Listen to KXSF

SF Community Radio

Current track


Interview: Bettye LaVette in West of Twin Peaks Radio.

Written by on September 9, 2018

Bettye LeVette doesn’t want your sympathy.  She wants your respect, your ears and maybe some much needed perspective.


I had the great fortune to interview Bettye this past week in advance of her two-night residency at The Chapel in San Francisco on September 18th and 19th.

In our wide-ranging conversation, I choose not to dwell on the narrative that’s consumed her career for the past 50 years – that is, why did the people around her make it big while she, despite her immense talent, hovers at the edges of fame and success.  With a new album out, Things Have Changed, filled with reinterpretations of Bob Dylan songs, Bettye says she is in her “fifth career” and is happy that “more people know me now,” although a household name she is not.

At 72-years young, Bettye isn’t bitter about her lack of soaring success despite performing at a Presidential inauguration (Obama 2009), and being continually asked to sing at events honoring other, more famous contemporaries like Aretha Franklin and The Who.

She says the record industry remains fraught more with racism than with sexism.  “We (women) were always needed…..everybody’s always wanted to see a good looking, smiling woman strutting across the stage.”

What she’s really concerned about is what she sees as the erasure of black artists and musicians that were the original influences leading to today’s multi-billion dollar “urban” music industry. She credits artists like Aretha Franklin, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for putting out music or working with their influencers including Howlin’ Wolf and BB King.  But that was some time ago.

She believes black musicians from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and 60’s have been seemingly dismissed from music history due to racism.  “They’ve just discounted a whole group of people who were not huge stars but who most certainly built the bridge (today’s artists) came across on.”  Bettye says, yes – the demographic the music industry salivates over today does know Aretha, Michael Jackson, and maybe even Marvin Gaye. But they don’t know who their influencers were. “The more my group becomes non-existent, the more they feel like they (music executives) have created an industry by osmosis, like they just created it themselves.”

“The record companies are not giving adults anything to listen to,” Bettye told me.  “Not everybody listens to music from the box in their hand.  There are some adults – there are some rich adults – who are still sitting on their patios listening to actual music.  Record companies are afraid to spend any money on the promotion to that group of people, so they have to hang around on the edges and hope someone like me will break through.”

I don’t know how Bettye’s record is selling.  And admittedly she’s getting more attention at age 72 than she got at 52, or even 22.  But she makes a good point about appreciating who paved the way for the hundreds of R & B, rap and soul  artists that are bubbling out of Band Camp, YouTube and streaming services every day.

You can see Bettye perform on September 18th and 19th at The Chapel in San Francisco.  And you can listen to my show, West of Twin Peaks Radio, Fridays from 10am to Noon.

By Mary Jane Call.