THE GREAT WHITE WAY
"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.
"That didn't make me angry, though. It just made me say, `I'll let you see who I am. I'll let you see what you're missing.' And I did."
It wasn't easy. White continued to appear at clubs throughout Texas for many years, but she increasingly found herself being taken for granted by area patrons--as if she were just part of the scenery. She eventually relocated to Chicago and served as the house singer at Kingston Mines, one of the city's more prominent blues clubs, from 1978 to 1987. In the midst of that span, she saw her song "Stop These Teardrops" included on Lou Ann Barton's highly regarded Old Enough platter (released in 1982) and toured Europe with Larry Davis. Still, she never achieved the popular breakthrough she'd been seeking for as long as she could remember. By the late Eighties, she was back in Texas and her career was back at square one.
The situation began to turn around after Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli recorded White's "Gonna Make It" for the disc Dreams Come True. The strength of the tune turned the head of Clifford Antone, owner of Antone's--among Austin's most famous nightclubs--and the record label it spawned. He promised White that he would eventually give her a shot at making an album, then dragged his feet for three years. She was ready to give up on this pledge and approach other blues labels again when, as she tells it, "he called me up and said, `Did you get that contract?' And I said, `What contract? There's no contract here for me.' But I found out they'd been holding it for me at the post office for a week. And when I got it, I jumped for joy, saying, `Look at this, look at this. I'm going to record again.'"
Antone put White in the studio with some of Austin's finest musicians, including guitarists Clarence Hollimon and Derek O'Brien and saxophonist Kaz Kazanoff. With these players at her side, White ran through some of her best-remembered work, including "Lead Me On" and "Stop These Teardrops," plus an array of other material that skips gracefully across the surfaces of soul, R&B and blues. "I did some blues, because I know Clifford loves the blues," White confides. "But I'm not a blues singer. I do pop, I do jazz, I do blues, I do funk. I do all that. No pigeonholes for me."
True enough, Miss Lavelle is an eclectic offering, but it's one that's held together by a sophisticated, supper-club mood and White's smooth, confident delivery. The disc is so good, in fact, that it will leave many listeners cursing White's previous bad luck. Who knows how many terrific recordings she would have turned out had she been given the chance?
Of course, White's not losing a lot of sleep mulling over such possibilities. She's too busy capitalizing on the one that's finally come her way. She's received tremendous receptions wherever she's gone, and she's hoping for more of the same.
"I'm so happy to be coming to Colorado," she enthuses. "I can't wait to get there. And I want to tell you and everybody else there that I want you to come out and be with us. Because I love you."
Lavelle White, with Lannie Garrett. 9 p.m. Tuesday, February 14. Brendan's Pub, 1624 Market Street, $5, 595-0609.
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