Photo credit: Carol Friedman
She is one of the greatest living soul singers, a woman who can imbue emotion, passion and feeling into virtually any song. As Bettye LaVette demonstrates on her latest CD, she is a consummate musical interpreter...
David Nathan: I am delighted to welcome today, for our Soulmusic.com constituents, the lady who recently, when I was asked the question, “Who is my favourite Soul singer?” I said the greatest Soul singer currently around was this lady who I am about to introduce, Miss Bettye LaVette, who I have knows for more decades than she or I would like to talk about, but I would like to welcome you to Soulmusic.com.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you, David. It’s wonderful to talk to you.
DN: How is everything going for you today? How’s your day going so far?
BL: Everything is absolutely fine. It’s a very rainy day here in New Jersey, like a B Flat Minor, that’s how it looks outside today (laughs) but I’m good.
DN: Well, the focus of our interview, at least some of it, is your brand new album, which is called Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. The first, and most obvious question for me is, how did this album come about and how did it evolve.
BL: Well, the concept came from my husband, Kevin Kiley, and it came out of my doing the Pete Townsend song at the Kennedy Center Honors where they were honouring The Who, and I did “Love Reign O’er Me” and my husband immediately started putting songs together to do an album of British Rock songs. At the very same time, the people who produced the inaugural Kennedy Center Honors were thinking of calling me and asking me to do, not necessarily British Rock songs, but they wanted to be involved in my next production and when I told them that we were thinking of this, they thought it was a marvelous idea and something that would have eventually come up in their conversations with me. My husband, who is always thinking of me, he immediately came up with that idea and we started to work with it.
DN: What was your reaction to the idea when he broached it with you? What did you think?
BL: I thought it was a wonderful idea, speaking commercially, but speaking as the one who had to sing it, my attitude was that of when they wanted me to do the I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise album, which contained all songs written by women. Like everybody wants to listen to a bunch of broads sing for hours on-end (laughs). I felt the same way about listening to a bunch of Rock tunes from the 60’s, but my husband has that kind of tolerance, and he and my record company on the Women’s tunes, they listened to thousands of songs and narrowed it down to a hundred, and I picked 10. With this one, they had maybe 500 songs, some offered by my co-producers, so I took one from my co-producers and 9 from my husband, out of 500! Singing a song and liking a song are two different things. You may hear it and like it, but it doesn’t mean that you want to sing it or can sing it. I think that if you want to sing it, you can sing it, but if you don’t want to, you can’t.
DN: How many of the songs did you already know? How many were you already familiar with?
BL: I didn’t know any of them, and of course many of them were such big commercial success, they went beyond the mark and I had heard at least half of them. Even the ones I had heard, I didn’t know who the artist was, because they didn’t venture into Black radio, and at the time they were released, there was such segregation in music. All Blacks were spending their time trying to cross over to be played where these songs were being played, s they weren’t the songs of my youth, they were the songs of my co-producers, my husband’s youth, your youth, well I don’t know, you listened to Black music all of your life, so they aren’t the songs of your youth either. I remember when you were young, and I don’t remember you travelling around with any of these songs!
DN: Well, I have to tell you, when I looked at the list, I only knew one, two, three, four, five. I only know five of the songs.
BL: I’ll bet I know what they are.
DN: Go on, then.
BL: I’ll bet I know what they are, because they’re the same ones I knew. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”.
BL: “Nights In White Satin”.
BL: “It Don’t Come Easy”.
BL: “Say The Word”.
BL: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.
BL: I don’t think that there is a person living that never heard “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”.
DN: I did know that. The other two that I knew were “Isn’t It A Pity” and “Maybe I’m Amazed” but I’ve never heard “The Word” or “No Time To Live”.
BL: I knew all of those. I named about five, didn’t I?
DN: You did.
BL: So maybe I knew about seven of them, and I’m sure that they’re the five that you know.
