What It Feels Like to Sing for the President

The superlative soul singer Bettye LaVette grew up in Detroit, in the same neighborhood as Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and the Four Tops, and got off to a promising start when she scored a minor hit at the age of 16. But as LaVette's friends and neighbors became famous, her own career stalled.

Lately, though, LaVette has been enjoying a career resurgence, thanks to a 2005 album, "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," that touched off a critical drool fest. Her potent live performances haven't hurt.

Perhaps you caught the blues shouter's truly memorable version of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center Honors in December?

And surely you've seen the 63-year-old singer's take on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" at "We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration" at the Lincoln Memorial? In front of several hundred thousand people, along with an international TV audience of indeterminate size, LaVette absolutely scorched the stage in a duet with the overmatched Jon Bon Jovi. Jaw-dropping stuff.

LaVette performs Monday night at the 9:30 club. But first, we just had to ask: How does it feel to sing a Sam Cooke classic for the 44th POTUS?

"I was absolutely thrilled to be there on the stage, performing before the first black president, with me being born in segregation. But I think my career is about his age. He's how old? He's 47, and my career will be 48 years old this year. It has taken me 48 years to be seen by any president of any color, you know? I've just been waiting for everybody to see me. That was very much in my mind. It was really like: 'Finally!'

"I'm standing at the feet of Abraham Lincoln, I'm looking at the first black president and people all over the world are looking at me and hearing me. I had all three of those things very, very present in my mind. My cousin said, 'You have so many things going through your head, I don't know how you can remember all the words to the song.' I was thinking of everything that was happening to me. It wasn't happening to anyone else there.

"Everyone in the world has seen all of those people. This was the very first time that that many people had seen me. Everybody's like, 'Who is that? Who is that?' (Laughs.) Oh, honey, I can't even tell you all of the things that were in my heart. It's unfortunate that I couldn't just turn myself over the way Beyonce and Jon Bon Jovi did, saying, 'Oh, I'm here being a star with the first black president!' Mine was more: 'Me and you, brotherman! Honey, do you know what I've gone through? Me. And. You.' (Laughs.)"

(Read the rest of the interview after the jump.)

"It was just a wonderful, wonderful moment. I felt like I was floating. But there was nothing to be nervous about. The Kennedy Center thing was much more unnerving to me because it was so quiet, it was a song I'd never sung before and I don't like a lot of singers, but Barbra Streisand is three of them. I've wanted to sing with her or in the same room as her forever. Aretha Franklin, I've known since before "Respect," and she was there. And then the newest terror on the horizon, Beyonce, was there.

"You have no idea how many years I've looked at performances like that and seen people that I've seen broke or drunk or nekkid or whatever. I've seen people who have lived next door to me there on stage, singing at those performances, and it was never, ever me.

"Do you remember 'Barney Miller,' where they were quarantined for some reason and they all had to sleep in the office? Nobody could leave; it was the measles or the flu or something. Anyway, they went to each one of them as they were dreaming and exposed each one of their dreams. The black guy, Ron Harris, his dream was: 'Oh, lord, I want to be somebody so bad. Oh, lord, I want to be somebody so bad.' (Laughs.) I thought of that that day. I'm here, with everybody. Everybody's seeing me. I'm strong, I'm sturdy, I'm in good voice, I'm not on a crutch or in a wheelchair. I'm here! That was all I could think of: They have finally let me peek my head up out of the box. I felt redeemed.

"And the song? Oh, my god. It's the only time it's ever been relevant to me or any other black people that I know. We basically thought that a change was not going to come, but we liked the song. We took it to be a personal statement from Sam. I had never sung the song on stage or anything before, but everybody knows it. When you're at a party and everybody gets drunk -- say you're there with the Dells or O'Jays or something, you start singing it, and then they come in. It was always that kind of song. That night before, I was rehearsing it with Jon, and it occurred to me that the song was just so perfect with what was going on with Barack Obama. It was absolutely perfect and relevant.

"I don't do a lot of duets. When I'm paired in that kind of situation, I just stay purely who I am. Now, if the song had been something that hadn't been written by Sam Cooke and I was singing it in Otis Redding's key, then I could've pretended to be white. But they left me no choice. (Laughs.) If I had been singing the song by myself, I would have interpreted it more. Because, as I said, the song actually became more real to me the night before.

"I asked them if I could mess with the lyrics at all, and they said, 'We'd rather you didn't.' But I just wanted to change one line and they liked it and let me do it. 'A change has come.'"

(Note: This interview has been condensed, sans ellipses.)

By J. Freedom du Lac |  March 6, 2009; 4:04 PM ET
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J Free: Betty vs Bon Jovi is like Stevie vs the JoBros. The comparisons could have consumed an entire Tuesday afternoon. (Again, another reason the chat should have never been cancelled.) Got any other recent examples?

Posted by: reaction80 | March 8, 2009 11:31 AM

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