scored an R&B hit with the song “My Man — He’s A Lovin’ Man” on Atlantic Records.
But her successes — including the disco hit “Doin’ The Best That I Can” and six years performing on Broadway in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” in the 1980s — were interspersed with long periods of professional frustration.
She finally achieved sustained success with a string of well-received albums beginning in 2003. She gave herself a boost with a stirring rendition of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” on a national television broadcast in 2008, which led to her album of interpretations of British classic rock songs.
LaVette is now recognized as one of the great American vocalists and song interpreters. Her 2020 album “Blackbirds” highlights songs first popularized by other Black women.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with LaVette about “Blackbirds,” her complicated relationship with the classic rock music played on white-run radio stations and her successful effort to show peers who may have overlooked her, and the next generation of performers, just how talented she is.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: Many of your albums have a unifying concept. What’s the case with “Blackbirds”?
Bettye LaVette: It’s an homage to the bridge that I came across on.
And I think that the young ladies today kind of think that either this rhythm and blues thing was created by osmosis, or they created it. But I’m the bridge that they’re coming across on. And these ladies [whose songs are on the album] are the bridge that I came across on.
Goodwin: When I listen to a Bettye LaVette album, it’s like you are telling your own stories and speaking your own mind, you just happen to be using words that somebody else wrote down first.
LaVette: Oh absolutely. And I think that’s what writers do. They write stories and if the story matches you, or is the one you want to tell, then you tell it.
Goodwin: What’s a song on “Blackbirds” that you particularly identify with?
LaVette: Oh, well “Blackbird.” I felt like Paul McCartney wrote it but he was talking about me.
When I sung it at the very first time, at the Hollywood Bowl — and just 10 years before that I had lived in walking distance of the Hollywood Bowl and never got a chance to come inside the gates, because I never made that much money the whole while I lived in California. And I thought, I’m standing here with this 32-string orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl on a beautiful summer evening, looking gorgeous and sounding tremendous. And all I could think was, “All of my life I’ve been waiting for this moment to arrive.”
Goodwin: How do you choose a song to interpret? When you hear something, how do you know that that’s going to work for you?
LaVette: The same way you do if you decide to buy it. It’s the same way, I just decide to sing it. But it’s the same motivation as when you hear it and say, “Oh wow, I like that” and you go and buy it. I go and sing it.
Goodwin: Do you ever start working with a song and midway through decide it’s not going to work for you?
LaVette: It’s maybe happened twice, and that was 20 years apart.
Goodwin: So you have a high average of picking winners.
LaVette: No, it’s just knowing who I want to go to bed with.
Goodwin: Do you have to seduce a song for it to work for you?
LaVette: It has to seduce me. Some of them have seduced me and kept me there for 50 and 60 years. Some of them I was madly in love with for a couple of years, maybe. I really become intimately involved with the songs I choose to sing.
Goodwin: You used to say to audiences, when you were touring the “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” album, that “these were the songs of your youth but they were the nemesis of mine.” What did you mean by that?
LaVette: Well, you call it the British Invasion. We called it the British attack. The little bit of progress that Black music was making on white stations was kind of suspended. It was quite an attack. And especially when they started attacking us with our own music, that we had not been able to get played on white stations at all.
Goodwin: So this body of work that generations of white critics, myself included over the years, have lionized as this golden period of rock music — it was crowding you off the radio?
LaVette: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
The songs were not played on Black radio. I heard some of them in passing. We recorded 10 songs, and I probably only knew two before. But I sang them with the piano, the way I wanted to sing them. And I had the good fortune of having the brilliant Rob Mathes do the arrangements for me.
The hardest thing we had to do was get the way that the records originally sounded out of the musicians’ heads. Because they’ve grown up with these tunes. I said, “Just read the notes and forget about the [original] record. I know it’ll be hard for you to do that with songs you’re madly in love with. But just listen to me.”
Goodwin: Going into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008, when Pete Townshend and Roger Daltry of the Who were being honored and you were assigned a song to sing — did you go into that event thinking it was a good way to raise your visibility?
LaVette: I knew that it had to be good. Because I knew I was where I had been trying to be for so long, on national television on a very important show. Aretha Franklin was in the fourth row, right in front of me. Right across from Aretha was Beyonce. And Barbra Streisand was sitting up there between them.
I’d wanted to let these people know that I was as good as they were for a very long time. Well, Aretha knew. But I wanted all the rest of them to know it. So I sung the song with a vengeance.
I did get a chance to see Aretha’s reaction, which was stunned. And that was good. And I got a real good “Who is that?” look on Beyonce’s face. And another one from Pete and Roger. And I had Barbra Streisand asking him, “Did you really write that song?” That was 10 years of [stuff] I took care of right there!
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin