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Bettye LaVette's Journey To The National Stage

If you've never heard of Bettye LaVette, the soul singer who belted out "A Change Is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi at the Inauguration Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan 18., you may be wondering why.


Other segments from the episode on January 23, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 23, 2009: Obituary for José Torres; Interview with Bettye Lavette; Commentary on Language.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Remembering Boxing Champ Jose Torres


This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Jose Torres, a former boxing champion and writer, died Monday of a heart attack in his home in Ponce, Puerto Rico. He was 72. Torres took up boxing in the Army to get out of KP duty and went on to become an Olympic medalist and light world heavyweight champion, a title he successfully defended three times before losing in 1966. After he left professional fighting, Torres worked as an aide to several New York politicians and chaired the New York State Athletic Commission. But he also got to know writers like Pete Hamill and managed to get a column in the New York Post. With the help of Norman Mailer, he wrote a book about Muhammad Ali called "Sting Like a Bee."

Terry spoke to Torres in 1989, after he'd published a biography of Mike Tyson called "Fire and Fear." Both men had worked with the legendary boxing trainer and manager Cus D'Amato. Some of the exploits Tyson described in the book were so extreme that they made news at the time. He told Torres that the best punch he ever delivered was to his wife, actress Robin Givens, and he described a night when he said he had sex with 24 women. Terry asked Torres if he took the story at face value or if he had a responsibility to try and separate fact from macho exaggeration.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, July 28, 1989)

Mr. JOSE TORRES (Former Light-Heavyweight Boxing Champion; Author, "Sting Like a Bee," "Fire and Fear"): He told me the following day when it happened. I happened to see him the day after, and he told me, and I say, uh-huh, mm-hmm, yeah, I believe you. Yeah, that's right. And that's it. You know, he was a little mad that I did not believe the story, and that happened months before I began to write the book. So, when I began to do their interviews for the book with the tape recorder, then I reminded him of that part, and then, this time he was able to call a witness, a Rory Holloway, who confirmed his story about 24 women. And it is finally because there are days some one asks me if I had reached the climax with the 24. And I said to the guy, I don't know about that, that they were a team. His fights - his orgasm last longer than his fights, I said to him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRES: In any event, I believe the story. I don't know if they were 24 women though, it could been, you know, it could have been 10.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRES: You know, Ryan O'Neal was mad. You know, he's a good friend of mine, the actor Ryan O'Neal.


Oh yeah, yeah. He was in the boxing movie that you've consulted for. Yeah.

Mr. TORRES: That's right. He was mad. I says, why? He said he broke my record. I say, how much was his record? He says, two.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRES: So, we're making fun of all that. Now, about hitting...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRES: About hitting at Robin, I felt that it was a responsibility of mine to expose that situation because I am one of the many writers who have been very concerned about the abuse of women in our society. And I felt that the heavyweight champion of the world as a symbol, you know, express the admiring in our society. And I felt it was my obligation as a professional and objective writer to do that. And I felt that Tyson told me those stories because I felt that he wanted to get them out of his system and mostly because I felt he was capable of overcoming those ills.

GROSS: Mm hmm. Well, I'm interested in hearing about your life as well. I was wondering if you learned to fight before you actually got into the ring.

Mr. TORRES: You know, it's amazing. I was from the middle class family within the sub-culture of poverty in Puerto Rico and El Ponce(ph).

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. TORRES: In other words we were very, very poor. My father used to work every single day, ten hours a day, to support in his children. And at that time, when I was about 17, I decided to go into the army. When I went to the army, and as soon as I was there, I knew I had made a mistake. I knew that I could not live far from my family and my mother and father. And I become very depressed. I was dizzy, like drunk every day. I was so depressed. And then one day, I asked about what I can do to get away from KP, you know, to work in the kitchen.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. TORRES: And to stand guard. They told me, why – if you play any sports, you can do that? I say, yeah, I play baseball. So, the baseball season is over that's why I play basketball. They say that basketball season is over. So I said, what is the season now? They said boxing. I said box.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TORRES: Yeah.

GROSS: So, you box in the army then you won the silver medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

Mr. TORRES: Right.

GROSS: Then you moved to New York to train with Cus D'Amato, who was the same trainer who trained Mike Tyson.

