Having released her first single when she all of 16, Detroit R&B singer Bettye LaVette has now been in the "industry" for more than half a century (55 years, to be exact). Her career has had as many stops and starts as a driver in L.A. traffic, but she's stuck at it and, as she approaches the age of 72, she appears to be as spry, charming, and razor sharp as ever.
She's also a joy to speak to. Ask her a question about the old days and she brushes it off with a chuckle, explaining, "People who don't even know about me know that I've done this for a long time." The lady born Betty Jo Haskins—who grew up in Detroit's north end, one street over from Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson—has seen and suffered it all, from bad managers and bad record deals to bad relationships. And as everybody still tries to make sense of the modern music industry, LaVette is walking precariously. She's making it work though, through a bloody-minded, stubborn refusal to quit.
"When I put the record out in 2005 (I've Got My Own Hell to Raise), I walked into a space," LaVette says. "I didn't know any of these people, and none of them knew me. Just the ones who were rhythm-and-blues aficionados. I walked back into something that is totally foreign. I'm just kind of riding along. I don't know if it's ever going to be a situation where I'm going to be a Justin Bieber, that kind of notoriety. With record companies now, what they basically do is, if something really big happens, then they handle it for you. But they don't really make anything big happen, or find anything really big."
That was certainly LaVette's experience following the release of 2015's Worthy album, her most recent full-lengther. While the album, which saw her working with singer/songwriter Joe Henry, earned LaVette a Grammy nod (losing out to Buddy Guy), she clearly feels that it wasn't given the opportunity to succeed commercially by Cherry Red Records.
"I was extremely disappointed when it did not do well," LaVette says. "The record company was so tiny, we called them one time and asked them for 13 promo copies of the CD and they had to think on it and see if they could get into that. It's kind of like, I don't know whether Barrack Obama would've been a good president because they never let him be president, and I don't know whether or not this record would have sold if anyone heard it, because nobody heard it.
On the subject of a new record, LaVette insists things will be different. She's looking for a new contract, but this time it'll be on her own terms.
"I refuse to record if we're going to have to go through that again," she says. "To see something that I really do like and think a great deal of, and see it just there — all they did was press it. That was virtually all they did. Not one ad —do they think people are just gonna wander the streets and say, 'There must be a record by Bettye Lavette somewhere.' I'm probably selling more copies of it from the gigs than they did, because I'm doing a lot of the tunes off it in the show."
LaVette doesn't have the time or inclination to suffer fools. While she's intensely likable, she's also direct and doesn't mince her words. One gets the impression that the last place you want to be is on her bad side. She turns 72 this year, and she's justifiably proud of the fact she can still put on a show to rival any soul-singer, young or old, out there. You can't fake passion.
"When I throw on these little tight pants, eyelashes and everything, I don't even want anybody to approach me like I'm 50," she says. "At this age, it's very difficult. But I have to stay in shape for one thing, because I'm just not ready to use my walker yet. If it's an auditorium with, say, 400 people, I like for my voice to be terrifying. It takes a lot of strength do that—it takes a lot of stomach muscle and back muscle to sing strong. I can do the same show I used to do, but I have to rest to do it now. When you see these ex-football players in these various commercials, they probably couldn't play in the NFL anymore but they could beat you. That's all I gotta do—be better than the audience."
Back in 2009, LaVette performed a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at President Obama's Inauguration Ball, a cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come." President Trump's event was less impressive, and LaVette says that, even if she'd been invited, she couldn't in good conscience sing for the new Commander-in-Chief.
"I told my husband I would go up there if they would let me sing 'Strange Fruit," I would show up and sing that," she says. "I'm not the first to mention that song of late, and it's incredible that this dark mood is so prevailing. So many people that I'm talking to are saying disparaging things and I think we need to stop that."
LaVette has performed in Tucson, and all over Arizona, before and, while she's generally shepherded into venues through the back door and out again the same way after the show, she recalls being treated very well by local crowds.
"I've always been extremely surprised, because I just didn't think that was any part of my neck of the woods," she says. "I've been received famously. What's not to like? I've been treated really well everywhere." She stops, and then she adds, "Everywhere it looks like they don't want to bow, then I have to get forceful."
With a career spanning such a large space of time, and with an ageless yet soul-deep, rafter-rattling voice, LaVette's set will be crowd-pleasing and deep-reaching (we're hoping she performs her searing, '72 version of Free's great "The Stealer"). She says that if she tries to focus on a single era, you can guarantee someone in the crowd will complain about the songs not performed.
"We try to do at least two tunes from the '60s onwards," LaVette says. "Sometimes, it gets a few more because there are some periods I like better than others. There are a whole segment of people that only know this last CD that came out, and the one that came out in 1975. So I try to do everything from every period."
In 2017, Betty Jo Haskins knows how to manage her Bettye LaVette persona. There's a whole room in Betty's house dedicated to Bettye's clothes. It's not that they are two distinct personalities, but rather two different sides of the same force, you could say.
"It's not something that's in my head, it's something that moves," she says. "I'm so comfortable with her now. She used to scare me at one point. Then she used to lose her voice all the time. All kinds of stuff. I've really gone through a lot with this broad."
She smiles, then adds, "I thought for a long time that I was going to die broke and obscure. Now I know I'm just going to die broke. I am pleased."