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The word "tragic" is often to describe R&B singer Bettye LaVette—but she laughs so hard when talking about her rocky 45-year career that it's clear her setbacks have only made her tougher. As a Detroit teenager, she had a hit with 1962's "My Man—He's A Loving Man," but though she was a friend and tourmate to many soul superstars throughout the decade, LaVette was never able to break into the upper bracket. After a string of excellent singles for small labels like Calla and Silver Fox, LaVette traveled south to Alabama's heralded Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1972 to record an album for Atlantic. The result, Child Of The Seventies, might have been a minor masterpiece of the era, had it ever been released. Instead, Atlantic inexplicably shelved it, leaving LaVette twisting in the wind on the verge of her biggest triumph. From there, she released a smattering of records—including a dark-horse disco hit, "Doin' The Best That I Can"—before spending time in the Broadway show Bubbling Brown Sugar. She realized a dream in 1982 when Motown issued a full-length titled Tell Me A Lie, but the album flopped, and LaVette spent the next two decades in relative limbo.
In 2000, fueled by fresh interest in original soul music, Child Of The Seventies finally saw the light of day in the form of a French import called Souvenirs. Things snowballed from there: After signing to the high-profile Anti- imprint, LaVette recorded 2003's gritty I've Got My Own Hell To Raise. Her new album for Anti- carries some serious baggage: The Scene Of The Crime was recorded in Muscle Shoals at FAME Studios with legendary session musicians David Hood (who played on Child Of The Seventies) and Spooner Oldham. And Hood's son Patterson and his neo-Southern rock group Drive By Truckers were LaVette's backing band for Crime. The singer's still-simmering frustration erupts in the aptly dubbed "Before The Money Came (The Battle Of Bettye LaVette)," Crime's most bitterly personal yet swaggering track. Now 61—and looking and sounding as good as ever—LaVette spoke with The A.V. Club about rejection, vindication, and the correct usage of the term "soul singer." (Apparently there isn't one.)
The A.V. Club: Is "The Battle Of Bettye LaVette" really the first song you've ever written?
Bettye LaVette: For the most part, especially when it comes to telling a story like this one does. I'm not a writer, and I don't think I could write about anything I didn't know. And I don't feel like writing about everything that I do know. [Laughs.] Patterson was my muse, and he talked me into writing that song. He said that anybody who could talk as much as I do could write a song. [Laughs.] Songwriting doesn't even interest me. If you're sitting down talking to Patterson, though, he has to stop at every third word so he can make a note about a song. [Laughs.]
AVC: In "Battle," you sing about David Ruffin and the other early Motown stars who were friends of yours growing up in Detroit. You wound up on Motown in the '80s, but did you ever come close to being signed to the label in the '60s?
BL: Oh, no. I didn't sound enough like a girl for them. [Laughs.] They really wanted a very pop sound. The producers who were my champions there—Clarence Paul, Andrew Williams, Mickey Stevenson—were considered antiquated, left over from the '50s. Even when I did do my album for Motown, it was through connections I had in Memphis and Nashville. [Laughs.] But originally, the only Motown artists that had records before I did were Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson.
AVC: In the '60s you toured with people like Otis Redding and James Brown. Do you have any particular memories or impressions of that experience?
BL: The first six months that I sung, I worked with Otis Redding, Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, Clarence "Frogman" Henry. And then in the next five years of my career, I worked with James Brown, The Drifters, gosh, who else was around at that time? [Laughs.] After all these people became stars, I never got to see them very much. Some of them never again; I never got to see Otis again after he started to be a star. But I knew him from singing at the Royal Peacock together. That's a whole little story unto itself. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you eventually signed to Motown in the '80s, did it feel like a vindication?
BL: I was very happy. I still had hopes that the same thing would happen to me that happened to all my old friends. I didn't feel vindicated. I feel vindicated now, 'cause I'm 61, my voice is strong, and I can fit into a size 6. [Laughs.] This is vindication.
AVC: Another thing you bring up in "Battle" is your aborted album, Child Of The Seventies. How did that recording come about?
BL: It was actually the second time I'd been with Atlantic. My first record was on Atlantic in 1962, on a label that was distributed by them. So in the early '70s, Atlantic still knew me from the hit I'd had before. I went down to Muscle Shoals Sound and recorded the album in, David Hood tells me, three days.
AVC: What do you remember about that recording session?
BL: First of all, it was very different from recording in the North. It was so laidback. Nothing was sophisticated; everything was pretty natural. [Laughs.] Like rolling over in bed.
AVC: It seems there were a handful of soul singers from the North who really fit in with the Southern soul scene—people like yourself, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett.
BL: That's probably because we were all the first generation of our families that lived in the North. We had been to the South a lot. It wasn't culture shock. [Laughs.]
AVC: When you first listened to the playback of that record in 1972, did it sound like something special?