Mr. TORRES: That's true and Floyd Patterson.

GROSS: And why? No, what makes him so special?

Mr. TORRES: He was so special because he was not in the game to make money. He was in the game to help young children, and also because of his unique way in teaching fighters. He felt that what made the difference, at the end was not the physical mechanism but the intelligence and the character of the person. And that along – I mean, that was so attractive to me because for the first time, I discover that I was a normal human being when I used to get scares, stiff before each fights. He taught me that I was normal. He said, you didn't get scare I wouldn't want you to fight for me. I want normal human beings because normally human beings can be - can be taught. I said, but if the guy comes to me fearless I feel this guy to dumb to learn how to win and become champion of the world.

GROSS: Mm hmm. You say in your biography of Mike Tyson that Cus D'Amato didn't think that sex and boxing were incompatible. He encouraged you to bring your wife to where you were training on weekends, which I guess was pretty unusual for the time. Are the two still considered incompatible?

Mr. TORRES: Well, you know, what happened with Cus was that he knew that there was no medical explanation to justify the suspicion of many athletes who said that sex weakens the legs or weakens your arms and makes you weak. And Cus never believe that. Cus feels that in order for any young boy to become champion of the world, he has to master the fear and master his emotions. He cannot allow any emotion to get the best of him. He feels - he felt that since boxers are young, healthy and in tremendous condition that the need of sex is a natural thing for them. He feels that by depriving them from sex that would develop anxiety, and anxiety is an emotion out of control. And he said the only and best way to relieve that boxer from that uncontrolled emotion is to have sex. So, he felt that sex then work on behalf of the fighter.

GROSS: Mm hmm, after you won a few middle weight bouts. D'Amato held you back. He didn't give you any significant fights for I think about a year. Why was he holding you back like that?

Mr. TORRES: OK. At the time, Cus D'Amato was engaged in a big fight against the boxing establishment that was being controlled by unscrupulous men at that time, all over the country. He began to fight them, to buck them. He used the heavyweight champion of the world Floyd Patterson to do that and he used me. In the process, I was hurt a lot but I was aware that I was hurt. But I had an interest beyond my own personal won. I felt that Cus convinced me that we together could help boxing in general and that every young kid coming up today and after, they would be help by this struggle against the boxing establishment at the time. So, I suffer a lot. I became champion at age 28 instead of an age 22 or 23, and I was ready then. But the establishment wouldn't give me a chance to fight in retaliation for what Cus was doing to them. And of course - and you know, in the final - at the end, Cus had destroyed the boxing establishment. They – I mean, they put like people in jail for that after Cus finished with them. And it was a lot of bad people at that time.

GROSS: During that period when you weren't fighting, people thought that you had disappeared maybe because you are a coward. Was that hard to take?

Mr. TORRES: No, because they were only few people who thoughts the boxing community knew what was going on. They knew that Cus was on this fight and there was backing Cus. And even though we have arguments, you know, they were points in which I thought Cus that I was being hurt to bad, that I might never become champion. And Cus says that age doesn't make champions. That old age had not been established in boxing and all that stuff. And I thought that – as a matter of principle and integrity and honestly, Cus was right.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. TORRES: And I felt that I had to back him up now.

GROSS: My guest is Jose Torres. You're also the former head of the New York State Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing. When you were in that position, were there any trends that you saw that especially disturbed you, that you thought were having a bad effect on the sport?

Mr. TORRES: Well, the only thing that I was very careful about was conflict of interest in terms of Tyson. I was too close to Tyson, and I was afraid that my emotion will get the best of me because I didn't care. I used to root for Tyson when he was fighting. But not in New York. In New York, I would be very, very objective. And also, I would put the best officials who work because I knew they will not be influenced by my friendship with Tyson. But going to Atlantic City and Las Vegas and other places where Tyson boxed, I used to, you know, I used to go to the dressing room, I used to give him advice. And that was not, you know, completely kosher, as they say here in New York. He was, you know, one thing I want to make sure, and that is that if Tyson boxed in New York, I'll use to wish that the fight would end by KO because if Tyson was engaged in a close fight and he got the close fight, I would've been on that incredible criticism because of my friendship. So I was always hoping for Tyson will knock the guy out, so we wouldn't have to have that conflict. But he was - also, bureaucracy bothered me, it was fun at the beginning. At the end he became too bitter cry and I quit to write a book, and I'm very happy.

