Bettye LaVette spent the morning doing yard work at her home in West Orange, New Jersey. After that, she exercised, and now she’s thinking about dinner. “I have never seen so much repetition in my life,” the singer, 74, says of her life in isolation. LaVette has been touring since since her teens, when she scored her first R&B hit with 1963’s “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” on Atlantic Records. In the Sixties, she toured with Otis Redding and James Brown, who was a huge fan, but her career fizzled out toward the end of that decade, going through a series of twists and turns — from a classic album getting shelved to her manager getting killed by the mob. “Every conceivable thing that could happen,” she told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Bernstein in 2018, “and I didn’t get a chance to cause any of it!”
LaVette’s career has surged in recent years thanks to a series of moving covers albums, most recently Things Have Changed, which featured her dramatic reinterpretations of Bob Dylan songs. Her latest is Blackbirds, produced by Steve Jordan, where she sings songs by her favorite women in jazz, blues, and R&B, from Nina Simone to Dinah Washington.
The first song she’s releasing from the album is a cover of Billie Holiday’s classic protest ballad “Strange Fruit.” The song originated as a 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol, inspired by a photograph of a lynching in Marion, Indiana, just a few years earlier; Holiday’s haunting 1939 rendition became one of the key songs of the civil rights movement. LaVette decided to push up the release date of her cover of “Strange Fruit” after the police killing of George Floyd this May. Here, LaVette tells us why this song is as relevant today as it ever was. She also details why she cried watching the recent protests, how she’s spending her time off the road, and why she’s optimistic about the future.
How did you decide to move up the release date for your version of “Strange Fruit”?
It was coming out later. We were going to release three singles, [before] this thing happened in Minneapolis. I watch the news all day long, and the language started to change from “unarmed black man” to “lynching.” It was a long time before I heard that word, and when I did, I said, “This could be tantamount to a lynching.” So I called the [record] company and told them that it seemed like we keep telling this story over and over and over. People started singing about it in the Thirties.
I hooked those things together in my head, that this was the same conversation. But as I said before, that isn’t what we had planned. From the beginning, I was hesitant for a long while. I said, “I don’t want it to look like I’m being opportunistic.” And then I talked to several people I admired, and they said, “Maybe if you had gone and recorded it for this purpose…” but I already had it recorded and it was already coming out next. We just pushed it. So that’s how that happened. And it’s gloomy enough and eerie enough for what’s going on. It’s just so stark.
Do you remember when you first heard the song?
I’ve known it for a very long time. My manager wanted me to hear Billie Holiday, because one of my grievances was that I didn’t sound pretty, and I didn’t sound like a girl. He said, “You want to hear not pretty, and not like a girl?”
I never had the occasion to [cover] it. It would bring any mood down. But in the right context, it’s like a history lesson, almost. That’s really the way I’m looking at the album. I think if I was just choosing music, I probably would have chosen other tunes. But these tunes were very, very important at the time they came out — and they’re important to me, because I didn’t know one thing when I first heard most of them. I didn’t know that there were black women that sang anything other than gospel music [when I was young]. Then when I saw these women on television, I said, “I could do that!”
What was what was going through your head when you watched the reports of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that have followed?
Oh, I think something different goes through your head if you’re black. I don’t know what it would feel like if it happened to me, or one of mine. But as it’s been happening, it’s been like, “There they go again.” Now that they’re chronicling it, it’s happened more times than I had even imagined. I like the way this conversation is going, though. I love the way that the tenor of the conversation all over the world has changed. And everybody is responding to it well — except our esteemed leader [Donald Trump].