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Bettye LaVette Interview from 2004

From Soul Express 3/2004

The last of July this summer Bettye put up a remarkable show at the Rauma Blues festival here in Finland.  Especially her signature slowies – Your Turn To Cry, Souvenirs and Let Me Down Easy – were spine-tingling revealing her talent not only as a vocalist, but also as a dramatic stage performer.  We discussed with the lively and charming Mrs. LaVette not only her music, but also many other aspects of her life and career.

  Betty Haskin was born in Muskegon, Michigan, on January 29 in 1946.  ”When I was two, we left there for Detroit.  My early life was spent in an atmosphere, where there was always music playing, but I’m one of the few singers that did not come out of the church.” 

  Bettye’s parents had moved from Louisiana up north in search of better employment.  ”My family was in the corn liquor business, and I’m the only person in the family, who was involved in music.    I have one sister, who passed away twenty years ago.  She was thirteen years older.”  When Bettye was only twelve, as a result of consuming the family business product her father died.

  ”You could call my mother ‘a gospel groupie’.  Because gospel singers drank so much, they stayed at my house quite a bit, to be there to drink, so I had the opportunity as a small kid to know and see the Five Blind Boys, Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers and others.  Everybody was always happy.  It was a very happy atmosphere.  It was fun.  Even then I would dance and sing for them, so I’ve always known old songs.  When most children didn’t even talk, I knew entire songs.  I really didn’t grow with gospel, because I didn’t go to church to see those gospel people.  I saw them at my house.”

  As a 17-year-old young lady Bettye became an avid Etta James fan, but in her earlier formative years she was influenced by Sam Cooke’s and Bobby Bland’s voices... ”and musicals, which is why later doing Bubbling Brown Sugar was so thrilling for me.  All I knew about singing was this big stage, the dancing and Fred Astaire – which is one reason why I hated my voice for so long, because it didn’t sound like Ginger Rogers.  But I liked all of the musicals, anyone who sang in a movie.  I always knew I could sing, and I’ve always sung, but I didn’t know I could do it as a profession until maybe a month before My Man came out.”  Today Bettye names Bobby Bland and Ray Charles her all-time favourite artists.

  As a teenager Bettye became friends with Sherma Lavett, also known as Ginger.  ”She was a local groupie.  She knew all the entertainers, and I wanted to know them, so she introduced me to Timmy Shaw and to all of them.  Although I was no-one at the time, I met people like the Temptations, who were the Distants then.  I began to hang around with Ginger, and they just kinda blocked me out of it and said ‘you don’t have to be a groupie, you can join us’.  Timmy Shaw took me Johnnie Mae Matthews.  They liked me.  But I knew I didn’t sound like Bobby Bland.  I knew I didn’t sound like Etta James.  It was a long time before I excepted my voice.  I guess about the time I went to Muscle Shoals in the early 70s I began to realise the power of my voice and that it was okay I didn’t sound like all the girls.  It was okay I sounded like James Brown” (laughing).


  Using Ginger’s surname LaVett, Johnnie Mae and Robert Bateman recorded Bettye on an early soul romp called My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man (b/w Shut Your Mouth) in the late summer of 1962, released test pressings on the Northern imprint, where Atlantic picked it up from and pushed all the way up to # 7-r&b (# 101-pop), and still today it remains Bettye’s biggest chart success.  ”The thing with My Man happened actually in a few weeks’ time.  One week I was a groupie, the next week I was already there.”

  Johnnie Mae Matthews was a controversial figure on the Detroit music scene.  ”She was ‘a truck driver’ – really rough, really mean, just a really hard woman.  At that time, I guess, she was maybe around thirty-five, but that was old to me, because I was only sixteen.  She was a hustling kind of a woman, very manlike.  She was not respected, but everybody knew she had crossed somewhat.  She was the only one, who had a connection to outside of Detroit.  But there was no-one at her funeral.”

  For a sixteen-year-old girl it must have been uneasy to sing a song like My Man.  ”I was ashamed to sing it, because it sounded so old.  I wanted to sound like Little Eva and the Shirelles, but this was all I was offered, so I had to do it, but I was very embarrassed.  And I never got the opportunity to do the kind of shows they were doing.  I was always at a night-club because of the nature of the song.  I was always with older performers.  I had been singing for fifteen years, before I met the Shirelles and Chubby Checker.”