DAVIES: Writer and former light heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. More after break. This is Fresh Air.

Today, we're listening to Terry's interview with writer and former light-heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres who died on Monday. Torres was a friend of Norman Mailer, whom he regularly sparred with on Saturdays. When Terry interviewed Mailer in 1991, he talked about his relationship with Torres.

(Soundbite of interview with Norman Mailer, 1991)

Mr. NORMAN MAILER (Novelist): I've had a great friendship with Jose Torres over the years and have boxed with him a great deal. He was - at one time he was the light heavyweight champion of the world. And of course, boxing with someone who is good as that is relatively safe because, you know, he can handle you with no pain, and therefore he has no particular interest in hurting you. So - but I did learn an awful lot about defense while boxing with him because he - if he'd tapped me once, and then if I didn't make the proper move the next time, he'll tap me a little harder. So after a while, he put a great many instinctive defensive moves into me.

DAVIES: Terry spoke with Jose Torres in 1989.

(Soundbite of interview with Jose Torres, 1989)

GROSS: I know that - when you started boxing professionally, you were friends with the writers Pete Hamel and Norman Mailer. Were they influential on your early writing and on what you were reading at the time?

Mr. TORRES: Well, not only they became influential. I mean, they were the total - the reason for me. I mean, Pete Hamel gave me every single book. I mean, Pete Hamel gave the first book I ever had in my life. And he gave me the second book and the third book (laughing). I mean, he gave me like 200 or 300 books. And I was reading all the time. I have never read a book other than a text, you know, book from school. Never really a novel, never read anything until I met Pete. And that was when I was 20. And Pete got me to read, and then he got me to write. I mean, Pete was the guy - the person who was responsible for me to read and to write, you know. But he was the one. And then of course, Norman Mailer came later because Pete introduced to Norman Mailer. And Pete introduced me to Bart Schubert(ph). And they began to help me, you know. At one point, when I was - I wrote another that book called "Sting like A Bee," the biography of Muhammad Ali in 1971. Well, I went to Vermont to live a mile away from Norman Mailer, who, I'm sure gave up two million bucks just to help me with this book. And we exchanged, I pay him by teaching him how to box, and he was editing my book, you know, and we worked together for two and a half months. And I finished my book there with him, change the book around, and he didn't - he went there for a project that he ignore. And it cost him maybe, I don't know, minimum of two million bucks - maybe five million or so.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about what it's like in the ring. Is learning to take pain part of the art of boxing?

Mr. TORRES: That's automatic. You know, we don't think our pain, the punch that knocks you out, you don't feel the punch. Pain, usually you feel it when you are hit in the body, you know, like in the stomach, something like that. But you trained so hard that pain is beyond recognition. You don't recognize pain. You know, you are so full of determination and will that you don't think of a pain.

The pain that you suffer in boxing is not physical pain but mental pain, you know. When you are so afraid of losing, afraid of humiliation - being humiliated, you know, and more than anything else, you know. That's why in the gymnasium, you don't care about getting hit. Fighters get hurt much more in gymnasiums than they do in actual fights because, first of all, actual fights are very few, and the gymnasiums you box every single day, you know, training. And also, there is no pressure of humiliation in the gym. So you don't care about getting hit. You take more chances in the gym. In the fight, because of the public pressure, you are afraid to be humiliated and you know, psychologically, you become - it becomes very painful.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned humiliation. I wonder what it feels like when you're hit hard and your opponent's fans are cheering.

Mr. TORRES: Also, when you - I think that fighters know before it happens when they're going to lose. I think they have a feeling, you know, fighters that loses their will to win in the midst of the fight. You know, that's why Muhammad Ali was such a great fighter. Muhammad Ali was one of the few who won fights and perhaps most of his fights, before he went to the ring. He used to discourage his opponent and then the opponent would go into the ring thinking that he was going to lose. And that was a magic that super great champions have, you know.

GROSS: What's the worst punch you ever took?

