tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS September 30, 2012 8:30am-9:00am PDT
>> hinojosa: in 1962 as a teenager she recorded her first hit. but despite her initial success, she spent four decades waiting for her moment in the spotlight. now in her 60s, she's been crowned the comeback queen, and she's sharing the stage with megastars like jon bon jovi and paul mccartney. the great lady of soul, bettye lavette. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. bettye lavette, the great lady of soul, welcome to our program. >> thank you.
thanks so much for having me. >> hinojosa: it's an honor to have you here. >> thank you. >> hinojosa: i mean, you have had hits that people have heard starting in 1962. probably most people saw you when you sang for the inauguration of president back obama. >> oh, absolutely. >> hinojosa: you sang "a change is going to come." >> more people than had ever seen me to date. >> hinojosa: you were incredibly excited about being on that stage. >> oh, for sure. there were so many things happening to me that weren't happening to anyone else on the entire show. and if you remember, there were a lot of people there. i was the only one... was the only performer who was born in segregation on the show. my career is the exact same age as the president, so... and it was the first time that that many people had ever seen me. it was one of the biggest breaks i've ever had in my career, and then we were having the first black president. so a lot of stuff was going on for me. >> hinojosa: and when you realized that in fact this audience that you have basically been looking for since 1962 as a
singer, that you had it that day, millions upon millions of people, what goes on at that moment when it's like... it's, like, your moment? >> you've got to sing. no, i mean, it was really as simple as that. you've been looking for these people for almost 50 years. sing. after e man says, "one, two, three, four," sing. >> hinojosa: so you started in 1962 in detroit, and you were how old? >> 16. >> hinojosa: 16, and you get your first big break. >> mm-hmm. >> hinojosa: and it's... what's the nature of that song that you recorded? >> a song that i hated for a very long time, because it made me an instant adult. all of my friends were doing american bandstand, and you wanted to go... you wanted first of all to have a crossover record, which "my man" would never have done at that time, because it was a bck rhythm and blues record about a black situation, worded for black
people. and it took me directly where... well, the supremes hadn't had their first record then. i mean their first national record. but the other young people, like the shirelles, whoever, were all together. and i was on the road with clyde mcphatter and ben e. king. everybody was at least six years older than me, six to 15 years older than me. >> hinojosa: so bettye, here you are, you're a teenager, you're singing about your man, and you've got this voice that you yourself have said it's gruff, it's harsh. what was going on for you as a kid at that time? because you're like... you want to just be a big star, right? >> yes. and i thought that i was going to be one. i... you know, soon after i got on the road with the adults, then i started to feel like an adult, and it was okay then after that that i wasn't able to be a little girl on television. i still had dreams of shirley temple in my head when i started. but it was... i never really had
the real desire to be a child. so it was... my mother said she talked baby talk to me to try and get me to talk baby talk, she said, but i always talked just like this, and i called her pearl. >> hinojosa: you called your mom pearl? >> until i got a little older. but, i mean, that's what everybody else called her. >> hinojosa: but you know what? i was fascinated by the fact that when you talk about your life, you're like, "i never wanted to be a kid. i wanted to stay up late, i wanted to say cuss words." >> always. >> hinojosa: i didn't know if you said you wanted to be smoking and drinking. >> i always wanted to smoke and drink and cuss, and wear black dresses, always. as long as i can remember. >> hinojosa: and your parents... you grew up in detroit, and your parents were working people, but they did have a jukebox. >> well, i was born in muskegon, michigan, which is western michigan. and this is during segregation, and my parents sold corn liquor. and if you wanted a drink after work, you certainly couldn't drop by the bar, so you had to drop by my house. and they would come by and get...