  ”My mother was thrilled. No-one in the family had ever done anything.  No-one had actually held a hundred-dollar bill, no-one had ever travelled.  They thought that we have been saved.  They were very thrilled.”

  Today we are more aware of the many ways of ripping off artists and not paying them those days, so one hit single was hardly enough to support Bettye’s family.  ”It was the gigs.  When you signed a contract, you only got about 1½ percent.  The royalties were not a big deal anyway.  They’ve become a big deal during the last, maybe, twenty-five years, when artists have become involved in writing, producing, owning part of this and owning all of that.  Back then you knew, if the record was big, you were going to work all the time.  That was what you looked forward to.  And it wasn’t television then.  Especially for black artists you had to do a lot to get an album and to go on tv.  It wasn’t a given.  I never went on television until Let Me Down Easy.  When I was on Shindig, I was just standing there very still.  I was very frightened.  I didn’t even move my head.”


  For the follow-up on Atlantic LuPine’s Robert West organized a four-song session, which resulted in one non-charted single (You’ll Never Change/Here I Am), and at the same time Robert became Bettye’s manager.  ”Most artists knew that he didn’t know the industry.  I didn’t know until years later that when Johnnie Mae sold me to Atlantic they gave her money that she was supposed to give me, and she and Robert West divided that money.  I thought Robert West was saving me from Johnnie Mae Matthews, but he was actually involved in the swindle.  But he was very good to me, did spend a lot of the money on me and my career that he got; just not really contribute a lot to what was going on at the time.  It wasn’t until later, when Jim Lewis became my manager that I was broadened as an artist.  He taught me things, sent to staging and acting and vocal school.”

  ”Robert was my manager probably for just a couple of years, because right after You’ll Never Change and that whole recording session Robert West and Herman Griffin, who was Mary Wells’ husband, became partners.  They were going to make a big production and management company of their own, which would be spear-headed by Mary Wells.  He told me that if they got Mary Wells a big deal then he could bring me and the new Falcons along.  The original Falcons had broken up, but, of course, West still owned the name.  Then Robert West went to New York, he was shot, and that was the end of that – for me, anyway.”  Robert got hit in the eye during an argument he and Herman were having.


  Bettye’s third single, Witchcraft In The Air, appeared on LuPine in 1963.  ”A lot of those other things belonged to Atlantic.  They were not on the Atlantic label, but if West could have gotten them to work locally, then Atlantic would have put them on their label.  Witchcraft was paid for by Atlantic.  Jerry Wexler was a very big fan of mine, and while he alone couldn’t get Atlantic to go with him on spending money – like when the Child Of The Seventies album wasn’t released (in ‘72) – Jerry was still in my corner.  He still liked it, but Ahmet Ertegun – which I just found out – never liked me.  That was my hold-back at Atlantic.  I never knew that all these years until now.  But Jerry would give Robert West money to keep him recording me – and the Falcons and whoever – and hope that something will happen.”  The Falcons are singing on the background of the ballad on the flip side, You Killed My Love.

  Bettye had followed Robert to New York.  ”When I went to New York to see about Robert West, I stayed.  The booking agent, who was booking me, booked all black artists.  The accountant, who became my next manager, introduced me to Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford, who introduced me to the New York faction – Doris Troy, Luther Dixon, Dionne Warwick... the whole New York faction.”

  In New York with Luther Dixon Bettye cut one song, (Happiness Will Cost You) One Thin Dime, which  remained unissued at the time, but has since then become a firm northern favourite in Britain on compilations.  ”With Luther we knew each other, when I started to work in a club there; worked there for two years.  Me and Little Charles Walker alternated.  I met Luther one day just walking down Broadway, and he said ‘hey baby, come on in here and put your voice on this song.  I’ll take it to Florence Greenberg to see, if we can get you a deal.  This was just weeks before Let Me Down Easy.  I went in, read the paper, put my voice on it, never saw Luther again, never heard of him again – till I was in England.  There somebody said ‘is this you on this’, and I said ‘no, that’s not me’.  I didn’t even recognise my own voice.  They just kept playing it and then I realised ‘yes, Luther did that’.  The track was already there, and it just happened to be in my key.  I put my voice on it, but it wasn’t even meant to be released; only to let Florence hear it to see, if she liked my voice.”