DN: Let’s start with one that I absolutely did not know, and had no awareness of at all, which is “The Word”. I’m seeing from the information that it’s a Beatles song, didn’t know that, so were you familiar with it at all?
BL: I heard it when it was out, and then I recorded at least one Beatle tune and I did at least eight Beatles tunes in my shows at that time. I wasn’t familiar with the music of the other groups, maybe the Rolling Stones, but I never did any of their music. I probably did more Beatles songs in my show that any other R&B singer.
DN: What were some of the ones that you did? I know you did “With A Little Help From My Friends”.
BL: Yes, I did that. Most people, even though they may know my history, they only know it through records. Most people didn’t see my show, but if you had seen my show, you would have seen me open with “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf! I did “Eleanor Rigby”, I did “Fool On the Hill”, I did “Something”, I did “Yesterday”, “Here, There, Everywhere”, “Got To Get You Into My Life”, and when I was living in New Orleans, I had an opening tune that I can’t think of. Kevin and I have been trying to think of it for two days (laughs) I did a lot of their tunes and they were very conducive to being done in other ways, because they used so many notes and so many passages and so many routes. There were so many ways to go!
DN: I really did not know that. That’s really a revelation, and in some ways, this is an album that you could have done a long time ago, at least in terms of The Beatles.
BL: Oh, yes! The shows that I’ve had to do to keep myself alive have been varied. No one that you or I know has ever seen me sing “Sweet Georgia Brown” and tap-dance, but there is a whole group of people who only saw me do that while I was doing that. They had never heard of me before that, and they never heard of me after that, because they were a theatre crowd, and that’s where they know me from. Then there are the people that just know me from going out to dinner and seeing me sing in itty-bitty places, singing “Lover Man” and “Around Midnight” and that’s all they know about me.
DN: That’s interesting. In other words, there’s a whole history that we don’t know. Only you know, and the people who saw you knew.
BL: Oh, absolutely. The reason that I believe so many of my constituents who suffer so badly, it’s because of the thing that [my manager] Jim Lewis warned me of years ago. He said, “You may not be a star, ever and if you become a star, you may not be one always, so it’s best you learn how to sing and entertain people if that’s what you want to do.” So I was forced to do that.
DN: Let’s talk about some of the other songs now. One that I’m very intrigued about, which is one that you mentioned that I would know, which is “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, which I first heard, not by The Animals, but by the person by whom it was written, Nina Simone. How did you approach doing this song, because your version of it is unlike anybody else’s, I have to say. It’s not a copy of anybody’s, it’s just a Bettye LaVette version!
BL: The song has been recorded by just about everyone, but there were several points going with this album. For one thing, I want young singers to know that unlike the stuff that they tell them on these television shows, “Make the song your own”, and that means do it exactly like the person recorded it. That’s not true! How would you possibly feel the exact same way that somebody else felt about the song, and if you can sing it the exact same way, it’s just the sound. You can’t replicate someone else’s feelings, so it would be who you learn to sing and I listen to songs now. I listen to them as my own. I think the only think that I really worked on was the refrain of “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”, because I knew that I wouldn’t sing the song itself like anybody else, because I’m not anybody else. When we got to that part, we had to stop there, because I can’t hear that. Everybody had to take a break or get lunch or whatever, because I will not sing that way. I will not do all of my fine singing and then get to that part and cop out (laughs).
DN: Which of these songs were the most challenging for you, would you say?