>> hinojosa: it was a whole different reality. >> yeah. they'd buy little half pints of whiskey and pay on friday when they got paid. but there was no gambling or women or... it was married people who worked with my parents every day in the factory. >> hinojosa: so what happens? are your parents supporting you at this time? are they saying, "go forth, don't be a child anymore"? >> i love it. you know, i was raised on the north end of detroit, which is where the temptations and aretha franklin, almost everybody else came from, jackie wilson. >> hinojosa: and they were all your friends. >> smokey robinson lived across... well, not really. they were older than me. but they were people that i knew and was aware of, but i didn't meet them until i started singing. i mean, they were older than me. i had never seen anyone on a stage until the night i went on the stage, because i hadn't been to a bar or to a show or anything before. but in 1962 in detroit, that was... you were either just... you would either go to one of the factories or you went to show business. it was very easy in 1962 to go into show business, because there were so many producers and
so many record companies and so many writers, and it was just happening. and it seemed like it was all just happening that week. they all said, "let's start on monday." >> hinojosa: and was the community supportive of... >> yes, we... that's what i was about to tell you. it's so funny me en i hear my friends talk from that period about their parents being hesitant not... for them to get in show business, whatever. i was the first person in my family to ever make $100 in one day. of course they wanted me to be in show business. i don't know anyone... diana, who lived in the projects. i'm sure everyone wanted their child to get out of those circumstances. but i don't think there were a lot them who said, "oh, no, we don't want this million dollars, because, like, she's got a ninth grade test to complete." there were some. but now it seems that that was what everybody's parents said, and i don't think that's true. >> hinojosa: bettye, i want to ask you about something that you've talked a lot about in
terms of your career, something that happened in 1972. you had been signed by atlantic records, and it was a huge moment. this was yet... like you were going to have now your... >> another moment. >> hinojosa: 1962, it was 1972, it was going to be another big hit. you were all ready, right? >> yes. >> hinojosa: you were ready to jump on. >> i had their hottest producer, who had been producing wilson pickett. we went down to muscle shoals, which is why the album called the scene of the crime. and atlantic was really behind it. and it didn't come out. we... it was... i just thought it was really a very good album. and they just called one day and said, "we've decided not to go forward with the project." and they had already sent me the plane tickets to go on the promotion tour. they said, "send the tickets back. we've decided not to go forward." of course, i've let everyone i know in show business listen to this, and i've got the plane tickets, so i know it's coming up. now i don't believe anything unless i'm actually standing there. >> hinojosa: so it was an incredible life lesson. >> oh, it was like somebody had come and kicked me in my
stomach. it was just... >> hinojosa: devastating. i mean, basically they were saying to you, "we don't think you're good enough," right? >> well, they had... atlantic... and we've just found out... the new yorker just did a piece on me, and we just found out in doing those interviews why it didn't come out, and who caused it not to come out. and all these years, we've never even known that. >> hinojosa: and what was it, then? >> well, jerry wexler and ahmet ertegun at the time were getting ready to make this big split where it was going to be all the rock groups once again, and ahmet ertegun wanted to go that route, and jerry wexler was my champion. and he had become kind of disgusted with the lack of attention being paid to rhythm and blues. and aretha's... aretha and wilson pickett's stuff was already set. they weren't interested in building of developing another r & b act. >> hinojosa: so you basically have this moment where, you know, american popular culture is being decided... you know, one of the ways in which it's going to go, by a couple of guys. >> mm-hmm.
>> hinojosa: and you were the victim. >> right. >> hinojosa: and at that point, you said that you got under a table for how many days? >> i got under the dining room table, and i stayed under there for three days. i just had this big jug of wine, and i just poured that in a paper cup and drank it, and i would come out, and go to the bathroom, and go right back up under there. >> hinojosa: are you crying? >> oh, yeah, all day. i was just devastated. and then somebody called and said, "come and do something." >> hinojosa: you know, you talk about the fact that you had these 40 years... you had your first hit in 1962, and then essentially 40 years of still working, but without a hit. and you talk a lot about what that felt like, those 40 years. you... in fact, you have this term that you used. you call it... >> the struggle. >> hinojosa: the struggle. >> just the struggle. but it wasn't the struggle... i never had to live in a car. i've always been fortunate with people. while the business wasn't kind to me, people were. people paid car notes and mortgages and bought clothes and plane tickets, and they really... >> hinojosa: fans? >> yes. >> hinojosa: fans.