  In early ‘65 Bettye recorded one of the masterpieces in soul music, a deep and pleading ballad called Let Me Down Easy, which on Calla notched up to # 20-r&b (and # 103-pop).  This was the second record that charted for Bettye in her career, and it was backed with What I Don’t Know (Won’t Hurt Me).

  ”Fortunately, in New York I was surrounded by people, who wanted to help me.  Nate McCalla, who owned Calla Records, actually worked for the mafia.  I found later that they gave him Calla Records.  He and I just became really good friends, but he knew nothing about the record business.  He was asking me, should we do this, should we do that.  When we did Let Me Down Easy, they asked me what I wanted.  The only arranger that I had heard of was Dale Warren, and they flew him from Detroit.  I asked for violins, because I’d never had any violins.  I probably should have just asked for straight money (laughing).  But Nate just adored me, and I didn’t know they were gangsters.”

  Already earlier in New York Bettye had joined the Don Gardner & Dee Dee Ford Revue.  ”Dee Dee Ford was very ill at the time, mentally, and was slowly having a nervous breakdown.  She was very sad about this trumpet player, who was her man, and she started to write Let Me Down Easy, so I helped her write the song.  When they asked to write down the credits who wrote it, I just said ‘give my part to her’.  I didn’t know you get money from these things for years and years and years.  I think I wrote maybe three or four lines, but gosh! – today three or four lines...  So as a result she winds up being the only writer on it.”

  Two further Calla singles emerged in 1965 (I Feel Good All Over/Only Your Love Can Save Me and Stand Up Like A Man/I’m Just A Fool For You), but they went practically unnoticed, and Bettye decided to return to Detroit.  ”They ran me back to Detroit.”


  Back in Detroit Bettye hooked up with his sweetheart to be, Clarence Paul.  ”I had met him, before I went to New York.  He was eighteen years older than me – he should have been arrested (laughing) – but I was in love with him for like sixteen years, and learned so very much from him.  In fact, when we all left Detroit the other day, he was the last person I saw.  We’ve been friends for the whole forty some years.”

  ”I had a complete fit.  I said I’m starving.  I’ve just come from New York and I can’t get anything at all.  You’re a producer, you should be able to do something for me.  We sneaked into the United Sound, sneaked the Funk Brothers in there, sneaked the Andantes in there, and this was all done early in the morning, because Motown would not let their people do anything else.  Clarence Paul, Stevie Wonder and Morris Broadnax wrote I’m Holding On for me.  Stevie was coming up with the melody and Clarence was pretty much the producer and director of putting it together, but Morris Broadnax, who lived across the street from me – and it was he I used to cry about Clarence Paul, who was married – wrote all the lyrics.”

  Released in 1966 on Big Wheel out of New York and backed with Tears In Vain (originally recorded by Stevie), the single flopped.  ”Other songs that Stevie, Morris and Clarence wrote – like Hey Love, which Stevie did first and then I covered it (for Karen in ‘69), and Aretha’s Until You Come Back To Me – were all written for me, about my relationship with Clarence Paul.”

    Jim Lewis became Bettye’s third, long-time manager.  ”When I came back from New York from the Let Me Down Easy situation, that’s when I met Jim Lewis.  He was very big in the Musicians Union, so that allowed me really work with the best of musicians.  He had been a musician himself during the big band era.  He had played with Jimmie Lunceford, so his take on show business was completely different than mine.  He wanted me to be in Las Vegas and in big night clubs, so he made me learn three songs a week – good songs like Lover Man.  That kept me working, and it was those songs that got me to Bubbling Brown Sugar and kept me alive in New Orleans.  Had I not learned those songs and had I worked only when my records were selling, I would have starved to death.  He made me the artist you see.  He worked with me until he died.  He passed away seventeen years ago.”