Mr. TORRES: The best punch that I took, it had to be - you know, I was hit very hard maybe, maybe four times in my whole career. Very hard. And I was never really hurt but I was stunned those four times. And usually, they happened with fighters who could not punch, you know, who were not recognized as good punchers. And subconsciously, you take more chances with guys of them punch. So I got hit by them because they took more chances. The punchers never hit me with exception, when I was coming up, of Florentino Fernandez, who knocked me down with one punch, and that was the only punch he hit me with. I was not stunned because I was like unconscious for about one to two seconds. And I don't remember going to the floor but I remember when I hit the floor. And I turned toward my family, you know, my mother - I mean my father was there. And my wife was there. I looked at them just to tell them I was OK. And then I got up, and I was beating him and then something happened that I could not throw punches, you know. I was like a - a delayed reaction, eventually, you know, four rounds later. And the referee stopped the fight. But I learned at lot that time. I think that was the best punch I have ever been hit with because I went down. It was no pain though and I didn't feel - I describe being stunned with getting a million ants into your body and then coming out. And I didn't feel that in the fight. I felt that three times with other fighters, but not big time that I got knock down.

GROSS: What was it like begin knocked down, hearing the referee's count while struggling to get back on your feet?

Mr. TORRES: Well, I say I was not struggling because I was OK.

GROSS: I see. OK. OK.

Mr. TORRES: But I can imagine, though that I used - what I mean - later on that happened to me.

GROSS: It did?

Mr. TORRES: Forgot, I forgot that part. My last fight, I was hit not with a good punch, I was hit with the bell. You know, the bell and the punch at the same time. And I went down, I got up, and the referee was counting. And I was conscious but I had no control over my legs. And that's when - at that moment, I knew I would never fight again. And I went to the corner and I came back in the second round and I knocked the other guy out. And I then say it, I will never box again. But that was humiliating, that was very embarrassing. I didn't want to look at the crowd, I didn't want to look at one of my brothers who were there and my father, I was so embarrassed to be down. And I felt that no one would ever get that chance again. And that was my last fight.

GROSS: What year was that?

Mr. TORRES: 1969. It's amazing.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us about your life. Thank you.

Mr. TORRES: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Writer and former light heavyweight boxing champ Jose Torres speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. Torres died Monday of a heart attack. He was 72. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Bettye LaVette's Journey To The National Stage


This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. During last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, one of the most stirring performances was given by one of the day's least well-known performers.

(Soundbite of song "A Change Is Gonna Come")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little bitty ol' tent
Lord, just like the river I've been running ever since
It's been a long, long, a long time coming
But I always believe that a change was gonna come...

DAVIES: That's Bettye LaVette singing the Sam Cooke song "A Change is Gonna Come" which he wrote 45 years ago, a year before his death in 1964. "A Change is Gonna Come" became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement and captured the emotions many Americans felt this week as the country's first African-American president was inaugurated. Yesterday, by the way, would've been Sam Cooke's 78th birthday. But if you've never heard of Bettye LaVette and are wondering why, there's a story behind that. After a promising start in the early 60s when she had a couple of singles that became R&B hits, things just didn't work out for her. The 1972 album she recorded for Atlantic that was supposed to be her breakthrough wasn't released until 2000 when a French producer licensed it from Atlantic and started her comeback. Joe Henry produced an album by her in 2005. Her most recent recording is "The Scene of the Crime." Like her 1972 disk, it was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Terry spoke with Bettye Lavette last year. Let's start with a song from "The Scene of the Crime" written by Willie Nelson. It's called "Somebody Pick up my Pieces."

(Soundbite of song "Somebody Pick up my Pieces")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I want to be taken out of contention.
I surrender my crown.
Somebody pick up my pieces.
I think I'm coming down.
Well, I sure thought I had it.
But Lord it looks like it had me.
'Cause the thing I thought was heaven was just falling debris.
I may not be crazy but I sure got a hell of a start.
Somebody come here and pick up my pieces.
I think I'm falling apart.
But don't follow my footsteps...

TERRY GROSS: Bettye Lavette, welcome to Fresh Air. Now, what kind of places were using before starting your comeback in 2005?

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE (R&B Singer): Well, it wasn't a lot of places. I was in Detroit and I was working in little biddy places for $50 a night. And people where drunk or busy talking or dancing or whatever and I (laughing) was just around. But I wasn't doing any traveling much at all, just maybe, you know, the faithfuls in Europe who kept having me back there trying to keep me alive just from a love affair that started with me in 1965 over there. But that wasn't really working a lot at all. It was more - people paying house notes and car notes and whatever for me than me being able to do anything.

