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August 2016 - Betty LaVette

From Muskegon to Motown and All Around

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Bettye LavetteLanding a record deal at 16 and growing up in show business amongst Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson sounds like a scene of a movie. A movie in which a young, successful star lives in a lap of luxury, attending swanky socialite parties and earns extravagant income. For Muskegon-born rhythm and blues singer, Bettye Lavette, that’s only half of the story.

The seventy-year-old singer was born in Muskegon, raised in Detroit, but claims she grew up in show business.

“I was born in 1946,” Lavette said, “so if you wanted to do anything when you finished working in one of those factories, if you wanted to go to a bar, you couldn’t, so you had to come by my house.”

Lavette’s parents were from the South and raised her in a very hardworking household, complete with a jukebox.

Her mother made beer and sold alcohol during the times of segregation, and welcomed people of all colors to their house for libations. Often playing on the jukebox was gospel and country western songs picked by her mother or blues and gospel songs chosen by her father. A young Bettye learned all the songs and would stand up on top of the jukebox, rolling her stomach up and down in time to the songs.

“My mother said I’ve always talked,” Lavette said, “she said as long as she’s known me, I’ve talked.”

Lavette admits her mind was already formed in terms of singing, despite never having been to a concert or seen television.

“I had to grow up and learn the difference between all them because I just thought if you sung, you sung – you know. I didn’t think they were country singers, and blues singers or black singers or white singers … I think I thought of singers as a breed of their own. It’s like there are all these people and then there are the people who sing.”

Bettye LavetteGetting pregnant at 15 and landing a record deal during her ninth grade year of high school certainly made Lavette her own breed of teenager- a singer.

“I grew up really fast,” she said, “with parents who worked hard every day, but who were drunk all weekend. My people were from Louisiana, and so you know—they always said the rosary drunk or sober.”

While she attended high school in Detroit, Lavette argues she didn’t grow up in Detroit, but rather show business.

“I can’t relate, like when I was in high school in Detroit, the moment I got to the ninth grade I started singing. And I was a professional singer with a major recording label. I didn’t start hanging around bars or singing with a group. I literally went to a dance and the next Friday I had a record on Atlantic records,” she said. “It’s odd, but it’s true.”
But the teenager’s success didn’t immediately call for superstardom, despite her closeness with fellow Motown legends.

“We all started out at the same time, people that you know from Detroit, except they went on to become stars and I kept starting and not quite getting there.”

The female rhythm and blues singer has had plenty of enough setbacks and upsets to make a person want to up and quit the business, but Lavette remains diligent and strong-willed.

“This is possibly my fifth career,” she says of the ‘newer’ success and becoming more of a household name like her Motown friends. “There’s been all of these really monumental starts and then these detrimental stops,” Lavette said of her career.

Bettye Lavette“I still know all these people and I knew them before they were stars,” she said. “So a lot of quotes that I’ve made about them over the years in conversation, have like kind of taken the party because I was really making the quotes or telling the stories because I wanted to be someone at the party and I wasn’t a Supreme or an Aretha Franklin or a Miracle or anything. So I would say, ‘one time Smokey Robinson said,’ or whatever, and I knew these things to be true because I was there.”

When word of Lavette’s coming up in Detroit stories reached biographer David Ritz, he proposed a book deal for the singer.

It was a deal that was initially thought to be turned down for Lavette. “I really didn’t (want to) because I really think it would be better after I die,” Lavette laughed. After reconsideration, she agreed to the deal and began the writing process.

“I thought that it would be very easy, because I thought it would be like the parties I’d been at. I’d tell these little stories, but every time I would tell a story, David Ritz would say ‘and what were you doing when this was happening?’”

“It became frightening at one point, because I knew if I told this, I’d have to tell that, whereas where I’m talking to strangers, I could tell the part that was good,” she chuckled.

The story is a very gritty, honest account of her brutal upbringing, abuse, alcohol, prostitution, and her fellow show biz stars straight from Bettye herself.