  In 1968 and 1969 Bettye had four singles released on Ollie McLaughlin’s Karen label.  ”Record companies released records in packages.  They released These Arms Of Mine, Hello Stranger and My Man – that was the group I went out with – and Ollie I met then, but I never saw him again until when I recorded for him.  He always loved my voice.  He came into the Twenty Grand one night and I was singing Hey Love, which was out by Stevie Wonder.  He said ‘you gotta record that.  Can you come to the studio tomorrow, and we will put something down on tape just to send to Jerry Wexler’.”  (Hey Love finally appeared as Bettye’s third Karen single, coupled with A Little Help From My Friends).

  ”The only open track that he had was Almost, which was the flip side of a Jimmy Delphs record (earlier in ‘68 on Karen, too), and it happened to be in my key, so they put my voice on it.  People wondered, why there was only one side (the flip was a band track of Love Makes The World Go Round).  They had but one track.  They sent it to Atlantic, they loved it and gave him the money for What Condition My Condition Is In.”

  Kenny Rogers’ First Edition had a # 5 pop hit with Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) in early ‘68, a few months before Bettye covered it for her second Karen release (b/w Get Away).  ”Kenny Rogers came to Detroit, I met him and gave him a copy of my record.  ‘This is so much better than our version.  I have to send it to my brother Lelan, who is starting a new company in Nashville’.  When Lelan got the record, he said ‘I know her.  I was her promotion man on Let Me Down Easy’.”  Bettye’s final Karen single in ‘69 coupled a less tasty remake of Let Me Down Easy with Ticket To The Moon.


  Lelan’s Silver Fox label was a subsidiary of Shelby Singleton’s SSS International.  ”Lelan and Ollie were the very same kind of producers.  They trusted what you felt you could sing, and they just kind of laid back and let you sing it.  We went down to Nashville, but we didn’t want Shelby Singleton in the studio, so we went to Memphis.  Shelby didn’t know what he was listening to, and he always had an advice.”

  A southern mid-paced chugger, He Made A Woman Out Of Me (b/w Nearer To You, cut also by Betty Harris), which was banned on some radio stations due to its risque lyrics those days, charted for Bettye as the third record in her career in late ‘69 (# 25-soul).  Bobbie Gentry popularized the song a year later.  He Made A Woman Out Of Me was followed by the similarly raunchy Do Your Duty (# 38-soul; b/w Love’s Made A Fool Out Of Me).  Bettye was backed up by the Dixie Flyers, led by Jim Dickinson, and the Memphis Horns.

  Bettye’s third Silver Fox single and three subsequent SSS International releases in 1970 offered, among others, a couple of covers: Games People Play/My Train’s Comin’ In, (Take Another) Piece Of My Heart/At The Mercy Of A Man, My Train’s Comin’ In/He Made A Woman Out Of Me and Let’s Go, Let’s Go’ Let’s Go.  She also cut one more version of Let Me Down Easy, which remained unissued at the time.

  Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go was a duet with Hank Ballard and a cover of his # 1 r&b hit in 1960.  ”The reason, why I wound up doing it with Hank, was because he didn’t know the words, and I was standing there singing in his ear.  Lelan said ‘why don’t you sing it with him’, so we just started singing it together and left it that way.  By that time Hank was very alcoholic, but I remembered the words, because it was one of the songs on my show.  I remembered, how Clarence Paul recorded Stevie Wonder.  They whispered the words in his ear and Stevie would sing them.”

  In 1971 there was a one-off on the TCA label, Never My Love/Stormy, a couple of pop songs by Association and Classics IV.  ”At that time I had no-one to write for me, and those were the tunes I was doing on my show and they were working really well, so we just recorded them.  Those days Jim Lewis was choosing all my songs; or he brought me like five songs and asked me to pick the ones.  TCA was Twentieth Century Attractions, owned by Jim Lewis, Rudy Robinson and I.”


  Signing with Atco in 1972 was for Bettye artistically and musically one of the highlights of her career and, at the same time, one of her biggest tragedies.  ”Ollie McLaughlin again.  He owned me for everything we had done, and Jim confronted him in Detroit.  This is when Ollie was getting strung-out on drugs, spending a lot of Atlantic’s money.  He told Atlantic he knew Brad Shapiro personally and he could get him to do a recording on me, if they would just let him have one more recording session money.  They did that.  I didn’t even know who Brad Shapiro was, because at that time you weren’t necessarily looking at a producer.  I knew the musicians, but producers hadn’t quite yet become the important thing.  Although he had had these successes with Wilson Pickett, you only knew it, if you were there.  It wasn’t known by the general public the way it is now.”

