By Mike Greenblatt
New Jersey-based soul singer Bettye LaVette has everybody’s respect already — except, for some reason, those in positions of power at major American labels. That’s why her new album “Worthy” is out on England’s Cherry Red. The gravel-voiced legend — who’s been at this game since she was 16 — has created a seething musical masterpiece of undisguised bitterness over how she’s been treated by the music industry. Like Mable John who hit home in the ‘60s by shouting that she certainly was able (“Able Mable”), LaVette is now growling that she’s ‘worthy.’
LaVette has also been in the touring band of James Brown, toured alongside Otis Redding and performed for six years with Cab Calloway in the traveling roadshow of “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” In concert, she’s a dynamo. You can’t take your eyes off of her. Lean, muscled, sinewy, not an ounce of fat on her 68-year old body, she’s a female Otis who can take an audience and wrap them around her middle finger… a finger that she’d like to stick up in defiance to the music industry at large right about now.
GOLDMINE: “Worthy” starts off with Dylan’s “Unbelievable.” What a great interpretation.
Bettye LaVette: I’m so thrilled learning this now. Hell, I barely know the words to “Blowing In The Wind.” I thank my husband (Kevin Kiley) so much for bringing these kinds of tunes to my attention. They’re so obscure … or we’ve made them sound obscure.
GM: In fact, you interpret the Holy Trinity of Beatles (“Wait”), Stones (“Complicated”) and Dylan.
BL: “Wait” was first suggested for “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” (2010) but didn’t make the cut.
GM: You do it as a ballad!
BL: That’s because when everybody hears a record, I hear a song. You know what I mean? When I heard “Wait,” I heard it as a ballad. Hey, we don’t all hear the same way. When I hear things, usually, if I like ‘em, it’s because I can sing ‘em. I don’t look to like singers. I look for songs I can sing. I don’t purposely try to change things up, that’s just how I hear the song.
GM: It’s similar to what you did with George Harrison’s “Isn’t It a Pity” where you sing it agonizingly slow as if your life depends on each and every syllable.
BL: Well, George wrote the song with an empathetic view. He’s watching what’s happening to people and he does not like it. When a lyric line is really good, I want you to hear what it’s saying.
GM: The Joe Henry song “Stop” — where you sing “Don’t tell me to stop!” and “You might take the black off a crow but don’t tell me to go!” — it’s you channeling a lifetime of frustration over the powers that be not giving you your proper kudos as one of America’s great voices.
BL: Plus it’s sexy! It’s a tango! Whenever I hear it, I start moving in provocative ways. But as far as those lyrics go, it’s not something I would have written for myself because I don’t think I should have to at this point but, yeah, as long as Joe wrote it, it sure is something I do want out there. I’m not ashamed to feel that way either. Same thing with the title track. Hell, I’ve walked through walls of fire to get where I am. And I am, indeed, worthy.
GM: Do you feel abused by the music industry?
BL: Look, I’ve only had problems with two men in my life. One was mean and the other one was in love with his wife and not me. Both of them were when I was very young. Other than that, men have treated me well, women have wanted to be my friend. The only thing that has bastardized me, kept me broke and humiliated me is this business. So most times when I sing, you’re absolutely right, that is, indeed, who I am singing to.
GM: You say how only two men gave you a problem. Was James Brown one of those men?
BL: No. JB paid me no mind. It was like I wasn’t even there. He did make me move my song because it stopped the show every night. You don’t upstage James Brown. Other than that, he hardly spoke to me.
GM: Was it Otis Redding?
BL: No, he just adored me. But we were like the same person, only different genders. When we met, he wasn’t “Otis” yet. He might have had a record on an Atlantic subsidiary but I was the girl from up North, which carried more weight because he was from the deep south. Plus, my record was on Atlantic proper, not a subsidiary. And I was younger, more light-skinned and, uh, prettier. I loved him, but I didn’t love him like he loved me! I just knew he was a really good person. I felt more sophisticated than him. In fact, there were times I sorta dissed him at one point. Of course, I had no idea he would become so much bigger than me!
GM: Was it Cab Calloway?
BL: No, he was great with me. He treated me nicer than anyone else. There was only one other woman in the cast, his co-star. I played her ghost. Cab didn’t really get along with anybody. But he got along with me because I dressed up every day for travel and acted like I was in show business. He appreciated that. He was so old school! And neither of us came from theater. We came from nightclubs. No matter where he went, he’s Cotton Club, baby, through and through. I rode with him in the coach of the equipment truck when the rest of the cast was on the bus. When we reached New York, he had me run in to the OTB [off-track betting] and place his bets on the ponies. I considered it a complete privilege. I absolutely adored him. I was just at his knee listening to all his wonderful stories. He was in the show business I wish I had been in. I could just see myself going out with him in one of those fabulous 1930s dresses to The Cotton Club.
GM: You started so young. You were 16 when you had your first record out. Such a child! I’m sure you had to listen to everybody else telling you what to do, what to sing…
BL: I was a groupie who could sing. I used singing as a means to get with certain people. I just wanted to be with them, the successful people, the stars, and then when my singing got me with them, and other people started treating me like they treated them, only then did it get good. But it was a long time before I thought of myself as their equal. I don’t think Justin Bieber did either that first year of his just out of the fifth grade. The difference is that I never wanted to be a kid. He stayed a kid the whole time and still is. I, on the other hand, immediately started to go to bed with people 20 years older than myself. I wanted to be grown. I didn’t want to be Brenda Lee [at 13] wearing all those frilly dresses. I wanted to wear long black gowns, smoke cigarettes and drink champagne.
GM: Why is “Worthy” on Great Britain’s Cherry Red label?
BL: Because we could not find any American company to give me any money, despite the fact that I worked with Blue Note Records President Don Was on two projects: one that Ringo Starr called me to do and the other that Joe Walsh called me about. Don Was even called me his “home girl” in the studio because we’re both from Detroit. Do you see him signing me? Same thing with Jack White, also from Detroit. I worked on something with him and he’s like all Detroit-chummy with me but will not produce me! I could say the same thing about T Bone Burnett. He actually declined to produce me when we approached him three or four years ago. So to say I am totally disillusioned with Don Was, Jack White and T Bone Burnett would be an understatement. I am just grateful that Cherry Red is approaching me as something vital and new because I’m not a kid anymore. Everybody who my manager talked to stateside said, “oh my god, Bettye LaVette, I love her,” but did any of ‘em sign me?
GM: You’re not the first great American artist who was more appreciated abroad. Look at all the ex-patriot jazzmen who had to leave their own country to be recognized overseas. You’re in good company.
BL: Still. You’d think my recent Grammy nominations, blues awards and appearances would have nudged
the “now” people who sit in the catbird seat. You’d think they’d do more than just nothing!