By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
By Drew Ailes
By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
"Everyone has been so wonderful to me," says vocalist Lavelle White. "I love all of them--and I love you, too. I haven't met you, but I love you dearly with all my heart."
Obviously, White is in a bubbly mood. And why not? In 1994, more than thirty years of struggle culminated in the release of her first album, Miss Lavelle (available on the Antone's Records imprint). Better yet, the disc has earned high praise from critics and provided the impetus for a tour that's winning White the loyalty of fans all over the country. And that's not all. "I'm getting more airplay," she notes. "I'm getting more press. I'm getting more attention from the record company. I'm getting more attention from the audiences. I'm getting more attention from my band. I'm getting more attention from everybody. It's beautiful, and I love every minute of it."
She loves traveling, too, and that's a good thing, since her already hectic schedule is due to become more harried as a result of invitations to play the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and major extravaganzas in Arizona and Florida. This activity would tire a child, which White certainly is not (although she claims to be in her fifties, other information she provides suggests that mid-sixties is more like it). Fortunately, her zeal generates enough energy to power a steel mill. "It's because the music means so much to me," she insists. "It means more to me now than it ever did before."
A resident of Houston, White says she was born in "a little county between Mississippi and Louisiana." She shuttled between cities in those states for most of her youth, and by the time she was old enough to stand upright, she was singing regularly at her neighborhood house of worship. Shortly after she turned twelve, White--then living in Mississippi--made her recorded debut: "I sang `Precious Lord'--you know, `Precious Lord, take my hand and lead me on.' They did it the way they used to do things back then. A man came into the church with a little old recorder and a microphone."
But even as she crooned these songs of praise, White was developing a deep fondness for the R&B that flourished in the Deep South throughout the Forties. Many church leaders from the period decried the blues and its offshoots, particularly when sexually provocative material was mingled with gospel structures. White, however, never believed she was sinning by loving both the sacred and the profane.
"All the blues and jazz people come from a church base," she says. "And even today, I get down on my knees and pray to God to take care of us all. I think that if you can trust in God through everything you do, you won't do too bad. We all do little things in life that are wrong--none of us are perfect, and we all are going to do something in life to offend God. But we've got to pray and ask His forgiveness. This is the way I live. I don't do any really bad things. I've always tried to live a good, clean life."
White's pastor probably would have disputed this claim had he known that she was already fronting blues bands and frequenting roadhouses by the time she was in her early teens. She was living in Houston by then, and while she never became a big star on the scene, she began to circulate among those performers who were. Perhaps her most prominent supporter was blues shouter Johnny Copeland, who took the twentysomething White under his wing during the mid-Fifties. Copeland eventually introduced her to Don Robey, the man behind the Duke/Peacock label that B.B. King, Junior Parker and Bobby "Blue" Bland called home. Robey subsequently signed White to a contract; in short order, she got to perform on traveling R&B revues alongside artists such as James Brown, the Drifters and the Isley Brothers. But White cut only a handful of singles for Duke during a tenure that stretched from 1958 to 1964. Moreover, she never got credit for penning "Lead Me On," a hit for Bland; she sold the rights to Robey, who put his own pen name on it.
Three decades down the line, White still gets her back up at the mention of Robey. "He never gave me the opportunities," she claims. "I wasn't as well-respected as the other lady artists he had. That's why I felt like I would have been farther along if I had been with another company." She takes great satisfaction in adding that the liner notes of Miss Lavelle list her as the composer of "Lead Me On."
When Robey allowed her contract to lapse, White was on her own again. But she never stopped singing, in spite of a litany of disappointments. "I couldn't get anybody to listen to what I was doing," she says. "All the people from the record companies, they said, `We don't want her, we don't need her, we won't put out her records.' They turned their backs on me and were always very nasty to me--very nasty. They acted like I was an outcast.