  The first Atco single, Heart Of Gold/You’ll Wake Up Wiser, was still cut in Detroit, but for the ensuing album – under the working title of ”Child Of The Seventies”   – Bettye was sent down to Muscle Shoals to work with their famous rhythm section of Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, David Hood and Roger Hawkins, under the production of Brad Shapiro.  For the album they laid down eleven tracks there   – plus one later in New York – added background vocals in Memphis and strings in Miami.  ”It was very, very easy working with them.  They were the most laid-back guys.  We’d sit around for awhile, smoke joints and then they’d say ‘well, let’s record one, how you wanna sing it, baby’.  I’d start singing and they’d follow one at a time and everybody would get their part.  Then they would go out alone, work out their part, come back and then we would do the head arrangement.”

  The building at 3614 Jackson Highway wasn’t one of the most luxurious places to cut a record.  ”The roof was thin, and everytime it rained we couldn’t record.  We rehearsed those days.  It was just the most ragged little place.  We would sit on the floor.  But it was very laid-back.  They didn’t charge you by the hour, and sometimes you were in for twelve-fifteen hours.  I’ve never heard of those guys again, until, of course, my busy husband – Mr. Kevin Kiley, a musician himself – located all of them a few weeks ago.”

  In the end, in 1972 Atco released only one single, a touching version of Your Turn To Cry (b/w Soul Tambourine) – originally cut a year earlier by Joe Simon as Your Time To Cry – and decided to shelve the album.  ”I was three days under the table, drunk and crying.  I was just through.”  Luckily, in 2000 a French company, Art & Soul, released the album under the title of Souvenirs, with three Atlantic/Atco singles as a bonus (Heart Of Gold, My Man, You’ll Never Change plus the flips).  Souvenirs is a real masterpiece containing four movers, two enchanting mid-pacers and  six thrilling slowies, such as Our Own Love Song, Outside Woman and, of course, the title song.  ”Of my recordings right now, I’m probably personally selling more of them than anybody else, because all the companies are so small and so under-distributed.  Everywhere we’re going, we’re selling it, so we’re probably the biggest record company I got going right now.” 

  Two more songs – Waiting For Tomorrow and Shoestring – meant to be released on Atlantic in 1973, also stayed in the can.  Waiting For Tomorrow was cut by Clarence Paul in California, where Betty also moved to be close to Clarence, but since nothing was coming her way there music-wise she soon returned to Detroit. 


  Bettye’s next single in 1975 appeared on Epic.  Cut in Detroit, Thank You For Loving Me (b/w You Made A Believer Out Of Me), hit the tail end of the charts (# 94-soul), but the follow-up, Behind Closed Doors/You’re A Man Of Words, I’m A Woman Of Action, became a no-show.  ”Epic and I are suing the production company.  The production company took Epic’s money, and didn’t give them an album.  We read in the paper – I guess, about ten years ago – that Bill Craig, the head of the production company, had been arrested in Colorado or somewhere for a recording fraud.  He had gone somewhere else and done the same thing again.”  One of the producers on those Epic sides was Ronnie Dunbar, so the Invictus influence on the sound was heavy.

  Due to her singing and acting abilities Bettye was next recruited to play in a touring production of a Broadway musical called Bubbling Brown Sugar.  ”We went on and off for about six years – different productions, because they kept reviving it.  The role that I played was Sweet Georgia Brown, and there were three Sweet Georgia Browns, so it was up to your preference which one you liked, me or Vivian Reed or the third girl; same with the male character – whether you liked Cab Calloway or Honi Coles.”

  Bubbling Brown Sugar later earned Bettye a role in another play.  ”I got The Gospel Truth, because they knew I had done Bubbling Brown Sugar.  People in Detroit certainly didn’t know that I knew anything about theater, but after Bubbling Brown Sugar they said ‘hey, she’s done a play before’, and I was one of the five persons in Detroit, who had done a play before.”