BL: Vocally, none of them were challenging. I think that musically, listening and hearing what I wanted to do, I would say “Maybe I’m Amazed” because Paul is right oddly, which is why I like his songs and I like his writing, but it didn’t create a challenge, I wasn’t able to breeze through it. I had to listen to it, listening to which way it went so I could take it to where I wanted to go. That happens with some songs, and it’s usually with older standards, but Paul is such a fine writer just like the old standard writers, when he writes something really simple, “Ding Dong the witch is dead” or whatever, the melody is so intricate, so you’d better listen to see how the melody goes, or sing it exactly like him, in which case you’ll be right. I didn’t find any of them vocally challenging, the thing that was so challenging was when I listened to people whose songs these were, who grew up with these songs, I’d say, “What does this mean?” and they say, “I don’t know” and I’d say, “Why do you love it so much?” and they’d say, “It made me cry or it made me feel good” and I would say, “What are you talking about?” and most of the people that I talked to didn’t, so we’ve taken to calling this the adult version of these songs (laughs). I believe that, many of the writers being the same age as I, they would write these songs differently. They would say more of what they mean than what they felt. Since I don’t really know what they meant, I had to make many of the songs make sense to me, and when you get to using the songs, if you’re a R&B singer and you get to using words like “My hand is to the loom”, it’s hard to bring that into some kind of perspective. If there’s a pretty melody and it’s about you and another person or you and life, it can always be reduced down to just how you felt about a thing and how it hurt you, or how you were misunderstood. That tune, “All of my Love”, no one knew what he was talking about, so I thought I would just take his words and make them make sense to me. If I ever get a chance to meet him, I will say, “This is what I was thinking when I was singing it. I love the melody, but I’m an old lady. I can’t stand and look at my audience and not make sense, I can say it in your face and make no sense. It has to make sense to me, and now it makes more sense to others. My daughter told me that when she was in college, “Knights in White Satin” was one of her favourite songs, and I was like, “What is she talking about?” She said, “I don’t know, it just makes me cry.” So when I finished recording it, I sent it to her and she said, “Now I know what I’m crying about.”
DN: It’s interesting that you mentioned that song, because it’s one of my favourites. It’s always been a favourite song of mine, and I never stopped to think about what it meant, like I didn’t study the lyrics, I just knew that I liked the song, and you did a great job with it.
BL: Absolutely, I always do that too. Thank you, baby! If I don’t understand what the song is about, I can just go on and hum it in the bathtub, but I’m not going to present it anywhere, unless I understand what I’m talking about. That’s why I can’t do things like, “I’m gonna swim to your door with the jerk” (laughs).
DN: Okay, okay. I understand that. That’s a little bit of a stretch from “Isn’t It A Pity”. It’s a few million miles away.
BL: Do you remember that song?
DN: No, but I remember those dancers.
BL: “I Feel Good All Over”?
DN: Oh, yeah! Absolutely!
BL: One of the lines is, “I feel like doing the swim to your door with the jerk. I feel good all over.” (laughs)
DN: I have to confess, I did not recall that lyric line, but I understand. Now let’s talk about the Elton John song, because I know you did an Elton John song on The Scene of the Crime, and how did you feel about doing this particular Elton John song?
BL: This is a song that I’ve always liked, and probably would have ended up putting it in my show eventually, even if this didn’t happen to me. It’s something I’ve always liked, and he’s a very adult writer, even if you listen to his earlier Dance songs, if you slow them down, some of the lyrics are terse. He’s a very adult writer, and if you write adult songs, I can probably sing them, or will want to sing them. I was so very, very pleased to hear from his that he was pleased with it. I’m looking at these songs from a writer’s point of view. I wouldn’t even let the musicians or my husband or my co-producers call these songs that everybody does by the group, as opposed to the name of the song, so we do all the songs by name, and I deal with the songs as written by Pete Townsend, you know. I don’t deal with them as songs by the people who recorded them. These songs are not these people, these songs are these songs.
DN: The one that I found the most haunting and I guess you could say that when I listened, it was the one that made me stop was “Isn’t It A Pity”, so I want to ask for your thoughts on that particular song.
BL: Well, it’s as they say in New Orleans, “true dat”, as in how much truer could anything be. It required nothing, it’s like telling any other sad story, and it’s very, very true right now in this country with the way that this president is being treated. It’s a pity! There’s no reason for everybody to be acting the way they’re acting, and it’s just a pity!