GROSS: So, people were helping you with your own bills?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Were you angry at your lack of recognition?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, for sure. It's not such much anger but hurt because it's, you know, it's just being completely ignored. It's not like selling Fuller brushes or something, you - it's you you're selling. So, when they don't buy it, they're saying, we don't like you. So, it's not my product. We don't like you. So, I - it was very hurtful, very, very painful, if it wasn't for the people who were propping me up.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, as you mentioned before, you grew up in Detroit. When did you start singing?

Ms. LAVETTE: My parents sold corn liquor from the time they came from Louisiana to Muskegon, Michigan where I was born until about maybe 1958. And there was always a juke box in our living room as opposed to a couch and stuff that are (laughing) in most people's living rooms. And so I have - I was privy to a whole gang of songs. So, I sung as soon as I could talk. My mother said I've always talked and sung like an adult. She said she used to talk baby talk to me to try to make me sound like a baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVETTE: But I pretty much always sounded like James Brown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's really funny. So what were the parties like when your parents sold the corn liquor and had to do that...

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, they weren't really parties. I meant you know, there was no gambling or prostitution or any of that. People just come and dance and drink for awhile. My mother, you know, Louisiana are strictly alcohol and food. So, my mother always had the food going. My father had the corn liquor going, and they would stand me sometimes on top of the juke box and I could sing along with the songs, blues songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were they songs with meanings that you couldn't quite comprehend yet?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I didn't know anything about them at all. I mean, I was 18 months old when, I think when I first started...


Ms. LAVETTE: Started singing out, first started talking about that point. But there were people - because it was segregation still. So, if you came to a little town like Muskegon and you were black, you couldn't drop by a restaurant or a bar anytime you wanted to, so they came to my house. So, I had the Five Blind Boys and the Pilgrim Travelers and the Soulsters and all those people at my house.

HANSEN: Wow, so what were - you mentioned some of the musicians who used to come to your house to eat and drink. What was some of the other music you were exposed to earlier on?

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, there was - you know, the gospel music because they would - when they would get drunk they would sing, there at the house, the groups that came, but I don't remember - because it was more of a - it was more conservative. They weren't a lot of people who sung secular music, who sang blues music or whenever they came to my house because there was this - always this drunk prayer-type thing going (laughing). So, we didn't have like, you know, there were no sermons or those kind of people. But of course, they were on the jukebox. And we listened to them, but the people who actually came to the house were chiefly gospel singers.

GROSS: Now I'd like to go back to 1962. I believe this is the year you started recording.

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: And you had - I believe it was your first record that became a hit on the R&B chart.

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: "My Man is a Loving Man" that was like your first 45, right?

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: OK, so how did - you were what, 17 when you made this?

Ms. LAVETTE: Sixteen.

GROSS: Sixteen, how did you get to record so young?

Ms. LAVETTE: It was - in Detroit that wasn't a difficult thing to do, maybe getting on the Atlantic record label right away was something phenomenal. But in Detroit every third person either song produced or wrote or at a record company. So, it wasn't - it wasn't difficult at all in Detroit in 1962 to record.

GROSS: Who...

Ms. LAVETTE: All you got to do is show up.

GROSS: Who asked you to do it?

Ms. LAVETTE: A young man who's name was Timmy Shaw(ph) who was a local artist, original artist more or less and none of his records that had ever been really big. And it wasn't the thing where he wanted me to sing. He was trying to cajole me into something else but he said, I can make you a star, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. LAVETTE: So, he introduced me to his manager and produce for Johnnie Mae Matthews who was one of the first female producers probably in the world and certainly the only black one. And she was producing him and everybody, she had everybody that Berry Gordy had at one time but she was just such a crooked woman, she lost them all.

GROSS: So, you got the R&B hit. Did he get you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The guy who is using this as an excuse.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, I became a National Artist. So, that took me out of town.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: All right. OK. So, you just gave this clutches.

(Soundbite of laughter)


GROSS: So, let's hear it. This is like your first hit, an R&B hit from 1962. And this is Bettye LaVette.