>> it was a core group of people that did these things for me, and are still with me now, and really believed in it. and i didn't believe in me every day. it was like, "here, go shopping," or "here, go and do this show for $20, and we'll get you this $100 dress to go do this show for $20, and have some champagne and be happy." >> hinojosa: you were singing for $50 a night. >> mm-hmm, three shows. >> hinojosa: and not... >> three one-hour shows. >> hinojosa: and the total that you would get is $50 a night. >> well, i got $100, but i had to give $50 of it to my keyboard player. >> hinojosa: and you actually... i mean, again, you... one of the things i love about you, bettye, is that you take this situation and you kind of turn it on its head. because, you know, you could say that those were years of the struggle, but now you're able to say those years of the struggle allowed you to create the profound, honest way in which you sing.
>> oh, i think absolutely. i think that had i become a star at 16, right after "my man," well, first of all, why would i have had to grow? when you become a star, you're finished. you have grown. apparently you've learned everything there to learn. you're a star. so that uld inhit growth, does and has. so i'm, in retrospect, very glad that i was allowed to get this good. because i didn't start this good. >> hinojosa: when you were younger, though, you did not... when you heard your own voice, you didn't like it. >> no, i wanted to sound like a girl. you know, i wanted to sound sweet and mellifluous and pretty. and i knew i didn't sound that way. and when i was young, of course you want your contemporaries to like you. so a bunch of grown people liking me at first wasn't... and no kids liking me, you know, that really didn't... my friends were not impressed, or whatever. i wasn't singing the songs they
were dancing to. but adults were fascinated, and i was packing bars. but no ballrooms or dances or... >> hinojosa: talk a little bit about that issue of struggling to find your identity as a young woman of color who's a performer who wants to be part of the mainstream, and having this particular voice that is so unique, and the struggles of, you know, wanting to be loved. >> well, that was due to a manager whose name was jim lewis, who heard everything that i could possibly be, and i heard none of it. and for the first maybe five or six years, maybe ten years that we were together, it was... i thought he wanted me to eventually learn how to sound like sarah vaughan, and sound like nancy wilson. and he was trying to get me to sing those songs, but with my voice. and i would feel like, "well, they don't sound pretty when i sing them."
he said, "that's because you don't sound pretty. you sound like this. so sing them like that, with all your heart." and i couldn't get that together. >> hinojosa: that's... for someone to say... for a manager to say, "you don't sound pretty"... >> oh, no, he said... and he called, like, people like the miracles and the temptations, he called those my little friends. he said, "you and your little friends have got to sustain these careers for 50 and 60 years." and he said, "if you don't learn your craft, you won't be able to do that. you either have to learn your craft, or you have to have a hit record every two years. that's the only way you'll be able to make any money at this. i won't promise you that you're going to be a star, but you will be able to make your money singing, and you will be a respected artist if you listen to me." and i wouldn't do that for a long time. i said, "he just wants me to be old, and he just likes all this old music from the '40s, and he's not hip, and he wants to make me old, too." oh, it was just a constant
battle. >> hinojosa: and now you have... i love the fact that you don't call it a comeback, because you were working. >> oh, all the time. >> hinojosa: you were working all the time. >> yep. >> hinojosa: now, you may not have been getting all the calls, necessarily, that you wanted to get, or to perform... >> i was making most of the calls-- "can i please come and work there?" >> hinojosa: so this... when did it happen for you that you were able to say, "this is the voice of bettye lavette, this is how i sound, it is gruff, it is... it is a voice that sounds like it has been lived in"? >> i think in doing those little gigs. you would get so maudlin and sad you would crawl inside the song. and i started to actually crawl inside the songs. and when i got into them i felt like, "well, i'm presenting them the way i feel." and i became aware that i was presenting what i felt. maybe it wasn't a great sound, but it was a powerful feeling. and it was in those little clubs
that i found that. and then when i went to do bubbling brown sugar, theater, because i was directed for the first time, and told, "here, sound like this at this time, and look this way while you're doing it," that direction took me far and away from my contemporaries, because they learned on the fly. i was directed. so i was able to add that to what i had learned on the fly. and it just made me come out of that being a completely different kind of singer and performer. >> hinojosa: so when you look out into your audience, who do you see now? who is the audience of bettye lavette? >> well, in the last eight years it has changed tremendously. it was conscientious whites who had become rhythm and blues icionados, and hd onto that '60s and '70s part of my career. and then when i finally, eight years ago, got a booking agent, they allowed me to be my own ambassador. i always felt that i could entertain people, and if they heard me, i'd get another gig. but i had long given up the "if
they hear me i'll become a star." but i knew if they heard me they'd hire me again, and i would be able to work. so i was able to... as i said, with the booking agency, rosebud, they were just sticking me everyplace-- on every little festival, and garnering this new white audience. and then after the inaugural, when i did "a change is going to come," i noticed right away, right after that, the next week, more black faces in the audience. they were like, "i bought her record in 1962," or, "i bought her record in..." but they didn't know where i was. i was only working in one place or two places. blacks didn't frequent theater a lot, so they didn't see that whole part. then i had this little disco record. no blacks my age bought that. so i didn't exist to them. so now after the inaugural thing, i'm seeing more and more and more black faces. >> hinojosa: so you also have now this fan base that is pretty extraordinary. when you sang "love is going to reign over me" at the kennedy center honors...
