March 2008. It is one of those times when you can’t believe what’s happening. I’m about to talk to one of my heroes, Bettye Lavette. She’s a 62 year-old soul singer who has been around the biz for over 30 years. She’s just put out Grammy-winning record called Scene of the Crime and I am about to interview her for my current KEXP Documentary series The Heart of Soul.
I’ve done my homework. I always do lots of research for interviews, but as a fan of Bettye Lavette, I am extra-prepared. She is one of my heroes, not only for her give-it-all-you-got singing style, but also because she is a straight-shooter. I heard her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross (another one of my heroes) and she didn’t sound too thrilled to be there with her. So I’m hoping she opens up a bit more with me, but am not banking on it.
As we launch the digital line (she’s in Detroit, I’m in Seattle, technology) I can hear her talking to whoever’s in the room with her. Then we introduce ourselves. She sounds wise and tough. Yeez, I’m nervous. I decide right then and there not to hide it. I think it’s okay to be a dork. So I go with it, telling her I’m a huge fan and am a bit nervous. I also tell her that I probably won’t be in the documentary. It will be just her telling her story.
So I explain the series, that we’re doing portraits of soul artists. Short radio stories that give listeners a feel for the artist’s personality and drive. And I ask my first question: “What do you think of soul music?”
Bettye doesn’t even pause to think. “People who are rhythm and blues singers should not be called soul singers. I always say that it’s a white euphemism. I use it more to describe myself to people who really have no understanding of rhythm and blues.”
Silence. I manage to get out the smallest, most nervous laugh. What am I going to say to that? I mean, the series is called “The Heart of Soul.”
At this point I look down at my notes. Every one of my questions has the word “soul” in it. So I put a big X over the whole page and sat back to be schooled by Bettye Lavette. Here’s the documentary.
Bettye Lavette’s career started out in big in 1972, when she recorded the album that was to be her big hit with the label Atlantic. But something went terribly wrong, and Bettye never found out exactly what happened. The record company shelved the record and it was never released (until 30 years later when it was discovered by a French record collector.)
When Atlantic shelved her debut, Bettye says she spent many days under the table with a bottle trying to make it through. But for the next three decades she kept working. She never gave up. Now, in her 60’s she finally has the success she’s always wanted. And, as she says herself, she knows what she likes, what she doesn’t and she’s not compromising for anyone.
Join DJ Michele Myers Fridays at 9pm for Nite Life on KEXP. Every Friday at midnight she does this album spotlight, telling a story and playing 3 songs from the record. Michele also produces KEXP Documentaries and hosts Wake Up Thursdays from 6-9am for KEXP in NYC on Radio New York 91.5FM.