Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong date of the Bettye LaVette show at Cal Poly. LaVette will perform at the Performing Arts Center on April 14 at 8 p.m.
When Bettye LaVette performed The Whos song Reign Oer Me at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend the two remaining members of The Who shook their heads in awe as they watched a soulful performance that many critics said stole the show.
Im sure Roger and Pete had never even heard of me, said LaVette, who performs at Cal Poly on Saturday, April 14. And if they did, they probably thought I was dead. Before 2005, few had heard of LaVette, even though she recorded her first record as a teen more than 40 years earlier and had once toured with acts such as Otis Redding and James Brown.
While some of the musicians she started out with went on to become rich and famous, LaVette, originally from Detroit, simply never got the breaks. Or if she did, the breaks fell through like a 1970s record with Atlantic that was never released or an 80s Motown album that was never promoted.
But a chain of events led to her signing with Anti-, then mostly known for its punk acts, which had her record soulful covers of songs written by women, titled Ive Got My Own Hell to Raise, in 2005. With the help of a promotional team that garnered her national publicity, the 60-year-olds career finally took off.
On the coattails of her newfound success, she recorded The Scene of the Crime with rockers Drive-By Truckers as her backing band, then Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. This fall, she has another album planned and a book with biographer David Ritz.
Just before she had to leave for Australia, we spoke to LaVette by phone. While still a little bitter about her experiences, she reminisced with humor.
Q: A recent song one of the ones with the Drive-By Truckers is Before the Money Came. How has your life changed since you were rediscovered in 2005?
A: The change is different than it would be for many other artists that you would talk to. This is happening to a 66-year-old woman who has actually done this with no money all my life.
Q: Is there a weight off your chest?
A: Absolutely. When people say, Arent you excited? I say, No, Im relieved. I thought I was going to die old, broke and obscure.
Q: Are you able to let go of your past experiences like the record deal with Atlantic or now do you think, What if it had just happened earlier?
A: If it had all happened, Id probably be with one of three types of friends now either the ones who are overweight, the ones who are dead or the ones who are strung out on drugs. Because I was definitely one of those who wouldnt have listened. The career itself made me stop and listen. I couldnt go everywhere. I couldnt spend every penny ... my suffering has been more in the form of humiliation.
Q: When you were 16 and you had a record and you were hanging out with all these people who would be recognizable names to us, at that time did you think you had something on them?
A: Oh yeah. I mean, I was bigger than them for a whole year. And they all went on and left me and never reached back to get me. The Temptations were the only ones they took me on the road with them briefly. But nobody else did. Which gives me great premise for this book thats coming out in September because I dont owe anybody anything.
Q: Whats the name of the book?
A: A Woman Like Me.
Q: Couldnt somebody have done a duet with you or something?
A: Somebody could have just been on a national television show and said my name, so the people would say, Who? So now Ill never forgive them.
Q: Did you reach out to them?
A: I reached out first of all to everybody who had ever asked to go to bed with me. And then I reached out to anybody who I had gone to bed with. And then I started on the rest of them.
Q: The dirty rats.
A: The group that I came up with all my friends are millionaires, so I cant just pick up the phone and call them.
Ill never forget standing at the door at Bobby Blands dressing room ... I told the manager or whoever, Would you tell Bobby that Bettye LaVettes out here? And he said, Ill tell him you were here. And I said, Will you tell him I am here? And he said, No, Ill tell him that you were here because youre leaving.
Q: Unlike a lot of those other soul acts, you didnt grow up in the gospel church. And theres a quote in the Columbus paper (Columbus Dispatch), where you said if you had been brought up in the church, you would have denounced it by now. A lot of times as people get older, they get more religious. Is that going to happen with you?
A: No, I have more proof now that its bulls--- than I did when I was younger. I know if I get a lot of rest and eat really well, I have every faith that my show is going to be good. And I know if I stay up all night and blow cocaine and drink alcohol all night long, faith will not do me any good.
Q: The last album was a cover of British rock songs. Were you into those?
A: I tell the audience every night, These were the songs of your youth. They were the nemesis of mine. Going back and thinking about how these guys hit this country and knocked all the black airplay off the white stations ...
Q: I saw on YouTube the Kennedy Center performance where Roger Daltry and Pete Townshend were in the crowd when you sang Reign Oer Me. Did you watch the show later on to see what their reactions were?
A: Oh, yeah. These have been the nemesis of my entire career. Directly in front of me was Aretha Franklin, directly next to them was Barbra Streisand and right across from all of them was Beyonce. Ive been calling it my Three Stooges slap moment.
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.