When Bettye La Vette was 16, she recorded her first "hit" record; a song titled "My Man - He's A Lovin' Man". It's been a struggle along the way, but Bettye received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm And Blues Foundation in 2006. In 2008 she received a Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer. In 2012, she released her autobiography, A Woman Like Me. Bettye La Vette talked with us about her life, and what a life it's been!
Q - So, Bettye, how does it feel to be an overnight sensation after 50 years in the music business?
A - Just about like that. (Laughs). This is quite a remarkable thing. I'm absolutely satisfied with the occurrences that are happening, but it's weird. I look at my band, these young guys, they can sleep anywhere, they can eat anything. While I was in a struggle, it was a very organized struggle. I didn't hang with musicians. I just looked for gigs and hung with people who had jobs. So, I ate really good. I dressed really good. (Laughs). So now, it's difficult for me to be a struggling artist. (Laughs).
Q - Why do you think it took so long for you to be recognized or maybe I should rephrase that and ask why do you think it took so long for the powers that be to recognize you?
A - Well, it's a lot of things. Over a 50 year span, as things change, it wasn't the same thing every year. It was something different all the time. Right now is the time when everything has to be sensational. So, they don't appreciate subtleties en masse until they see them. When people who are in the industry come to see me now... When I call them and say, "Can I audition for you now?", subtlety has gone out the window. Everything has to be real everything that I have never been or am not now.
Q - Everything's a Broadway production.
A - The big stuff that has happened to me lately, like the inaugural and the Kennedy Center Honors, when my people talk to the Grammy people they say "Oh, we loved it! It was fabulous!" Then they say, "Can she do something on the Grammy show? No, that isn't what the people are looking for when they tune in. We say, "Do you know what you just said?"
Q - I wish the Grammy people would call me up. I'd tell them what I'd like to see on the show.
A - I don't know, baby. I don't know what to say at this point. I'm very grateful that I can fit in a size 6, my voice is really strong and that they are paying me some attention. My luck has been such that if we had all of this technology that we have before and I had been this good when I was 17, but my timing has always been off. Now I'm here and I'll have a record company President come to see me with his wife, spend $3000-$4000 for an evening, but not sign me. (Laughs). So, very weird.
Q - There's really no record companies anymore.
A - Pretty much. You are absolutely right.
Q - It all comes down to marketing, Bettye. You are now expected to pay for your own CD and promote it.
A - I would not spend one dime in this business. I never have. I would not spend my money on a CD and then have somebody try to sell it or buy it or whatever. If I had money like Jay-Z, I wouldn't sign an artist. I would not spend one cent in this business, cash, money. I've given it blood, sweat, tears and all my youth. That's all I'm going to give up. I'm not going to give no quarter. If no one else records me, I won't be recording anymore.
Q - You grew up in Detroit, home of Motown Records. That must of been an exciting place to be.
A - Actually, when my first record came out on Atlantic, Berry Gordy wanted to be on Atlantic. I'm probably the oldest "never was" that ever was. My career didn't take off, so I'm not a "has been". I'm the oldest living "never was." There was no reason for Motown to be exciting to me. It's exciting to you when you hear the stories about it. But I was trying to get out of Detroit and get to New York, which I did and that was exciting to me. (Laughs). But, I can see when people reflect back on the '60s and '70s of Motown Detroit, how it would be exciting to you, but it wasn't particularly exciting to me.
Q - Was New York as exciting as you thought it would be?
A - Oh, absolutely because I had known about New York from the turn-of-the-century, from Vaudeville. I had always imagined being on the stage at the Apollo even before they hired Blacks. Historically, that was all I knew, show business in New York. That was where I wanted to be. I had the opportunity when I got there to work Small's Paradise with Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford. Then Don and Dee Dee produced my first and still my biggest selling record, "Let Me Down Easy". I got a chance to work at the Baby Grand and at the Apollo. In fact, I'll be doing the Apollo next week. I'd just done it for some occasion or the Jazz Society I think last year. When I walked out on stage, you can't imagine how huge that stage looked when I was 16. Now, it looks like a little opera house.
Q - How did Johnnie Mae Matthews hear about you? You didn't sing in a church, did you?
A - No, I didn't.
Q - And you were too young to sing in nightclubs. So, how did this fellow hear about you?
A - Well, he didn't hear about me. It was the standard old story, "Come here little girl, you want some candy? You want to be a star?" Everybody in 1960 and that whole period in Detroit, that's what everybody was doing. I wasn't necessarily pursuing that. I didn't know anybody who had done it, so I didn't think I could do it. I thought it was other people who did this kind of thing. This was strictly a guy who was trying to do some other things with me and he thought he would impress me by saying, "Do you want to be a star?" Then, I sung for him and he thought it was good. He took me who was his producer and manager at the time, Johnny Mae, and that was Timmy Shaw. He had a big record out. I was more or less trying to be a "groupie". That was all. I just wanted to be with the entertainers. I had a best friend whose name was Ginger. Ginger knew everybody who had ever walked on the stage in her life and had gone to bed with everybody. My mother hated her, but I loved her.
