Bettye LaVette: It Pays To Sing The Blues

When Bettye LaVette takes the stage at the 30th annual Blues Music Awards on May 7, it’ll be one more great moment in a whirlwind couple of years.

LaVette, who struggled for more than four decades to find fame, is one of 46 performers who will fill out the six-hour plus concert at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis, Tenn.

Others on the bill include Taj Mahal, Irma Thomas, Elvin Bishop, Jason Ricci, Watermelon Slim, Bob Brozman, Doug MacLeod, Billy Gibson, Delta Highway and Robin Rogers.

Tickets for the event, priced at $125, are available at

Photo: Doug Seymour

Since it’s been almost two years since I interviewed LaVette for a Pollstar cover feature, I decided to give her a call and get her take on the turn her life has taken. The singer was feeling on top of the world when we spoke.

You’ve been busy.

“I have. Can you believe all the shit that’s happening to me?”

It’s well deserved.

“Thank you baby.”

Watching you on the Kennedy Center Honors, I got chills.

“I did too. (laughs) Do you know where I was? Do you know who was in the audience?”

I saw there were quite a few famous faces in the audience.

“All you saw was what they let you see. You didn’t see the entire first row.”

Was it a who’s-who?

“It was just a dream moment. A dream moment. I couldn’t go over to everybody’s house and sing for them. So if they said, ‘Miss LaVette what would you like to have done instead?’, I’d say, ‘I want them all to be in the same room at one time – the youngest ones to the oldest ones. From Barbra Streisand to Ne-Yo.’”

Did you get a chance to chat with anyone?

“Yes! I chatted with everyone whether they wanted to chat or not.”

I heard you impressed a lot of people. I read something very nice that Dave Grohl said about you performing when he arrived for rehearsal.

“Everybody was assigned to whatever group you were in – the Barbra Streisand group or The Who group or whatever – we were all kind of together. So my husband, who’s a music enthusiast and I’m not, knew him. I just thought he was a sweet young boy – he and his cute little wife. And I was just talking to them on that basis. I didn’t know who he was until the last night.

“Even them calling his name, I knew both of the groups that he’s been with, but I didn’t know him individually. My God, I’m probably the only person who knows all the names of The Temptations – the original group.

“You would have to have been a fan to know who he was and I’m just not a music enthusiast at this point. So I just thought he was a nice young man and he was so sweet to me – he and his wife. We were in all the lines together and we were in our group together. I got a wonderful, wonderful e-mail from his mom the other day.”

How did you get to the Kennedy Center? Did they ask you?

“My husband had my publicist send them a message saying, ‘She recorded this George Jones song and here’s what George said about the song. Would you consider having her honor George Jones?’

“When the producers got back with us they said, ‘Everyone is coming from Nashville to honor him. We don’t have any more room there. Do you think she would consider honoring The Who?’

“I was like, ‘Consider it! Consider it!’

“The greatest joy for me was my husband, who’s probably about your age and a Who fan. And he saw their fans cry when I sang. That was great.”

(Here’s LaVette singing The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors. As she finishes, you can see Barbra Streisand turn to Pete Townshend and ask, “You really wrote that?”)

I think Pete Townshend would probably agree you sang the definitive cover of “Love Reign O’er Me” that night.

“Well, Pete told Dave Grohl that was the best rendition of a Who song that he’d ever heard. Dave told my husband and of course my husband told me. So you’re getting it ninth hand.”

I’m just glad to hear it. How did you end up at President Obama’s pre-inaugural concert?

“It was the same producers, Michael and George Stevens, father and son. Who really have just kind of adopted me. I am so grateful. I don’t even know what to say. I had no idea that I would meet two presidents in six weeks: I had no idea I’d meet any presidents, any time, but two in six weeks was kind of nifty.”

How did you hold it together at the Obama concert? It seems like it would have been hard.

“What makes you think I held it together? (laughs) Do you know something I don’t know? I wasn’t holding it together, I was crazy!”

Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine doing something like that?

“Of course, every week. I think, ‘I’ll be singing for two presidents in six weeks.’ No! (laughs) I was just absolutely stunned. And again, it was because George and Michael Stevens heard something that I had done on this last recording or the one before that. They hoped that I would come and do a similar thing with this tune [‘A Change Is Gonna Come’] that I had never heard before in my life.

“I was kind of angry. It was like, here is the biggest chance in my life. And I’ve been given this song to sing that I have never heard, that I do not like and that I cannot sing.

“So after we beat it down to ‘Yes you can sing it,’ it was, ‘Well I can’t sing it in that key.’ So then we beat it down to ‘Yes you can because a guy sang it and even though you’re a woman, you’ve got a gruff voice.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I can sing it in that key and I’m gonna sing it and … I still don’t want to sing it.’