  ”We rehearsed The Gospel Truth with Mickey Stevenson for a year – and we ran one week (laughing).  It was unbelievable.  It just didn’t work.  I think I was the only person on the show, who had ever done a real play, so that’s why the rehearsal took so long.  The people had to be taught staging.  Most of them had never been on stage before, and certainly hadn’t been in a play before.”

  ”My second marriage took place right after Bubbling Brown Sugar, 20 years ago.  I had been married as a teenager.  I was married before My Man, at fifteen, and that, of course, didn’t last.  My second husband was a hotel manager, and I met him while travelling with Bubbling Brown Sugar.  We were married on stage between the afternoon show and the evening show.  People were coming in, and they thought the show was going on.  We were together six years.  We were in New Orleans two years, and then we were in Detroit four years.”


  For the West End label Bettye even cut a disco single in 1978.  ”I was doing Bubbling Brown Sugar then and we were in New York – just one of the times the show had broken down and that production had ended – and I thought I wasn’t going to be doing that anymore.  The young man, Corey Robbins, who produced Doin’ The Best I Can, was like nineteen years old and he was working in a record company, in financing.  He called me and said ‘I know you don’t know me, but I’d like to record this song on you’.  ‘I don’t want to do a disco record’.  I did it anyway, because I needed a record.”

  ”Then Bubbling Brown Sugar started up again, and I went off on the road.  When we came back to Manhattan, Doin’ The Best I Can had sold 150,000 copies there.  It was selling everywhere.  I was just stunned.  Then the whole West End fell apart, so that was the end of that.”


  ”The man, who told Corey to do Doin’ on me, went to Atlanta, where he met a new producer, Steve Buckingham, and asked me to come down and do two tunes.  I walked out of my contract on Doin’ The Best I Can, told Corey he can have all the royalties, just let me out of the contract, because I didn’t want to be a disco artist.  I went to Atlanta.  Steve and I did Tell Me A Lie and some other tune.  Then the people disappeared, all of them.  Steve and I couldn’t find them.”

  ”Two years later they call Steve Buckingham and tell him that Diana Ross is leaving Motown.  They want a veteran female to fill that spot.  Steve looked at it as we could get back to me being more soulful later, but right now let’s try to make pop.  So he wouldn’t let me holler or he wouldn’t let me do anything but just sing straight out.”

  Finally, after twenty years since her debut single the detroiter Bettye LaVette was signed to Motown.  Produced by Steve Buckingham and recorded in Nashville, her first official album, Tell Me A Lie, landed at # 48-soul (# 207-pop) in early ‘82.  With a mixture of ordinary dancers and a couple of Motown covers, it wasn’t a great album, but it had its moments – especially the pleading title track.  ”So, after all these years, I’m living in New Orleans and recording in Nashville for Motown.”


  A catchy mid-pacer called Right In The Middle (Of Falling In Love), written by Sam Dees, was chosen as the first single and it hit # 35-soul (# 103-pop) in early ‘82.  Backed with You Seen One You Seen ‘Em All, so far it’s Bettye’s last chart single.  ”I didn’t even want to do the song.  I started to like the record years later, but I love it on stage now.  I didn’t want to record it then, because most of my songs that I recorded have real good, solid stories.  I thought it was kinda silly, unsophisticated.”  The follow-up, I Can’t Stop/Either Way We Lose, flopped.

  Tell Me A Lie remained Bettye’s only album on Motown.  ”They just didn’t know what to do with the album.  Motown had never sounded like that.  They had no market for real rhythm & blues.  Then they released the Temptations and Stevie Wonder records right with it, so that smashed the airplay and that was the end of it.  They decided not to exercise their option.”

  Next Bettye went disco again with a song called Trance Dance on Streetking in 1984.  ”People, who like me, have asked not to let anyone else hear it (laughing).  Here again Steve Buckingham had gotten involved with them Streetking people, and they said they could get another album.”