Q - You really wanted to be a "groupie"?!
A - Yeah. I wanted to be with her. I wanted to do what she was doing. That would afford me the opportunity to be with all the entertainers. It's just that the first group of entertainers she introduced me to recorded me. (Laughs). So, she cut my" groupie" life off. I did get to go to bed with everybody I wanted to go with, but I was a singer, so I wasn't considered a "groupie". And I don't think the people realize that women on the road are just women on the road and all those guys were going to bed with all these chicks. I mean, there was always a suave, I think they called it at the turn-of-the-century, "stage door Johnnies", but there was always a suave, handsome man, who wanted to take you to bed or whatever. And then there were other entertainers. I don't know why everybody feels that all the women in the world would love Jackie Wilson except the women in show business. That's ridiculous.
Q - You never hear about "Male Groupies".
A - There are "Male Groupies", Martha Reeves and Tammy Montgomery, who became Tammi Terrell, we all became friends because we started hanging in Detroit, Martha and I. Then when Tammi came to sign with Motown, she joined us, but we found out we knew the same guys all over the country. (Laughs). Well, that thing at Motown was so incestuous, I think everybody over there went to bed with everybody over there.
Q - Did you tell these kind of stories in your autobiography?
A - Well baby, those were the only stories I had up until just recently. I only have stories now to tell you about who's on the show at the Kennedy Honors. The only stories I had for all those years is, you know, these millionaire people. I know where they came from. Those were the stories I told at dinner and at my few, little gigs. People ask me, writing a book must have been daunting. No! I've been telling these damn stories for all this time these people have been getting rich. So, it wasn't daunting at all. These were the only stories I knew. I happen to know these people before you did.
Q - You toured with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn, and Otis Redding. What year would that have been?
A - '62.
Q - What kind of guy was Otis Redding?
A - Just a good ol' country guy. He and I were looking at the other people on the tour like they were stars, 'cause we weren't. Just a big ol' country guy that I had and on-the-road affair with. People don't realize that too. Guys actually had women in towns that they had 18, 19, 20 year affairs with when they came to town.
Q - I thought the term "groupies" started after the British Invasion.
A - The term "groupie" probably did start when you say it did. I don't remember hearing it before that, but now I have a convenient word that has been added since 1965 or so.
Q - But, there were other words to describe a "groupie" before it was known as a "groupie", weren't there?
A - I don't know what they were though. I don't remember hearing any term for the women we constantly ran into every time we came to a town. No matter who was in the town, they were out with them. I don't remember a term that was used. Maybe there was.
Q - When you were on tour in 1962, did you perform in the Deep South?
A - Yeah, primarily. When my records came out, no one in Jersey (where Bettye lives today) bought them. When Otis and I were on this tour, when it got to Philadelphia; we did the Howard in Washington, the Royal in Baltimore, but when it got to the uptown in Philly and the Apollo in New York, the first time Otis was at the Apollo was when Atlantic did this album of all their artists. I still wasn't asked to be involved with it. So, that's as far as you went. You went Miami, Sir John's Royal Peacock in Atlanta. You just came up the Chitlin' Circuit. During the '20s and '30s it was called the TOBA circuit. I've forgotten what it stands for. That was who the Black entertainers signed with, worked with. That was the route they took.
Q - Were the shows segregated or integrated?
A - I did some of the first integrated shows in North and South Carolina and Georgia. The promoters had a rope in the middle of the floor. Whites were on one side, Blacks were on the other. The man was just imploring us, "Please don't cater to one side more than the other." I always tell people I move so much on stage now, that's how I learned to do it.
Q - Was there one record label over another that did a better job promoting your career?
A - Being from Detroit and being raised in a General Motors family, I'm biased to General Motors and I will always be biased to Atlantic, even if you show me somebody did better. I will always be biased to Atlantic. That was a record label I grew up with. I grew up dancing to those songs. I knew them all by heart. So, to sit there and see my name on that red and black label in 1962 is still one of the most sensational things that ever happened to me.
Q - Would you say you are as busy as you want to be?
A - Well, I'm busier than I've ever been. I don't know. It's just kind of unusual, baby. It's unusual the way it's happening. I'll be doing my sixth performance at Carnegie Hall. Just stuff is happening to me. (Laughs). But I'm glad I can fit into a size 6 and my voice is stronger than when I was a kid. I used to get hoarse all the time and lose my voice. Now I know how that works. So, my voice is stronger than it's ever been.
Q - Are you carrying your own musicians with you on the road?
A - I have four of the most fabulous guys in the world. I have Darryl Pierce on drums, Alan Hill on keyboards. He's my musical director. Brett Lucas is on guitar and James Simonson is on bass. When I was on the first tour with James Brown, I said one day I'm going to have me a band that every time I move my finger, they're going to make a lick or whatever. It's going to be perfect. It took 50 years to get it, but my band, we breath together. They really are so concerned with what I do and work so hard at making it the way I want it to be and I'm just really, really pleased musically right now.