(Soundbite of song "My Man, He's a Loving Man")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) My man. (your man, your man)
You know, it's really all right, (your man)
My man, (your man, your man)
He always treats me right, (your man, your man)
Never run the street and leave me alone.
So glad this place is right here at home.
My man, (your man, your man, your man)
Well, he's a loving man, (your man, your man, your man)
People will talk until they break up your homes.
And they'll try to tell you.

GROSS: That's "My Man, He's a Loving Man," Bettye LaVette, recorded in 1962. Bettye, it sounds so low-tech. Describe what the recording session was like.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, it took about an hour. It cost about a 100 maybe dollars, a hundred and maybe twenty dollars. And that was mostly in drinks for the musicians. The guitar player, I can't even think of the boy's last name right now. But he was only about - he was younger than me. And they actually snuck him out of his bedroom window to come to the recording session.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's great.

Ms. LAVETTE: I mean, it was just the most amazing thing in the world. It was just amazing. I was making a record.

(Lauging) It was amazing. And then when they played it on the radio, five days later (laughing) because you could just press it up and walk right into the radio station and say, here play this. And slip somebody $50 or $10 or whatever it was. And so when I heard it on the radio five days later, I just went - ran down the streets screaming. I mean, nobody else in my eighth grade class had a record.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Eighth grade.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well I was about- I should have been about in the 9th grade, I guess ninth or 10th grade.

GROSS: So, so...

Ms. LAVETTE: But I wasn't, I was recording.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What changed in your life immediately after the record started getting airplay?

Ms. LAVETTE: Nobody in my family had ever been anywhere or done anything or had anything. No one had ever had any education, any money, had never traveled, nothing. And all those people who on that red and black label that we - that I had seen so many years on the juke box in my house and - that I had danced so much after school to, I was on the road with them in like a matter of days.

GROSS: Like who?

Ms. LAVETTE: Clyde McFadder, Ben E. King.

GROSS: The Drifters?

Ms. LAVETTE: No - it was later before I worked with The Drifters. But - Otis Redding. We were all, you know, because you tended to - companies tended to send a whole group of their artists around then. So, all those people were on either Atlantic or one of this city hertz(ph). And I guess Otis Redding and I were the brokest people there. He had the same little shoes and suit and every night. And I had my two little gowns that I had. (Laughing) But everybody else, you know - I mean Ben E. King had gotten be with The Drifters. Clyde McFadder gotten be with The Drifters. Clarence Frogman Henry who - it was his very first big record but it was bigger than mine and Otis. And Barbara Lynn, it was her first big record, but she had been singing for a while. But I think the brokest people probably were me and Otis. So that caused us to spend a lot of time together because we weren't the big stars.

GROSS: What was he like? What was it like to know him?

Ms. LAVETTE: He was the most wonderful person in the world. And when people say that, they're talking about the Otis Redding they know now. I don't know what he would be like now or I don't know what he would be like as a legend. But then, he was just a broke guy from Georgia (laughing) who I didn't find very sophisticated and who loved me very much, but I was from Detroit and blacks at the time, felt that if they were raised, born and raised in the North were a little bit better than blacks who are born and raised in the South. So, he just chased me around a lot and I really kind of thought of him as just maybe one of the other guys who liked me. Had I known he was going to be Otis Redding, I probably would have acted a little better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you think of his singing then?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I just thought he was one of the greatest singers I've ever heard in my life and still do. He - all the things that I thought about him that I thought would make him a great suitor, when he was on that stage, he looked different. He was just a totally different person on the stage.

DAVIES: Singer Bettye LaVette speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2007 with Bettye LaVette who sang at last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

GROSS: In 1972, you recorded an album that was never released until 2005.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: And this is, you know, a kind of famous album now. And...

Ms. LAVETTE: It's more infamous than...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: More infamous, thank you. Yeah. It was supposed to be released by Atlantic Records. It was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama but it was never released. It just lay in the Atlantic vault until a French producer licensed it from Atlantic and released it in 2000. It was initially supposed to be called "Child of the '70s." What were you expecting the outcome of this album to be?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I really thought that - I had everything that all the components that I thought would work. I had recorded it on Muscle Shoals where all the hits were coming from. I have Wilson Pickett as producer, Brad Shapiro. It was on an Atlantic label. I just get had everything that was supposed to happen. And then it didn't, so all the thoughts right after that were suicidal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What did they tell you when they didn't release it?

