Bettye LaVette on the Death (and Possible Rebirth) of Detroit

Bettye LaVette
Bettye LaVette
Marina Chavez

When Bettye LaVette swears, she swears.

The Detroit songstress sounds passionate when she talks (and occasionally tosses out a little blue language), but she punctuates each burst with a wonderful laugh, one that somehow conveys the power in her voice as much as her songs. She's been busy exercising her voice, both with her new memoir, A Woman Like Me, and her new record, Thankful N' Thoughtful.

"That's the way it used to be: Writers used to really be important," she explains, detailing her work on the record, which finds her wrapping her voice around songs by The Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, Bob Dylan, The Pogues, and more. "For one thing, they didn't then become rockstars themselves. They just wrote, goddammit!"

Up on the Sun: How did you prepare for the process of writing a book, to reach back like that?

Bettye LaVette: These are stories that I've told. I've always said, "Everyone who's black in Detroit, over 50 and done anything -- I've seen them broke, drunk, or naked, or all three." If I had known how confessional it was going to be, maybe I wouldn't have done it. [Laughs.]

But I have a manager, something I've not had for 40 years, and he was at one of these conversations where somebody said invariably said, "You should write a book," and he said, "Yeah, you should!" I said everybody says that, and he says, "Well, would you like to?" I said, "Someone is probably going to write a good one about me after I'm dead," and he said nothing more. The next day [author] David Mintz is in my dressing room. I thought he had come to meet me, but he had come to start writing the book. So, there wasn't any preparation.

Thankful N' Thoughtful is a great collection of songs. Who brought these songs for you to choose? I was curious about the decision to include two versions of The Pogues tune, "Dirty Old Town."

Well, the record company liked one, and I liked the other. Neither of us was willing to give. Have you seen the commercial with the peanut butter and the chocolate? [Laughs] "Let's do both."

Which side were you on? Were you more in favor of the slow version?

Well, I created and put together the slow version. I'm the only one there that was from Detroit, so I'm the only one who felt like it should be a funeral dirge. I'm watching my city die before my eyes. Everyone else was able to think a little more commercially. You know, I could see their point; it just isn't the way I wanted to tell that story. I liked them both, I liked the other one as well, but for me, it was like singing "Happy Birthday" at a funeral. [Laughs] I like "Happy Birthday," but you know. They were gracious enough to let me have my version, too.

That's the way you, a Detroiter, feels? Like Detroit is dying?

I feel like it could very well die. Less than 30 years ago I was doing a play in Atlanta, and you could have shot off a cannon and not hit anybody in the whole downtown. You know? So that gives me hope. I look at Toledo, which is right there next to Detroit, and now looks better than Detroit. I know where it came from; that gives me hope. I look at the cities that have not come back, like Buffalo. Everybody is doing a little something-something in every town...I'm so very glad that the president [worked to] keep the plants there, keeping some of them open. One thing that's encouraging when I go home, everybody is trying to do something. Some of it, I can tell when they're telling me about it that it's futile -- that's not going to work, but that everybody is trying to do something is a positive thing."  

Your take on "Crazy" is very interesting. Once again, you kind of tap into that slower feel, it's a little swampier.

I'm older, and I'm crazier. That's really all that is. Maybe he did have a crazy moment, but you get to be 66, and 60, and 70, you have several intensely crazy moments in this business. The only thing I'm just crazier than he was. He hasn't had the opportunity to be as crazy as I've had to be.

Is that a big part of your job as an interpreter? When you're doing a song like "Crazy," or "Not the One," to bring your unique perspective to those songs?

Oh yes, absolutely. I would like to have seen The Black Keys do the Gnarls Barkley song, and vice versa. That's the way it used to be: Writers used to really be important. For one thing, they didn't then become rockstars themselves. They just wrote, goddammit! You know, when you look at Gene Autry and Bing Crosby doing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or whatever -- it was two different things. If you like both the singers -- like if you like both versions of "Dirty Old Town" -- buy them both. If you like one, buy one and don't buy the other. I think that's the way it should go. I would love to see Beyonce do Mary J. Blige's tunes, and Mary J. Blige do Nelly's tune, or whatever. That's what you're supposed to do, dammit. If you can sing, sing! Shit, if all I had to do was stay safe and [sing] the words that come out of my own head? The melodies that I make up have two changes. You know, pride yourself in learning all the changes of "Lush Life" or "Sophisticated Lady." Actually learn your craft instead of just pimping it.

It's a thrill to hear these songs taken to places that their creators probably couldn't have taken them.

That's what you're supposed to bring to the song. Your experience, the way it made you feel. I've been fortunate enough to have this residency at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and I'll be there for a couple of years, three years. You break songs down -- down to the lyrics and the piano, that's how you find out if there's any "there" there. You know, so many of the songs I've recorded, people are surprised that I was able to break them all the way down. That's because they were chosen well -- they're good songs. A good record and a good song are two different things, two completely different things. I pride myself in being able to have the ability to do this, and would not have had this ability had I become a "star." When you become a star, you immediately stop learning. You stop growing; you have to keep reproducing whatever that was. Fortunately, I wasn't graced with a lot of money and fame and success. [Laughs] I wasn't beleaguered and plagued with that kind of thing! When people called me to come to a club, they weren't calling for Bettye Lavette; they were calling for an entertainer. So I needed to go and be entertaining for the evening, and it was important for me to be able to do a lot of things.

That humility, and sense of your job as a singer, really shines through on this record.

I hope so. I don't want the people who listen to my records to say, "Oh wow, I want to holler like that," or whatever. I really want them to see that I've chosen a tune, and I've taken it another way, that songs can go in so many different ways, like the songs on my Interpretations album, like "Nights in White Satin," or "Wish You Were Here." Learn how to do all of that, or get out of my face. [Laughs]

Bettye LaVette is scheduled to perform Sunday, October 7, at the Musical Instrument Museum.

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Musical Instrument Museum Music Theater

4725 E. Mayo Blvd.
Phoenix, AZ 85050


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