BL: Yes. I knew that all these musicians I was working with had recorded all these hit records. I knew the songs were good and that I sang them well. And I knew I was on Atlantic. I had virtually no reason to believe they'd call me and say, "We've decided not to go forward with the project."
AVC: That's what Atlantic told you?
BL: That's exactly what they said. They had sent me plane tickets for a promotional tour. They called and asked for the tickets back and said they had decided not to go forward with the project.
AVC: Did you fight it?
BL: Well, what was I going to say? [Laughs.] Nobody gave me any information. I still really don't know what happened, or what was said in my absence. It was very much like when I was with Calla. I went to the office one day, and no one was there. I never heard from Nate McCalla again, until someone told me he'd been found in a ditch in Arizona or somewhere. [Laughs.]
AVC: How big of a personal setback was not having the album released?
BL: It was a tremendous setback. I didn't know what to do. It was a long time before the Broadway thing came along in 1979. A whole bunch of other stuff happened in between there: big stuff, insignificant stuff, stuff I can't even remember.
AVC: You had a disco hit in the '70s, "Doin' The Best That I Can."
BL: Yes. But before it took off, I asked for release from my contract and told them they could keep any money that the record made. [Laughs.] I left so that I could go to Nashville and record with the same producer, Steve Buckingham. And I never heard from the "Doin' The Best That I Can" people ever again. I guess that's why [Buckingham] felt so compelled to ask me to do the Motown album. He felt bad. [Laughs.] I had gotten myself out of a record that was actually selling. I had no idea disco was going to get as big as it got.
AVC: A lot of soul artists from the '60s and early '70s had disco comebacks later on. What was your opinion of disco at the time?
BL: I didn't like it at all. It was too much music and not enough song, and I'm not a musician or a dancer. I don't need solos to be 20 minutes long. [Laughs.] There's that line I sing in ["Battle"]: "I wouldn't cross over, so it took me a while." A lot of my friends crossed over into disco. A lot of my friends joined churches. A lot of them did all kinds of things. [Laughs.]
AVC: Unlike a lot of soul artists who came up at the same time, you didn't start out singing gospel in church.
BL: No, my parents had hangovers on Sunday morning. [Laughs.] My mother was from Louisiana, though, so the church was very important to them, whether they went or not. But I did go to Catholic school and went through all that, because that was the thing to do.
AVC: Do you think that difference in background had any bearing on the style you developed?
BL: Oh, absolutely, but I didn't know it at the time. I wanted to sound like whatever was selling, whether it was Dionne Warwick or Aretha Franklin. Anything. And since I wasn't selling, I felt like I didn't sound right. I think the first time someone told me they didn't hear anything but blue in my voice, that gave me something to work with. It was probably my manager Jim Lewis who really made me the artist that I am. He said, "We got to stop chasing these stupid little records that are never gonna sell anyway." He came from the big-band era. He said, "You've got to learn some real songs. You've to be a real entertainer. You got to learn how to do your show, whether you've got a record or not." And that's what he pounded into my head for 15 years before he died. He made me learn all the songs that got me the lead role in Bubbling Brown Sugar. When the show was over, I married and moved to New Orleans, but if any of those songs from Bubbling Brown Sugar had been hit records, I would've been off with my nose in the air. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were there any points in your career where you just gave up on music entirely?
BL: Yeah, about every two weeks—from the time something failed to the time something else started. Sometimes people would want to light candles around me, I was so low. [Laughs.] But as soon as I heard the telephone ring, I'd get out my high heels and lipstick and go right back to it. In all my years, no matter what I went through, I always made sure there was enough water and exercise and food involved so that when they called, I would look gorgeous. [Laughs.] Somewhere deep in my heart, I never gave up on those calls, but I wouldn't acknowledge failure by doing anything other than keeping myself healthy. That was the only way you could tell I was waiting for that next call.
AVC: You were never tempted to just let yourself go?
BL: Oh, yeah. I would be working out and crying. I'd be lifting weights, my nose would be running, and I'd say to myself, "Nobody's ever going to see this shit." [Laughs.] It's an extremely humiliating thing. It's not like trying to find a job. In show business, you need people to like you, and people are saying "No." Not just everybody on your block—everybody in the whole fucking world. [Laughs.] And the people who did stick with me—who paid my rent and bought champagne and took me out to dinner and bought me outfits and got me to the gig—all of them kept saying, "Do not quit. Every time somebody hears you, they like you." And I'd say, "Do you know how I old I am? I'm going senile just waiting for something to happen to me." [Laughs.]
AVC: Child Of The Seventies finally got released in 2000 under the name Souvenirs. How did that come about?