DN: So it didn’t require a great deal of imagination for you to be able to sing that.
BL: Oh, no. Most of the songs I did, well “Nights In White Satin” was definitely in one take, but we had to pay the musicians for a day, because we had them under contract, and it didn’t take that many days to do it. I kept trying to tell people that they were songs I sing, so I know the songs and the musicians played them well, so why stay there all week or all month if I just sing the songs and go home (laughs)? I sang most of them pretty fast, I knew what I wanted to do with them, how I wanted to do them, it’s not a contrived thing you know, that’s what makes me want to do it; I hear how I want to do it. If I had to look at it and say, “How would I change this?” then that would be real work, and I really wouldn’t want to do that, but the exciting thing is, I hear something the way it is and I say, “I’d like to sing this the way it is!” and I know how I’d like to sing it. This time I was fortunate enough to have an arranger, and Rob Mathes, who is my co-producer, understood everything in my heart and everything that came out of my mouth and wrote it down, so it isn’t a thing that should take a long time. I think it took 4 days.
DN: Where did you record?
BL: Here in New Jersey. There’s so much stuff going on, so much money being spent in this dog-gone business, and either you can do this or you can’t, and having a whole bunch of extra shit does not make it any better. Writing the songs for 2 years and recording them for 3 years doesn’t make them any better. Either you can do it, or you can’t. Just go on and do it. That’s what you do! This took 4 days, and “My Man” took 4 hours!
DN: In other words, you’ve come to it prepared, and when you come prepared, you just go do it!
BL: Yes, and you practice at home! When I know I’m going to record, that is all that’s in my head and on my mind! It’s what I’m doing, and as I said, it’s not contrived, so when I hear the music, if they’re playing what I want them to play, I pretty much know the song leads me. The song takes me where I want to go, I don’t take the song anywhere!
DN: This is your 3rd album for this record label, how do you feel this is going, in terms of your recording career? How do you feel about where this fits in the scheme of things that you’ve been doing in the last 7 or 8 years?
BL: David Nathan, name me all the rest of the record companies that you know of in my 48 years who have kept me for 6 years! It’s going swell! (laughs) I am the oldest living person who has never been a star, who has an active record contract. There is nobody else my age, who has never been a star, who has an active record contract. It’s going great!
DN: Well, I’ll tell you this: There are some who are stars who don’t have record contracts, in fact, of your generation.
BL: I know, but you would be more likely to get one. I know that there are many, many who do not, and they’re very high maintenance too. They ought to just go out and go out and sing and shut up! Like [radio personality] Night Train used to tell Dinah Washington, “Just sing, and shut up” (laughs).
DN: A couple of more questions for you for our Soulmusic.com interview, and then we’ll take a moment break and we’ll go onto the next thing that we’re going to do. I’ve seen you in different settings over many years, and one of the tings that I noticed in the times that I did see you is that your audience, now I have to say this in the politically correct way, most of your audience is White, right?
BL: Absolutely! I was so grateful after I did that Change Is Gonna Come thing, because it brought some Blacks to my audience. I was going and shaking hands with Black people like I had never seen them before. I hadn’t seen them in 6 years! This has been a strictly White activity, with maybe the odd Black here and there, but after “Change Is Gonna Come”, I started seeing more Blacks in the audience and I’m hoping that they continue to follow me, because the Blacks that knew me in the 60’s, I’m not working anywhere, I’m not doing anything where they would have seen me. They don’t go to Blues festivals and all of that kind of rigmarole. I’m hoping that this will bring some. Every once in a while, they’ll hear a big name like Sly & The Family Stone or somebody that they know, but mostly the people they know like The Temptations and those kinds of people aren’t doing festivals, they’re in theatres and performance arts centers, which is the way that we’re gearing my show right now.
DN: Great! How has it been for you to be looking out at a primarily white audience for the last 6 years?