“Then [musical director] Rob Mathes catered to me and gave me the arrangement that would allow me to sing it. And I said, ‘Hey, this is kinda cute after all!’ (laughs)”

You did a beautiful job. Don’t ever tell him this, but a lot of people around the office said they were amazed Jon Bon Jovi was able to keep up with you.

“I don’t know if you read anything about it, but Jon was so gracious. He sent me a note later that was just – I decided to keep it private – but it was just a gracious, gracious note.

“I was very grateful to him. He’s Jon Bon Jovi and I’m the one who, for as long as he’s probably been alive, has been trying to get you guys to listen to me. For him to be as gracious as he was and allow me that much space – which is good though because then I didn’t have to jump on him and beat him up. Which I was completely willing to do (laughs)!”

(Here are LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at President Obama’s Inauguration Celebration.)

So now you find yourself with a bunch of famous fans.

“Yes! Angela Bassett came up to me and said, ‘I take I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise everywhere with me. Would you take a picture with me?’ I said, “Yes! I’ll take a picture with you!’ And at the Kennedy Center, it was Sharon Stone and Glenn Close, who just held me and we stood there in kind of a tearless crying moment.

“But these are the people that I’ve wanted to be with for so long. And to have them just embrace me like this – I wanted to be with them and we’d all be the same. But now to be with them and be different, to the object of their affection, is even better than if I was one of them (laughs).”

It’s amazing how things have turned around for you.


Are you finding yourself besieged with requests for interviews?

“Oh yes. And I’ve also talked to everyone that I’ve ever known in my entire life. Ever.”

So your phone has been ringing nonstop?

“Yes. And of course through the Internet now, you can be reached. I mean broads that used to beat me up outside school are sending me e-mails telling me how much they love me! And I’m thinking, ‘But it was you that made me have to throw on this extra pound of makeup under this left eye that you scratched!’ (laughs)”

I know you have a group of loyal fans around the world that have been with you for years. Are they all thrilled for you?

“Oh yes. And because they all think that they were individuals, I think each one of them thinks it was them that got me through these 47 years. So even though it might have been one of them a year, that’s 47 people (laughs). They all say, ‘So why didn’t you call me?’ And I’ll say, ‘Because I was talking to the President.’”

So you actually met President Obama?

“Yes. And President Bush. I have pictures with both of them. Although nobody will let me put my President Bush picture on my Web site. He’s a President!

“And I’m puttin’ it on there too. When you look at my Web site again, you’re gonna see me and Georgie – who told me, ‘Bettye, I don’t know what you been doin’ but ya look great.’ I thought, ‘Now this proves you’re an idiot. Because you have never seen me before in your whole life, but you say “Bettye, I don’t know what you been doin’ but ya look great!”

“But I said, ‘Thank you Mr. President.’”

Well, what else do you say?

Photo: Kevin Kiley
The singer is all smiles as she gets a personal thank you from President Obama after she performed at his Inaugural Celebration.

“Both President Obama and his wife are so gracious. They’re the kind of people, when you come to meet them, they don’t stick out their hand, they reach for you. They reach for you to come closer. When they came across that stage – and those little girls! I could have just sopped them up with a biscuit!

“Then when Joe Biden and Jill Biden came by, I said, ‘You know Joseph, I’ve known you longer than I’ve known him.’ He laughed and hugged me. The President held me and said, ‘You know I appreciate you singing this song for me so much.’ We had a private meeting with him later – just us performers. He came and told us all that we’re going to be acknowledged in Washington – because we work as well. There was a big cheer.

“And of course no one could leave. All those people that were close to the Lincoln Memorial, inside a certain distance, they had to stand there in the cold until he came over to where we were and then he left.

“The young ladies who do my hair were standing out in the crowd and they said, ‘Did you know they wouldn’t let us out?’ I said, ‘No one can leave until he leaves.” They said, ‘Well where was he?’ and I said, ‘He was with us.’ (laughs)”

So you’ve definitely got some stories to tell now.

“Yes I do. And for my granddaughter Marissa in Detroit, who’s 17, for her assignment to have been ‘What did you think about the inauguration?’ was unreal. And for my grandson who is there at Wayne State and my daughter who teaches in the public school system there, this is great.

“We’ve never had anything. We’ve never done anything. So this is just incredible. Absolutely incredible.”

Like I said before, it’s entirely deserved. You’re where you probably should have been a long time ago.

“Thank you baby.”

Besides the almost constant touring she does, LaVette’s upcoming plans include heading into the studio to record the follow-up to 2007’s The Scene of the Crime.

“We’re going back into the studio tonight,” she joked. “We’re going to try to catch this wind that’s happened and do something pretty quickly.

“I keep telling everyone, ‘It’s only songs.’ I think my record company is pretty grateful about that at this point. Because should we have to go in tonight, I’m willing to go in under the premise they’re just songs. So I don’t need a lot of preparing or any of that. They’re just songs.”