Montclair Jazz Festival: Bettye LaVette, from jukebox to jazz legend
COURTESY GOLD VILLAGE ENTERTAINMENT
Saturday, Aug. 10
Main Stage, 7 p.m.
Nishuane Park/Cedar Avenue
Rain or shine
By GWEN OREL
Bettye LaVette can’t remember a time when she wasn’t singing.
At 18 months old, she would stand on top of a jukebox and sing along with the music.
The jukebox was in her parents’ home in Michigan. When she sang, people gave her quarters.
“All I had on was a T-shirt and diaper,” she said. “I could roll my stomach up and down in time with the music. Everybody thought it was cute.”
By “everybody,” LaVette could mean the Blind Boys of Mississippi or the Soul Stirrers, who visited her home, where her parents sold corn liquor, she said.
Long after her singing-on-the-jukebox days, LaVette went on to be nominated for a Grammy award three times.
She will headline the Montclair Jazz Festival on Saturday, Aug. 10, at 7 p.m.
“I always did sing,” she said. “My mother said she used to talk baby talk to me to get me to talk like a baby, but I never did. I always sang songs.”
She entered show business at age 16, and changed her name from Betty Jo Haskins to Bettye LaVette.
“The first time I went onstage was the first time I’d seen a show,” she said. “My parents didn’t go out. The party was at our house.”
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Her first single, “My Man — He’s a Loving Man,” came out in 1962, when she was 16. It went to number 7 on the R&B charts and launched her first national tour with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter, and Otis Redding, according to her website, bettyelavette.com.
She has been inducted into The Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame.
At the festival, she will sing some things from her most recent CD, “Things Have Changed,” and a few old things, she said.
The title of that 2018 CD could refer to all the changes she’s seen in the music industry since beginning during the birth of soul — or it could be a riff on Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin.’”
Or maybe both. The CD is a cover of Dylan songs.
It’s not the first time she’s sung music that isn’t blues: in 2010 she released “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” an idea that came from her husband, Kevin Kiley.
“I have an R&B voice, but I’ve applied it to virtually everything,” LaVette said. That includes Broadway; in 1979 she toured with Cab Calloway in the Tony-Award-winning musical “Bubbling Brown Sugar.”
Her career has had its ups and downs, and her resurgence in popularity came largely in the 21st century, thanks to a recording of a live show, and a French collector who found archival recordings. Since then, she has been praised by Elton John, Keith Richards, Jon Bon Jovi, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, among many others of her contemporaries, and by nearly every publication that covers music.
“I’m working on a new album,” she said from her West Orange home. “My husband sticks his foot out to trip me and make me listen to music.
“I am not a music enthusiast. I don’t listen to it the same way as a fan. I listen for all the wrong things, trying to correct things. I’m not enjoying it, but producing it. It’s not entertaining.”
Sometimes she can relax to classical music, but “I’m married to an Irish guy, and we both like to cry, so we like Irish music.”
But after 57 years in the business, LaVette is still a performer at heart.
“I love it when I’m on the stage. It’s something I know how to do. People seem to enjoy having me do it, and that gives me incentive,” she said with a laugh.
And what she feels when she’s up there is exactly the way you think she feels, she said: “You will not be confused. I was saying exactly what you thought I was saying.”