BL: Oh, they’re much easier to entertain (laughs). I’m looking at a Black audience and every third person can do the exact same thing I’m doing, either from church or from the street, so you’d better be hoofing it across the stage and be louder than they’re going to be. Of course there’s the real serious ‘In the Hood’ Black audience, but the Blacks that I’m seeing in the Performance Art Theatres are my age now, the people that are attracted to me. I’m not seeing any young Blacks, but I am seeing young Whites. I was not seeing that for the first couple years, and now I’m beginning to, especially since the association with the Drive By Truckers, and since we did the Hell To Raise album with new writers that I performed on there, that’s bringing them younger. My audience now is as varied as my career has been, having Blacks, finally, older Whites and Blacks, I mean old my age, lots of young Whites, older women, and just lots of people that I didn’t have before in one sitting. I’ve had some of this there, and some of that there, and some of the other, but all of it’s coming together for me now, and the people who knew about me are all coming together, especially with the Internet. At one point, David, didn’t nobody know me but you.
DN: (laughs) Well, me and a couple of other folks, a couple of other Brits.
BL: And you know, it was literally a couple. I tell my audience now, until a few years ago, I literally had the addresses and telephone numbers of all of my fans all over the world (laughs).
DN: Well, thankfully that’s not true anymore.
DN: I have 2 more Soulmusic.com questions for you. Firstly, I know that of course as you just referenced, for many years you had a very strong European audience, but that was really the function of songs from the 60’s like “Let Me Down Easy” and so-on, and then in the 70’s, “Your Time To Cry”. How have your European audiences been receiving the music that you’ve done over the last 3 albums?
BL: Some of them have come along, and some of them have balked, but it’s like I tell them, I can’t be looked at as a recording. I’m certainly grateful if you liked my recordings of the 60’s or the 70’s, but please realize, that is what you liked, my recordings form the 60’s and 70’s. If you liked my voice, here it is singing something else on another recording. You cannot tell me, I know the stuff that I’ve done in the last 6 years, it’s not a matter of whether you like it or not, I know that it’s good, so I just assume that if you already liked me, you would alike it because it’s good, but you can’t dislike it because it didn’t sound like something from 1960 or ’70. I tell them all the time, because here again, most of you guys I do know personally, and so I take issue with bad reviews from y’all. I call you personally, and I certainly do not do that with everyone, but I do know these guys and I have let most of them know that I know it’s good, I know it’s well-put-together, I know it’s played, and I know the song is very good, I know the story is very tight, and I know I’m singing well. I know there’s no horns on it, so if that’s what’s making you not like it, then you don’t like my voice, you like those recordings, and I mean that.
DN: Well, I have one more question for you, Betty. So the last question for the Soulmusic.com interview is: When you look form where you are standing right now, and you look forward, what do you see for Bettye LaVette?
BL: Less of me the moment they let me make any money. I think I’m tired of the hustle. I could stand to be a star, because that is much easier, but the hustle is often very humiliating and often very physically challenging, and I still, no matter how tight my black slacks may be, or how high my heels are, I’m still almost 65 years old, and just like Tina Turner, I’d rather not be running back and forth across a stage, flailing my head about and twisting my hips, but that is the way I want my show to look, and I want everyone in the world to see it, and I’m willing to do that until everybody in the world has seen it.
DN: Alright, well that’s quite a lofty aim, as they say.
BL: (laughs) A lofty aim! I love that!
DN: Well, I have to say, on behalf of our Soulmusic.com community as always it’s a pleasure speaking with you, and of course we want everyone to hear the new album, so when you hear this interview, alongside here in the interview, you’ll find a way that you can go listen to the album and buy it.
BL: Oh, David. Thank you so much! It’s been so wonderful to hear your voice as always, and I’ve listened to it so many times in desperation, I’m glad that you’re able to listen to me right now in a kind of jubilation. Thank you baby, so much, for everything.
DN: Alright, Bettye!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.