Ms. LAVETTE: They said, send the tickets back. We've decided not to go forward with the project. Those were their exact words.

GROSS: That you know...

Ms. LAVETTE: I don't even know who it was that call me.

GROSS: But you had already finished recording it. Hadn't you?

Ms. LAVETTE: It was - I have the plane tickets to go on the road to promote it.

GROSS: Oh, I see. I see.

Ms. LAVETTE: They had already done everything.

GROSS: Oh, well. I was thinking we could hear "Your Turn to Cry." You want to say anything about the song. Why it was chosen?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, I just chose to hear again because I liked it. But it was - I thought that it sounded - up to that date better than anything I had ever recorded. And I was just completely confused as to why I said, I kept comparing it to everything else that was out. And everything was just beginning to go stereo too. So, when all the new stereo albums started coming out then it really didn’t sound very good to me. And I kept trying to show my - see myself why they wouldn't do it. And then over the years, I completely convinced myself that they just - it wasn't good.

GROSS: You were convinced that it wasn't good.

Ms. LAVETTE: Mm hmm.

GROSS: OK, let's just prove that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And play "Your Turn to Cry." And this is from the 1972 Atlantic album that was never released until it was licensed by a French producer in 2000. And the French release is called "Souvenirs." The subsequent American release of the album is called "Child of the '70s."

(Soundbite of song, "Your Turn to Cry")

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE: (Singing) I gave you all of my love.
But you treated me like a fool
I even gave up a right for wrong
Trying, trying to get along with you
When I wanted to hold you close
You are always too tired
Well, you have some place to go?
Listen, babe
Walking out that door
Telling you goodbye
I can't take it no more
It's your time to cry
Oh, it's your time to cry
Oh, I tried staying with you
Because of….

GROSS: That's Bettye LaVette recorded in 1972 and the song - the album that this song was recorded for has been subsequently released (laughing) just a few years ago under the name "Child of the 70s."

Ms. LAVETTE: See, you and your audience are going to be as confused as I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What were the other – yeah, go ahead.

Ms. LAVETTE: And all of these happened 30 and 40 years ago, so I did just remember it all is just daunting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, the funny thing is, is that now you're being praised for the stuff that nobody wanted to even release...

Ms. LAVETTE: Yeah.

GORSS: You know, 35 years ago.

Ms. LAVETTE: Yeah.

GROSS: That must be kind of confusing?

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, it's, you know, to have all of these energy happening to you at 61 years old is - it is consuming, you know, it's taking virtually everything every bit of energy that I have and everything that I have ever learned. But I'm glad that I have a lot of energy left and then I learned so doggone much because it's all coming in handy now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Your new CD is called the "The Scene of the Crime," and the crime that you are referring to in "The Scene of the Crime" is the fact that after recording this album, it was never released.

Ms. LAVETTE: Right.

GROSS: It just sat in the Atlantic vaults until 2000.

Ms. LAVETTE: They didn't even know they had it.

GROSS: They didn't know they had it…

Ms. LAVETTE: They didn't even know they had it. That they thought that it had been lost in a fire and Gilles Petard came to New York and asked them could he search for it physically and he did.

GROSS: He's the French producer who actually released…


GROSS: It in 2000.

Ms. LAVETTE: Yes, yes, he was been...

GROSS: So...

Ms. LAVETTE: Friends with me for almost 30 years. The first 15 or 20 years that we knew each other, it was pretty through correspondence. It was a long time before I met him. He got me a gig in Paris and I thought I get a chance to meet him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, he actually had to physically search through the archives of Atlantic to find it?

Ms. LAVETTE: I had a reel-to-reel copy of it. A friend at a studio here in New York, stereorized my mono reel-to-reel version of it, and I let Gilles Petard hear it. He said I've got to find, this has got to come out. It's just got to come out (laughing) and he…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Well, I want to, you know, congratulate you on the success that you're having now.

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, thank you, baby.

GROSS: And, yeah, long time coming very well deserved and…

Ms. LAVETTE: Absolutely.

GROSS: Thank you again, Bettye LaVette for being with us.

Ms. LAVETTE: Thank you, Terry, for having me.

