Last night I went to see Bettye LaVette at the Troubadour. Despite the venue being full but not packed to the rafters, Ms. LaVette gave it her all, with enough honest commentary to make you want to go to dinner with her, to hear her expound on life. In a world where opinions are anathema, at least when it comes to famous performers, Ms. LaVette was the veritable breath of fresh air. When someone whooped, she said "Don't make any noises you wouldn't at your grandmother's house." She lauded her label, said she sang songs better than the originals and screeched and crooned in front of her four piece band to the point you felt the rest of the music business was a distant cousin at best, you know, the one where everybody's got no lines on their face and sings songs written by old men so they can get a bit of fleeting fame on radio and television. That's what that is, the fame business, not the music business. Kind of like reality television, with all those nitwits who are famous for nothing. Once upon a time music was an honest profession, hard but full of personal triumphs and rewards, now it's a sideshow, a diversion, a focus away from the heinous activities of those with all the money. And if you think the label head has all the money, you know nothing about modern economics.
But despite Bettye's prodigious performance last evening, what inspired me to write was my conversation with her husband, Kevin Kiley.
I hear from Kevin on a regular basis. And at first it was about Bettye, then it became about the Animals and sixties rock and roll bands and I started to wonder, this guy doesn't sound black…
But he's a huge fan of soul music. That's how he met Bettye LaVette. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
So Kevin, who's pushing sixty, is living in New Jersey, singing in a few bands and performing as a star in the drug culture, he was a bona fide drug addict. But when his brethren said he was doing too much, at twenty four he got clean. Got married, became an antiques dealer…
That's what we never read in the press. The story of real people. We only hear about the winners, the worldbeaters. What about the rest of us who were thwarted in our dreams, who didn't know exactly what we wanted to do, who fell into things?
Yup, Kevin Kiley fell into dealing antiques, primarily glassware. A dealer told him he'd pay him more for what Kiley was finding in his travels, and suddenly Kevin was in business. Until the Internet. When everything appeared on eBay and prices dropped.
After being married for eighteen years, getting divorced and singing once again, the Internet came along and Kevin found an online group called "Southern Soul."
That's what I love about the Internet, the like-minded people! This is what the mainstream cannot fathom, that not only are people not interested in their curated smorgasbord of bland news items, they'd rather dig down deep into the specialized area that intrigues them. The Southern Soulsters debated 45s that sold in double digits, they reveled in the history, they talked about the culture, they discussed Bettye LaVette.
Word got out Bettye was gonna make a record. Kevin didn't like the proposed producer. So he said so online, Bettye got wind of this and responded. And when they spoke on the phone, she said YOU COME UP WITH THE MONEY AND YOU CAN PICK THE PRODUCER!
Bettye was destitute and living in the ghetto in Detroit. Thank your lucky stars that recording is so inexpensive today. Before modern technology you couldn't make an album without a plethora of cash, and you didn't get to choose all the players and the particulars…he who paid did.
And Kevin didn't have this kind of cash. But on one of his antiquing sojourns he was in Detroit, and asked Bettye if he could take her out for a drink. The rest is history. Then again, that's personal history, what about her career?
It all came down to performance. Her agent, Mike Kappus at Rosebud, saw her at a show. He decided to represent her. Her recording deal happened the same way. That's how she got her manager, Eric Gardner.
Most of us don't get the breaks. We're not good-looking enough, or rich enough, or kiss-ass enough. No one's looking for us. We've got to earn it, the hard way. That's how we get so good. Woodshedding, building our skills when no one will let us in the club, to the point where we ultimately can't be denied. This is the story of Howard Stern. He graduated from college and applied for a job in Hollywood, in TV production. Of course he didn't get it. He couldn't get a job in NYC, he was not Carol Miller, who started off at WMMR and then graduated to WPLJ. Now Howard Stern is the most famous radio broadcaster in modern history. But he's still not in the Hall Of Fame, they don't like his kind.
That used to be the rock and roll kind. The outsiders. Who were not pretty, who did not fit in. Can you imagine the legends of yore listening to judges on television giving them lame instructions on how to mold themselves to become successful? They'd give them the middle finger. They had to do it their way, there was no other way.
Bettye LaVette delivers. And it's her performing skills that have not only given her everything she's got, but everything she's gonna get. The more she sings, the more the word spreads. It's not about the one big break, it's about a series of very small efforts, that add up to the whole.
She may be way past sixty, but Bettye LaVette is as modern as they come.
P.S. I spoke with Eric Gardner about Todd Rundgren, his management client of 37 years, after the show. What intrigues me most is that Todd cashed out his royalties on "Bat Out Of Hell", one of the best-selling albums of all time, what inspired him? Kauai. Todd saw eight acres of prime real estate on the beach after the hurricane and it could all be his for $1 million. But he didn't have a million. And he really wanted the property. So Eric went to CBS and proposed a buyout, since Bat 3 was about to be released and Bat 1 would get a sales bump. The rest is history…
P.P.S. Southern Soul is now a Yahoo Group: http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/southernsoul