  Like so many other ex-motowners Bettye got caught in Ian Levine’s web in the late 80s/early 90s and wasn’t released until a CD (Not Gonna Happen Twice) and a couple of singles were put out, including a version of Diana Ross’ Surrender.  ”He had been a fan from Let Me Down Easy, and when he came to do the Motown thing, he had a few tracks.  Many of us now call it ‘the Ian Levine fiasco’.  There were so many artists that could no longer sing.  I wasn’t even supposed to be involved in it, but he knew me and because I had had one album on Motown that made me legitimate to be involved in the project.”

  From the early 90s there’s also a recording on the Get Down label from a show called The Rhythm And The Blues, where on a song titled Have You Tried Jesus Bettye is joined by Kellie Evans, Don Albert and the ever-wonderful Sandra Feva.


  ”In the nineties, my manager Robert and I were walking around Detroit begging for gigs.  That was what I was doing – little bitty things, like my keyboardist Rudy Robinson and I, just two people, playing.”  Bettye’s musical director of over thirty years back, Rudy Robinson, unfortunately passed away just before Bettye’s latest CD was finished.

  Bettye also appeared in a cable tv show in Detroit.  ”It was actually a topical show, and I just had a segment in it about entertainment, where I was interviewing show business people and reading news about local happenings in Detroit.  Every once and awhile they would let me do a live thing.  I’d bring the band in and we’d close the show with a song.”

  In 1997 Bettye covered Etta James’ Damn Your Eyes (b/w Out Cold) for the Bar None label out of New Jersey.  ”I went to Toronto, did the arrangement myself and recorded it in a little room.  Somebody introduced me to these people at Bar None in New Jersey, and they were going to help me just press it up.  That was all they were supposed to do.  After they decided they didn’t want to go on with the deal, because they wanted to be a little more rock ‘n’ rollish – they were a rock ‘n’ roll company – it didn’t work and that was the end of it.  Years later I find somebody with a copy of it.  I said ‘it never came out, how did you get a copy’?  ‘This record company Bar None has pressed some, and they’re selling it’.  We have no contract.  We have nothing.”


  In 2001 they released Let Me Down Easy – Live In Concert on Munich (recorded in Holland), but an even more important album in Bettye’s recent life is her latest studio album, A Woman Like Me, released on Blues Express in early 2003.  This year it was voted the Comeback Blues Album Of The Year at the Handy Awards.  ”Again, we’re selling more copies than the record company, because the record company was not set up to sell records.  It was just set up to record and maybe sell a few out of its office, online or whatever.  The minute it was finished, the company owner disappeared.  It took a year and a half to get it out.  He finally got it out, pressed up a few copies, but nobody could find them.  He had no distribution, and when people started asking for it he was stunned.  He was ashamed to face me, because he didn’t know what to do.  It’s just that I have this great booking agent now (Rosebud), the record isn’t propelling me, I’m propelling the record.  So I’m taking it with me wherever I go and it’s getting more airplay, so it’s gotta be the longest selling record in the world.”

  Backed with real live players and recorded in California, the set offers a variety of funky movers, mid-paced shuffles, jazzy jams and a few thrilling ballads (Thru The Winter, Salt On My Wounds and Close As I’ll Get To Heaven).  Bettye herself names A Woman Like Me her favourite out of all the records she’s cut.  ”I’m completely satisfied with it.”

  ”My biggest disappointment is that album that didn’t come out.  That was supposed to be my first album, and I thought I had all the components – Atlantic, Brad Shapiro, the Muscle Shoals Sound, the songs – and when they decided not to release it, which I know now was because of Ahmet Ertegun, I was devastated.  That and what’s happening with A Woman Like Me, because I felt it was the best recording I’ve ever done.”

  ”My happiest moment was Bubbling Brown Sugar, because that was what I originally wanted to do, dance and sing on a big stage.  Luckily I have more possibilities now than I’ve ever had in my life.  I’m in contact with Muscle Shoals’  Jimmy and Barry, Ry Cooder has approached me and Jim Dickinson with his new partner said they would like to do something for me.”

  If Bettye comes your way, please don’t miss her.  You can find her touring dates and other information on her website at

-Heikki Suosalo

Aknowledgements to Bettye, David Freeland (and his book Ladies Of Soul), Ian Storey-Moore (Soul Survivor # 8), David Cole (In The Basement # 13) and Pekka Talvenmäki (Blues News # 173).

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