>> that's a whole other group. >> hinojosa: a whole other part of an audience opened up for you. and you actually had roger daltry kneeling at your chair, and you had pete townsend saying that your rendition of that song made him break into tears. >> mm-hmm. and you're just like, "hey, guys, you're the who." what was that like? i mean, what was it like to know that you were then breaking into that other sector? >> well, as i said, it was more of a... it was more satisfaction for me to see my husband, who is irish, who grew up with this music, and who knew all of these people. he knows their favorite color, and when they were born, to my annoyance. because nobody knew all of that about me. and he's a record historian and collector, so he knows all about not only black music, but the british music. and it was... the british rock thing that i've just done was his concept. and he... so for me to see him see them looki at me like
that, it was like... i got more of a kick out of that than... because i just don't have that reverence for that group of people. everybody that i have reverence for came before me. i don't know any contemporaries that i idolize. >> hinojosa: so who would be someone that you have... >> ray charles. >> hinojosa: ray charles. >> yeah. >> hinojosa: and you actually said that you would love to have the ray charles audience. >> yes, and it's turning into that, slowly but surely-- young, old, foreign, near, blac white. i'm really enjoying that, because that means that i'm an entertainer. it doesn't mean i'm a rock star, or a rhythm and blues star. it means i'm entertaining a group of people. >> hinojosa: you are working hard. >> yes. >> hinojosa: i mean, the calls are coming in, but it basically means you've got to work hard. >> i've got to show up for them, yes. >> hinojosa: and you're a grandma. >> yeah, which means that now that i'm doing more work, i will be able to get a walker to match my outfits.
i'm going to be so cool. >> hinojosa: it's interesting, because, you know, you do not give off a scent... a moment of, you know, "i'm tired, i feel overworked." you give off total energy. but for you, this... for you to sing, it is work. >> oh, absolutely. it is why so many of my contemporaries, when they start to work less, you find their voices getting weaker, because you've got to do it. and by me singing, trying to sing over a group of drinking people three times a night, it was nothing but exercise for my voice, just making it stronger and stronger and stronger. so by the time they did call, i was cool. >> hinojosa: you say that when you perform sometimes... and for those who haven't heard you, just when you're hearing you sing on a cd, it is as if your whole body is coming through. and you say that sometimes after you perform, you feel like you have actually been beat up.