DAVIES: Singer Bettye LaVette speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. Her most recent CD is called "The Scene of the Crime." She gave a memorable performance at last Sunday's pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. HBO will be rebroadcasting that concert this weekend.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Analyzing The Text Of Obama's Inaugural Address


Commentators have been all over President Obama's inaugural address. While many found it forceful and lyrical, other said it was unmemorable. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg agrees with that view, but doesn't see that as a bad thing.

GEOFF NUNBERG: A modern inaugural address is sort of like an Olympic equestrian event where the course and maneuvers are precisely spelled out, and the points are awarded purely for style and execution. Obama's speech certainly made all the required moves, a few biblical illusions, a nod to Tom Paine, a shout out to Jerome Kern. But it really wasn't particularly memorable, if we still lived in an age when people put together collections of great speeches for peoples to memorize and declaim on national holidays, it isn't likely this one would be included. The editor would more likely go with the moving speech that Obama gave in Grant Park on the night of the election.

(Soundbite of speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, Who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

(Soundbite of applause)

NUNBERG: But actually, I'd count the speech's on un-memorability as one of its strengths. Ceremonial speech making this on a natural anachronistic exercise, and I'm not sure whether anybody could ever again give an address as memorable as Kennedy's in 1963 or Roosevelt's in 1933.

People sight Reagan's 1981 speech is the best since then. And it's certainly counts as one of the clearest. But its language was unremarkable and even hokey at times. The only line people remember from it, is government isn't the solution, which worked much better in the version that Reagan had been using on the campaign trails since 1975, where he added the snapper, government is the problem. In fact, when you reread Roosevelt and Kennedy's speeches, you realize how rhetorically remote their age was. Take the famous sentence from Kennedy's inaugural that begins, now the trumpet summons us again not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, and so on for another 25 words or so. It's still a stirring line, but you can imagine any recent president trying to get away with it. Kennedy was the last president who could comfortably dip into the stew of classical figures of speech. Not as a call to battle, though embattled we are, that would be both chiasmus and plyptoton.

Rhetoricians have been botanizing this stuff from millennia. And by now, there's virtually no way to put two words together that doesn't have a Greek label preserved in aspic by generations of English department pedants. The medieval scholars called those figures of speech the rhetorical colors, from a Latin term for ornament. They flourish over the centuries when the proper role of literature and oration was the decorous ornamentation of thought, and when politicians and poets drew from the same rhetorical well. And you can still turn out moves like that if you rummage around in T.S. Eliot or Wallace Stevens. But rhetorical ornament is alien to the spirit of modern literature. Its still survives in some religious traditions. It comes naturally to a Jesse Jackson or Joseph Lowery, though it sounds a bit forced coming from the energetically affable Rick Warren. For the most part though, these figures are reserved nowadays for advertising slogans, bumper stickers and the titles of country songs. That the linguistic equivalent of stunt writing.

Take the figure speech in Kennedy's, Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country. The classical rhetorician called that antimetabole, though modern speech writers tend to refer to it as the reversible raincoat. Politicians are still irresistibly drawn to it. Bill Clinton had his, People are more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power. John McCain had, We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us. And Hillary Clinton went with, The true test is not the speeches a president delivers. It's whether the president delivers on the speeches. That figure of speech has roots since Shakespeare and Blake. It's in Kipling's, What should they know of England who only England know? And Frederick Douglas used it when he said, You have seen how a man was made a slave. You shall see how a slave was made a man. But to modern listeners, those lines are most likely to bring to mind the syntactic two step of slogans like, When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. Or in its purest classical form, StarKist doesn't want tuna with good taste. StarKist wants tuna that tastes good. It's as catchy as ever, but it can't be the vessel for a deep idea anymore.

Of course, Obama's speech was dotted with some of the other turns in classical figures that ceremonial address as require. A nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. That was polyptoton, or using a word in two different ways, as in FDR's, nothing to fear but fear itself. It was a tidy turn or phrase, but you have the sense Obama could have done better. And there was a soupcon of catachresis in, the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, which Obama read with the rising intonation that evoked Martin Luther King. But Obama didn't do a lot of rhetorical overreaching. He did just enough to nail the event. No, it wasn't a speech for the ages. But I found it reassuring that he kept his coat on right side out.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkeley.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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