Bettye LaVette: 'James Brown would have fired Kanye West 12 times'

The forgotten woman of Detroit’s soul explosion, Bettye LaVette reveals why she was too lewd for Motown, her rivalry with Aretha Franklin and why she loves Kamala Harris

Bettye LaVette is talking about James Brown and liberally fire-hosing one of her favourite words down the fuzzy line from New Jersey. “That muthafucka,” she crackles, her throaty drawl sounding like a thousand log fires. As she tells it, she had been opening for the funk taskmaster on tour in the mid-60s, but he had refused to talk to her the entire time. The only exception was when he stopped her from performing her single Let Me Down Easy at the end of her set, jealous of its rapturous reception. “He made me move it because I was on right before him,” LaVette remembers. “In the theatre, when someone else comes on stage and people are still clapping for you, they call it ‘stepping on applause’. But he would just step all over mine. He was an asshole.”

Until the mid-2000s, when her career took flight once more – “my fifth career!” she hoots – LaVette was all too familiar with others stepping on her applause. She had signed to Atlantic Records when she was 16, her first single a major hit of 1963. But for the next 40 years, the rhythm and blues singer bounced between label deals and near-destitution as her peers such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross became superstars. She grew up in Detroit, birthplace of Motown, where the party was never-ending, but the rivalry was as big as the bouffants. On one occasion, Motown’s Tammi Terrell burst into her dressing room wielding a gun to boast she could “out-sing” her on “any day of the week”. Berry Gordy Jr, the label’s founder, never brought her on to his sparkling roster.

LaVette, now 74, is having the last laugh: she has had five Grammy nominations, numerous lifetime achievement awards and is about to release a new studio album, Blackbirds, her ninth since 2003. She was never the sweetest-sounding soul singer of the era: her vocals were gutsier, more Etta James than Diana Ross. Her blowtorching blues howl has become more potent with age, as the last of the great rhythm’n’blues women. It brought the Who’s Pete Townshend to tears when she performed Love, Reign O’Er Me at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. And it led to her performing at Obama’s inauguration ceremony with Jon Bon Jovi. Her talent for finding new emotion in other people’s songs (she rarely writes them) is such that Justin Hayward from the Moody Blues once told her that “he had written Nights in White Satin, but he’d never understood it until I sung it”.

LaVette, with Jimmy Clanton and the Righteous Brothers in 1965.
‘Too ferocious for mass white taste’ … LaVette, with Jimmy Clanton and the Righteous Brothers in 1965. Photograph: ABC Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

Before then, recognition had come in fits and spurts. Albums were recorded and discarded across the decades. Potential hit singles were missed or given to others, including one little ditty called Respect. Royalties went unpaid, attempts at disco hits met with disdain (mainly her own – she didn’t like the long intros). Looking back, there had been a sizable bad omen from the start when her first manager accidentally shot himself in the eye, during a skirmish with the husband of Mary Wells, one of Motown’s biggest names at the time. “I mean, who does that happen to?” she laughs. “I’d only been Bettye LaVette for a month.”

Bettye LaVette was born Betty Jo Hoskins in Muskegon, Michigan, in 1946 and, after getting pregnant at 14 and married at 15, her story descends into the sex, drugs and R&B story that movies are made of (in fact, something is in the pipeline that she is sworn to secrecy about). She changed her name on the recommendation of a groupie, cut her debut single with the first black female producer, the formidable Johnnie Mae Matthews, and was thrust into the never-ending circus of showbiz. She got her taste for late nights from her parents, who worked in a car parts factory by day and turned their living room into a juke joint by night. “When the crowd would clear out, I would go and drink whatever was left in all of their glasses,” she says. “I’m sure my mother drank when she was carrying me, so drinking is something I’ve always done. Drinking and cussing.”

LaVette details much of this in her 2012 memoir, a scorching joyride through sexual conquests – including a lesbian liaison so racy it made a man they had invited to watch cry – and snorting cocaine with pretty much everybody in 60s and 70s Detroit. It opens with a scene in which her pimp boyfriend dangles her off a rooftop for threatening to leave him, during a fateful trip to New York to resuscitate her career, and she is matter of fact about leaving her daughter’s care to her mother and sister while she chased stardom. The book is striking not only for her detailed memories of the time – and gossip about the likes of Marvin Gaye, Solomon Burke, Stevie Wonder and too many more to mention – but because LaVette is unapologetic about her desires and ambitions.

Lavette in concert, London, 2010.
Lavette in concert, London, 2010. Photograph: Brian Rasic/Brian Rasic/Getty Images

“I was adventurous, and interested,” she says. “Drugs make you sexy! I’ve never had any sexual inhibitions and I hate that other people have them, because men don’t have them. The guys that I mentioned in the book had hundreds of women.” Sometimes her openness didn’t work in her favour, such as the time she scared Marvin Gaye away. “We were in Chicago and I had kinda left little hints and messages around telling everybody how much I liked this guy. One night, Marvin came and knocked on my door. I opened the door and almost fainted, he was standing there, and I had so many people in my room. At the time he was so bashful, you wouldn’t believe how quiet he was. He said: ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to disturb you, I just had this little smoke I thought you might have liked to hit it.’ He gave me the joint and he left.”