>> yeah, well, now, too, it's the travel of any kind. at first, i had always dreamed of being able to travel and take my band on a plane. we hate the airport. so now i'm back to, "i'll be okay if i'm in the car." i hate the car. but when you mix the traveling all day, and then getting off and doing the thing at night, if i had been doing it all of the time, it wouldn't strike my body so hard. but they've essentially come and gotten me away from home, where i was doing one gig a week and taking my grandchildren back and forth to school, and said, "here-- get on this plane, get in this car, get on this van, get up, get down, go on the stage." and right now i'm not really... i don't have that group of people swirling around me who are, like, putting on my lip gloss, and doing whaver. so i'm basically doing everything myself. >> hinojosa: and then you get a call to actually front for robert plant. >> yeah, yeah. >> hinojosa: i mean, a huge rock star. what was that like? >> oh, it was very much like the show i had done the night
before. very much like it. from all i can tell, i had the same band, and the audience when i... i was grateful that his audience was so receptive of me, but i felt that was my job. and th, o, it's easier to win over an older audience if you're an adult. i know that they're older, i know that they were there pretending to be 20 again for robert plant. but they had to be 65 with me, and they appreciated the relief. they didn't have to scream, they didn't have to do... >> hinojosa: so bettye, do you think that your honesty, the fact that you are so brutally honest about things, has helped you in your career, in your life, or has it been one of those things that you've been honest, because that is who you are, but sometimes it's just... it's been hard? >> oh, it's helped, it's helped. and then i imane that it h hurt. i don't think it hurt as much as it's helped, because before i got old, there wasn't anybody for me to insult or talk to, so,
you know, i wasn't... it isn't like a lot of the people in the industry were insulted by me. i only became this way after i got older. now i say what i mean, because that's exactly what i mean. i do not need your help. i don't care more than i'm struggling. the struggle part is no longer there. >> hinojosa: so you have this amazing song called "the battle of bettye lavette." and it really... and again, when you talk about the honesty of your life, you put it all out there. you just basically say, "you know, in my life, there were people who never... they set me aside, cast me aside." tell me a little bit about kind of singing in such an intimate way about your life and the struggle and the fact that you didn't become the big star, but that you're still here. >> you know, i don't consider myself a songwriter at all. but people around me encourage me to write because i talk so much, they assume i can act and that i can write, and i can't do either. they both require different skills than just being able to talk a lot.
but when i was doing "scene of the crime" with the drive-by truckers, patterson hood, who is leader of that group, is a prolific writer, and just really was laughing at lots of things i was saying. he said, "just write down what you're saying." and i said, "i can't write, patterson." and he said, "well, i'll write you a song." so he wrote the song out and whatever. i said, "i don't like this." so i said, "give me the pen." and he said... what made me grab the pen, actually, he said... i was asking him who he liked from detroit. he said, "david ruffin. do you know him?" i said, "i knew david ruffin when he was sober." and the song came up from there, you know? >> hinojosa: bettye, you talk about, you know, your life, and people talk about your life as this story of kind of redemption and triumph after the struggle. do you see it the same way? you know, when you stand back and look at your life, is it really this story of triumph, and what is the message then of bettye lavette's... not her
music, but of her life, for the rest of us? >> it is redemption. i feel absolutely redeemed. and i had the opportunity, fortunately enough, to see all the people that i wanted to see me and have them see how i held on. i won't go on to name them all, but i've been put in three very big situations where there were people there who i grew up with, who have just been very, very big all of my struggle. and they had a chance to see me in a size six, and they weren't, with a very strong voice, and their's wasn't. and that was redeeming. >> hinojosa: wow. so you're kind of looking and saying... >> yeah, and then, you know, like, when i had the opportunity to get the rhythm and blues foundation award, which they gave to berry gordy at the same time, this was the biggest company in my city, which signed me in 1972, but it wasn't really motown then. but my voice wasn't the sound of young america. so while they all knew me, they all watched me starve.
so i've had the opportunity to tell several people nice things recently, and to see them. you should have seen when i walked out on the stage at the kennedy center honors, because you don't know who's going to be there, even though you've been there for two days by that time. you don't know who's going to perform. so when i walked out, there were several mouths that were... "the bettye lavette that i know... the bettye lavette that's my age?" >> hinojosa: "she's up there singing at the kennedy center honors, and i didn't know about this?" >> the o'jays told me, they said that... they were my very best friends in show business, and i haven't seen them in maybe 30 years, until recently. and they said, "we called everybody we know trying to be on that inaugural show. we called... pulled out every stop. so we decided we're going to stay home, we aren't going to go stand in the cold. we're going to look at it on television." so he says, "we're sitting there, we're looking, and the man says, "ladies and gentlemen, bettye lavette and jon bon jovi." and he said they wanted to say
something to each other, but they just kept looking at each other and... >> hinojosa: they were like, "bettye? our bettye lavette? the one who's been in the struggle?" >> right. >> hinojosa: well, bettye, thank you so much. we're glad that the struggle paid off. we really are. >> thank you, baby. >> hinojosa: thank you so much., >> thanks so much for having me. >> hinojosa: continue the conversation at wgbh.org/oneonone.