BL: The man who released it, Gilles Petard, had been a friend of mine for years. Up until a few years ago, I personally knew all my fans from all around the world. And at various times, they would get gigs together in whatever country they were in, and they would send me money and get my music reissued. Everybody always talked about my Atlantic album in that little group of dead people's fans. [Laughs.] When the whole digital-reissue thing was starting, I was telling a friend of mine in New York that I had a reel-to-reel tape of the Atlantic album. He said, "Well, give it to me," and he took it and put it in stereo and cleaned it all up. I sent it to Gilles in France, and he said, "This has got to be released right now. I'm coming to New York." Then he released it and gave it to me for Christmas. [Laughs.] The industry has never done anything to help me 'til lately. It's just been fans over the years. Even what's happening to me now with [Anti- Records], it came from a friend who asked me to go to San Francisco to sing at a party. He said, "I will have an agent there who you will want to meet." At first, he wasn't going to sign me because I didn't have a manager, I didn't have a record, and I had never sold no records. But he was there and he saw the show, and he said, "Okay, I'll sign you."
AVC: What was the genesis of the new record with Drive By Truckers? Besides knowing Patterson Hood's father David from the Atlantic sessions, was it pretty much a blind date?
BL: My husband is a music historian. There's no one who's ever walked up to a microphone that he doesn't know about. He knew about Drive By Truckers' career, and I knew that Patterson was David's son, and I figured they'd have to be good, or he wouldn't be David's son. I knew that I wasn't changing anything for the album, so I knew they would have to change. And they were gracious enough to do so. [Laughs.]
AVC: Patterson wrote some really great liner notes for the album about the whole process.
BL: Yes. He should win whatever award there is for liner notes. [Laughs.]
AVC: In them, he's really honest about admitting the difficulty he had in making the record. For instance, he says you rejected 50 of the songs he originally suggested for the album.
BL: That's not true. I only rejected 40. [Laughs.] Choosing a song for somebody that you don't know—and especially someone who approaches songs as intimately and personally as I do—is like bringing me a guy and telling me to go to bed with him. You can't choose a song for me. It's very hard for a person younger than me to choose a song for me, and I don't write my own songs. Patterson was able to get me to write ["Battle"] by giving me a premise. He said, "Just write down all the stuff you've been saying since you got here." I was teasing him about the pictures of all the famous singers on the wall of the studio there in Muscle Shoals. I said, "I want my face airbrushed into every one of these goddamn pictures." [Laughs.] Then David was talking about how much he loved David Ruffin's voice, and I said, "I heard David Ruffin when he was sober." [Laughs.] It was like that the while time. They wanted to record over and over, and I refused to do so. They kept saying, "We're close, we're close," and I said, "Damn, close sure didn't kill no birds." I know I got on their nerves, I know I did. They were so glad when it was over. [Laughs.] But they did a good job. You know how women are—as long as you're doing what you want them to do, you're okay.
AVC: How did it feel to be back in Muscle Shoals and in a studio with David after 35 years?
BL: Well, I was with him longer this time. And the first time, they never saw me again. We didn't have a relationship. It's just happened that the best album I had done to date had never been released, and it was recorded at Muscle Shoals. That's my history with Muscle Shoals. It's not the same history as the rest of the artists who recorded there. But it was more of a vindication for me, since I was able to be there again with a strong voice, and I made everyone remember me this time.
AVC: You sang a Dolly Parton song on your previous album, and you cover Willie Nelson and George Jones on your new one. Do you think the kinship between country music and R&B is still is overlooked?
BL: Well, In the past I recorded [Neil Young's] "Heart Of Gold, [First Edition's] "What Condition My Condition Was In," [Charlie Rich's] "Behind Closed Doors." And those were virtually overlooked by me. [Laughs.] I don't look at songs that way. I don't look at them as country songs, though I find that country writers tend to write a stronger song. Once I sing them, they're my songs.
AVC: Solomon Burke made a recent comeback on the same label as you, and newer artists like Sharon Jones and even Amy Winehouse have had a lot of success with a retro soul sound. Why do you think this music has experienced a resurgence lately?
BL: Oh, I don't even care. I think that a great deal of the resurgence of rhythm and blues—I think the word "soul" is a white euphemism; I never heard anyone black call themselves a soul singer unless they were trying to explain themselves to somebody from Japan—comes from the fact that rap artists now try to incorporate a lot of melody. They've gone back and chosen so many things to sample, and it makes young people more and more curious. And they more they look into it, the more they like it. It's a much more solid thing; it's not all wishy-washy. It holds steady. And as they get older, they're going to want that more from music. My grandson was singing along—talking along—with some rap tune, and I said, "Do you know that when you're 45, you're not going to turn to any woman and say those words?" [Laughs.] But it's so incredible how long my voice was considered uncommercial. I think there's a whole other thing that people are looking for now. It has more to do with truth than sound. I think that people are looking for more passion and truth—not just in singing, but in everything.
AVC: Have you heard the Amy Winehouse album?
BL: No, I haven't. I'm not a music enthusiast, really. That isn't what I do in my spare time, and if it was, I wouldn't seek out new artists. Least of all not females. [Laughs.] I don't know if there's any more broadening that I have to do. I don't think there's anything that I could garner from listening to these people. It's they who should be listening.