She adds that she never took advantage of a man if they were interested in her and she wasn’t in them. “I’ve always chosen men who had more money than me, men who were either better than me on stage or better than me intellectually. If I couldn’t learn anything from you, then going to bed with you is not the same. I had to glean something from you.” But she says the male stars of the time were even more shameless in how they got ahead. “I don’t know any entertainers at that time – guys – who weren’t getting some kind of money from some woman,” she says. “And they weren’t even called pimps, they were guys who had prostitutes who gave them money.” Who was that, exactly? “I’m not going to drop any names, but everyone that I can think of.”

Life is a little quieter now, at home in West Orange, New Jersey, where she has been waiting out the pandemic with her husband, Kevin. When she’s not out in the yard or playing with her cats Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding – named after the same Otis Redding that once asked to marry her (she said no, he was too nice) – she watches politics shows around the clock. Her new album, Blackbirds, takes its name from the Beatles’ song about race relations in the US. She also covered Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, which she felt encouraged to release early in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

“This time it does feel different,” she says. “It’s as if something’s broken loose. People are talking different. I’m very glad now that they’re talking about what is called systemic racism because that’s the deadliest one, that’s when you’ve been framed to cooperate. Joe Biden choosing Kamala Harris for his vice-presidential pick – all of that is very different because you would usually choose a more low-key, docile female, and you wouldn’t choose a black one at all. But she’s black, she’s loud, she’s vocal, she’s sent muthafuckas to jail and will do it again. I like her so completely.”

Curiously, she has also covered Nina Simone’s I Hold No Grudge on Blackbirds. The song ends with the lyrics, “A gal who’s been forgotten may forgive / But never once forget”, and LaVette can relate. “I was talking to the record industry,” she says. “It’s been quite up and down, and I’m still showing up to do it again. I hold no grudge.” She found it especially challenging to let go when her debut album, Child of the Seventies – recorded with the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, no less – was binned in 1972. “They just shelved it. I was devastated.”

She gets emotional when she wishes her contemporaries could see her now. “I wanted them to see the Kennedy Center Honors and see me get five Grammy nominations,” she says, her voice breaking slightly. “I wanted Marvin [Gaye] and David [Ruffin] and Eddie [Kendricks, both of he Temptations] to see that. It’s amazing that I didn’t die waiting for something to happen.” She’s survived, she says, thanks to various male benefactors and fans who helped her out or asked her to make an album every three years. “People say: ‘Why did you not get discouraged or quit?’ But somebody has always asked me to sing or come and live with them at their expense.”

LaVette with Jon Bon Jovi at Obama’s inauguration in 2009
‘It’s amazing that I didn’t die waiting for something to happen’ … LaVette with Jon Bon Jovi at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

The only peer that did get to witness her revival was her old “nemesis” Aretha Franklin. The first time she had seen her since Respect (and the last time she saw her) was at the Kennedy Center, where Beyoncé and Barbra Streisand were also seated. “[Aretha] was stunned,” says LaVette. “I had on a size six and I looked very much the same as the last time she saw me. So who do you think had the roughest experience there? Me or her? All the while that I’ve been waiting, I started drinking as much water as I do champagne. I worked out.” No one had expected to see her there, which is what made her performance so triumphant. “It was a moment of arrival for me.”

She says she had been “friendly” with Franklin at one point, “until she became a star”, but friendlier with Franklin’s soon-to-be-husband Ted White. “Her husband and I were too close,” she hoots, “but he wasn’t her husband then. He was … well, he was a pimp.” She says that in order to write her book, she had to get three people – “three old retired senior citizen pimps” – to confirm that this was gospel. And back then, it wasn’t necessarily a career that was frowned upon. “In the 60s, when successful pimps would come into after-hour joints, they’d say: ‘A pimp is in the house!’ That’s how they referred to themselves. Aretha wasn’t in that crowd. He was. And I was in that crowd. So I was with him early on. More than she was.”

Various people have speculated about why LaVette never found her audience back in her heyday. Bad timing was one thing, but the guitarist and producer Ry Cooder told the New Yorker that “perhaps she was just too ferocious for mass white taste”. LaVette agrees, and wonders whether Motown never signed her in the end “’cause I’m lewd and lascivious”. She was only doing what “all the rest of these chicks were doing over there, Martha [Reeves], Mary [Wells] and everybody”. And yet, she reflects, “maybe I’m a little too honest about mine”.

Of course, her voice, both on stage and in person, is what makes LaVette so extraordinary now. After all these years, she is in a lane of her own but even so, she doesn’t want to be compared to the “pink-haired” pop stars of today who, she says, have some way to come in terms of writing profound music. “I was reading something the other day about this little child, what’s the one that’s talking about running for president … Kanye West. He was saying: ‘I make my own beats.’ I said: ‘I would have loved for him to have had to make them for James Brown for five shows a day at the Apollo.’ I would have loved to have seen that. He would have been fired 12 times.”

That competitive spirit has clearly never left her. “We’re living longer than old people used to live,” she says. “And I wish that the Grammys and such people would make some kind of space for us, since we are the bridges that all these young people came across on. It’s nothing to jump around and make a lot of noise when you’re 20. If you’re 80, I think it’s quite an achievement.”

Blackbirds is out on 28 August on Verve Records.

Contributor

Kate Hutchinson

The GuardianTramp

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