“While I’m really kind of open in the book, I’m apprehensive because I’m alive and so are they – a lot of them,” Lavette said of her book’s stories of notable singers and songwriters.

It’s a career filled with enough fuel to the fiery business full of letdowns, and the lowest of lows, but seventy-year-old Lavette keeps on keepin’ on.

Referred to as “an overnight sensation after 50 years in the business,” the singer has certainly ‘paid her dues’ to be in the big leagues, and has started seeing more opportunities come her way over the last few years. Opportunities she said she was and is still totally prepared for because of years of hard work.

Her album “Worthy” has been nominated for a Grammy, but it’s a nominated Lavette will boldly tell you she doesn’t feel the typical response to.

Bettye Lavette“You’re honored when you haven’t really worked for it, and everybody just likes you suddenly. But there are very few things that that could be given me now. If you do this for 55 years, I don’t know that anybody gives you anything,” she said. “They should be honored that I’ve held on, and still am an idiot for them and this business. I don’t necessarily feel honored, and especially when I lose to someone who hasn’t done as much in it as I have or when I’m called the wrong thing-whatever category they choose to put me in, but there’s no way in the world you can hang in this business for 55 years and be categorized.”

A resume of 55 years that’s included five careers, according to the spunky seventy-year-old, and led her to many friends in places able to help. Some of her friends helped record live albums, started record labels, pressed vinyl and sold them at shows. This led to her landing a spot with the Rosebud booking agency, which got Bettye into the eyes and ears of many people unaware of her uniquely crafted voice.

“They were able to put me on festivals as an old braud from Detroit,” she laughed. “I was able to introduce songs from all three of the CDs as well as make the people remember who bought records from the 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Still, it was no luck, but rather a series of opportunities and hard work. “It was a culmination of things—it’s like what luck really is: a lot of opportunities garnered at the same time. And I was totally prepared. Totally.”

“Then I was working out of vehemence, because I was working off frustration,” she said. “I slammed all the gigs, the CDs sold well at the gigs, because the record companies weren’t big enough to put them in stores. And that got me a record contract with Epitaph. And the rest, should I say, now the rest is history.”

Her ‘buzzard luck’ went on to haunt her as her album with Epitaph somehow didn’t get submitted to the Grammys. Bonnie Raitt, Grammy Board member and notable blues singer/songwriter was so upset, according to Lavette, that she called the Board and asked them to revote. “I love that woman,” Lavette exclaimed.

Despite a re-vote, the record company tried to repay Lavette for the mistake and it led to her landing her in the living rooms of millions of Americans.

She was called to do the Kennedy Center Honors, performing The Who’s “Reign Over Me,” and President Barack Obama’s Inaugural.

While both moments left Lavette smiling from ear-to-ear, she argues one can’t put a single label on one’s most proud moments.

Bettye Lavette“Oh, honey, you can’t. In fifty five years, you can’t. I’ve got 35 proud moments, there is no singular proud moment … You’ll find as you go along, you’ll have 100 proud moments, you can’t narrow them down to one.”

While Lavette has had plenty of shining moments, she’s still out on tour, not only to make her name known, but also some money.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to make any money, and this is the very first time. And when this all first started, I was completely broke and not known,” she said. “And I had the opportunity; I thought I would die broke and completely unknown, now I see I’m just gonna die broke,” she laughed. “But everybody will know me because I’m accepting all of the gigs.”

Don’t let that quote fool you into thinking Bettye is nothing but a money-hungry star though, she certainly remains grounded.

“The most important thing in the world is time. People think its money; but its time. The only thing that anybody asks for on their deathbed is more time -- not more money, not more steaks … more time,” she said.

It’s Bettye’s time that has been quite busy, spending much of it outside of her New Jersey home, playing gigs on tour and making appearances. She’s headed back to Detroit for the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame induction alongside Barry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, and then onto Philadelphia for more awards.

After 55 years in the biz, Bettye Lavette remains a force to be reckoned with.


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