Q&A with Bettye LaVette

It’s one thing to record an album that you hope is going to take you places. It’s another thing to have that record shelved and not see the light of day until thirty years later. In this extended Q&A, Bettye LaVette talks about going back to Muscle Shoals and working with the Drive-By Truckers, how she came to accept the uniqueness of her voice and how it feels to finally get some long overdue recognition.

Westword (Jon Solomon): How was getting back to Muscle Shoals, literally back to the scene of the crime?

Bettye LaVette: It was one incident. It was actually one incident that did not work, so it wasn’t like getting back, it was almost like I had never been there. It was very good for it to be called The Scene of the Crime, because that was indeed where I recorded in 1972, and the album was just released recently. It wasn’t a place that I spent a lot of time; it was just one of the most significant things that has happened in my 47 year career, happened to happen in Muscle Shoals. And that was that the album did not come out, not that it came out and was a big success.

WW: What’s your take on the whole Muscle Shoals thing, and what it is about the place that draws people down there to record?

BL: I’m not really certain. I really try to do the same job wherever I go. My stuff was not as big as everybody else’s. I really don’t have as good a view on that as Wilson Pickett or Aretha Franklin. Whatever the vibe down there it didn’t work for me. They are some hard working musicians who turn themselves over completely to you and help you develop your ideas. I’ve never worked with a more cooperative group of people than the Muscle Shoals, Memphis and Nashville musicians. They are like totally devoted to the music.

WW: With Scene of the Crime, after deciding the songs that you wanted to record, what’s the process of kind of making those songs your own?

BL: Well, that’s probably one of the easiest things to do because I’m my own, and I don’t sound like anybody else. I couldn’t very well sound like George Jones. I actually had no choice but to sound like me to make them my own. I think that maybe when you’re younger, you might think a deliberate effort to sound like other people, but at this point, when I sing, it is my own, whatever it is. I’m too old for it to be anybody else’s.

WW: And then as far the arrangements got, how did you go about getting the particular vibes of the tunes?

BL: That was where the Truckers came in. We don’t do the same kind of music. I wasn’t going to do the kind of music they do. They were gracious enough to listen to what I was singing because if you listen to me sing, I can do all of my songs a cappella. And if you listen to me sing, you’ll see exactly which way I want you to go musically. Of course, they didn’t just listen to me and pull it all together, but they got their direction from the way that I was singing the song. It was completely different than what they normally play, so they really made a lot of adjustments for me. But as I said, I’m old, and I wasn’t willing to make any adjustments. So I was just grateful that they were willing to adjust for me, and they did.

WW: I was reading about how, early on, your manager wanted you to take vocal lessons, and it sounded like you didn’t want to.

BL: Aw, no, honey, I thought I was the star. I didn’t need no lessons of no kind. It’s just like -- well, I wasn’t as big –- but if you took one of these little stars today who’s making $50 to $60,000 a night and tell them, “You need to go and take some classes, and learn how to walk and talk,” they’d cuss you out.

And that was what I wanted to do with Jim. I was like, “He just wants me to do that because he’s old.” If hadn’t had done that I would not be the kind of performer I am today. My show is the same way, whether you know about me or you don’t -- or rather I have a record selling or I don’t -- I’ve learned to be a very good entertainer, and I’ve been working on that alone.

WW: What do you think the key to being a good entertainer is?

BL: You’ve got to work on it. You have to really turn yourself over to the show, every part of you. It’s a different thing than having a hit record. And when you hit the stage, everybody knows who you are, and they’ve already bought your record, you’ve already been on videos. If you walk out there and nobody knows who the hell you are, and you’ve got to hold their attention, you better learn how to do something.

WW: I bet it makes work a little harder too?

BL: It’s completely different than if you walk on the stage and everybody already knows you, and already knows all the words to all you songs. You walk out there and everybody’s like “Who?”

WW: How does it feel getting more recognition in the last few years?

BL: Oh, I feel relieved. I thought I was gonna die old and obscure and broke. But things have certainly changed in these last five years. I’ve won the WC Handy Award, I’ve been nominated for a Grammy. I just won a blues award last week. I’m finally getting some kind of recognition, and I’m more relieved than anything else, because I was frightened.

WW: I think I was reading somewhere that you patterned yourself after Little Willie John, Bobby Bland and James Brown, and some of those cats.

BL: You have never ever heard or read anywhere that I patterned myself after anyone. Those were the people I listened to when I was young. My very first recording came out when I was sixteen-years-old. So hadn’t had a chance to have a history of listening to anyone, so I really was almost made from an old cloth.

Everything that I had heard up until then, of course, had made a big impression of me vocally because, up until then, I had never sung before. I’m sure there were elements of all those people that you named. Mostly, it’s always me. It’s the guys who were singing just before I started singing -- Willie John, Bobby Bland, Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke -- all those people were favorites of mine, the Drifters, Ben E. King. To have had record at sixteen-years-old and immediately go on the road with these guys, I was just a singing groupie on the road.

WW: You’ve said it took you a long time before you realized the uniqueness of your voice.

BL: It took me a long time to realize the uniqueness of it, and to realize what to do with it, because I wanted, as a young person, to sound like whoever was popular. I didn’t want to sound like me. I wasn’t popular. I wanted to sound like what was selling. So I didn’t like the way I sounded, and my records weren’t selling, so I was sure there was something wrong with me. I just turned myself over to my voice, and just said, “Here, this is the way I feel about the song. I have no control over how it’s going to sound. This is how I feel about it, and I just open my mouth and whatever comes out, that’s the way I sound with that feeling." I no longer look for it to be it pretty. Sometimes it’s supposed to be ugly.

WW: How old you were when you really accepted you voice and started to go with it?

BL: Oh my god, I was thirty. It really took a very long time for me because I kept chasing something else I had no control over. But I was learning all the time, and that was the good thing. I was learning all the time, but I wasn’t doing it deliberately. I was just learning by virtue of being around, and being around the right places, and having been sent in the right direction. But it was at least until I was thirty before I decided to deliberately look at what I was doing and figure out a way that only Bettye could do it.

WW: So, are you still raising hell?

BL: Oh, absolutely.

WW: On the other side of things, what is heaven for you?

BL: Listening to my pond with the water dripping over falls. That’s heaven for me right now. I’m very glad, since I have to work, that I’m doing a job that I’m proficient at and that is fun to do when I’m doing it. It isn’t what I like to do in my spare time. I don’t listen to music at all unless I have to. If you were talking to my husband, you would hear five people singing. He is the music enthusiast. I really am not. I listen to music when I have to listen to it. If I have to learn something -- we’re going to record probably at the end of next year -- I’ll probably start listening to songs in maybe January. But until then, nope.

WW: You’re husband helps you pick out the tunes, right?

BL: He’s been listening to a million tunes. Every year that we’re married, he knows me better. So I listen to less and less, because he can narrow it down to, say, twenty tunes that maybe I’ll like three of, but he likes all twenty of them. He absolutely loves music with more purity than anybody I’ve ever seen, maybe next to Stevie Wonder. He absolutely adores music. When his eyes open in the morning, if he doesn’t do anything but just hum a little melody. Knowing how much he loves music that only solidifies how much he loves me.

-- Jon Solomon

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