Saturday Afternoon Artist: Bettye LaVette

Of all the interviews I’ve done for KEXP Documentaries and as a DJ, my favorite is still with Bettye LaVette.  I was working on our Heart of Soul series and had a list of well-researched questions on my lap.  The first one was my lead in and designed to impress the veteran vocalist.   So I tossed it to her.  “Ray Charles said ‘soul is a force that lights up a room.’  What do you think of that?”

“Well…” Bettye replied, with a thoughtful pause. “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 to describe myself to someone who has no idea what I’m talking about.”  My mind froze.  In all my researching I never would have predicted this! I looked down at my page of questions, and every single one had the word “soul” in it.  And this woman obviously knew what she was talking about, she’d been in the business since the 60’s.  “Soul” as a term had just become off limits in this interview.  I took my pen and put a big X over the page. And I sat back to be schooled by Bettye LaVette.  If you want to hear me stutter while she flips the interview dynamic and starts to ask me questions, check out the documentary.

Because I didn’t front with her, Bettye took to me that day.  I think she felt bad for publicly exposing my inner dork.  She offered me tickets to her show at Jazz Alley.  My assistant Kate and I went to the show and were blown away. This woman in her 60’s had so much energy, taking the stage with her super-tight band.  She pushed her voice to the limit, with emotions pressing the edges of every note.

After her Jazz Alley, show I waited in line to talk to her.  Bettye hopped out from behind her table when I came up.  “You’re Michele?” she hollered and gave me a big hug.  She asked me to stay until she was done with her fans and we would have a drink. And that’s what we did.

Since starting her career as a teenager in the 1950’s, Bettye LaVette got signed to Atlantic and recorded what was to be her breakthrough record in 1972.  But the label put the record on a shelf, and they gave Bettye no explanation.  The night when I hung out with her, Bettye described that time after the fiasco.  There were months where she hung in the darkness.  She found herself drinking herself under the table, literally.  It took years for her to fully recover, but in the past decade Bettye LaVette has been nominated for a Grammy and has put out three successful albums.  Her 2010 release, Interpretations, is a collection of Brit pop and rock covers. The bomb track is the Beatles song “The Word”:

Bettye LaVette is playing Jazz Alley on Thursday, February 3, through Sunday, February 6, at Jazz Alley, and I highly recommend giving her a try!

Michele Myers spins every Saturday on KEXP from 3-6pm.  It’s a high-energy show that is geared to ramp you up for Saturday night… Every week she plays 3-in-a-row from the Saturday Afternoon Artist. She is the creator of KEXP Documentaries and hosts Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays 6-9am on WNYE 91.5FM in New York City.

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