Miss Lavelle White: The Magic of a Living Legend

The legendary, Austin-based singer and diva Miss Lavelle White (Photo: Jim Chapin)

JOSEP PEDRO

Born in Mississippi in 1929, Miss Lavelle White stands out as one of the most veteran and accomplished living music legends in Austin, Texas and the United States. She has been professionally active as a singer for more than half a century, and she continues to perform regularly in Austin, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World”. Throughout her career, Miss Lavelle has witnessed first-hand the musical, sociocultural and political transformations that have affected popular music and urban music scenes. She has seen the Austin music scene evolve: from the postwar blues era in East Austin to the folk revival and the psychedelic rock era, and then the rise of Antone’s and the more recent development of multitudinary festivals such as SXSW. Furthermore, she has recorded for historic music labels such as Duke-Peacock Records, Antone’s Records and Dialtone Records, and she has toured the United States and Europe on several occasions.

Stylistically, Lavelle White has been mainly identified with blues and soul music, yet her eclectic trajectory and dynamic persona has been built upon a rich combination of African-American genres, also including gospel, rhythm & blues, funk and rap. A humble and outspoken diva, Miss Lavelle is an accomplished and fascinating songwriter and performer who loves the stage and her fans. Her emotional, firm and witty personal voice comes from life experiences, creative imagination, and music genre traditions. Her bold and affectionate character on and offstage contributes to her singular authenticity within the blues and soul scenes, and we are lucky to see and share her magic. The magic of Miss Lavelle.

You have written songs since you were very young. What role does your own songwriting play in your trajectory?

It means a lot because I write about my life, and certain things. I like to do other recordings, like I did “Living For The City” by Stevie Wonder, “Watch What You Do To Me”, and some old things, like the stuff I did on Duke Records –that I recorded when I was a teenager. “Little bit of this, a little bit of that” –that song was mine too. Have you heard that? A lot of stuff I wrote, like “Why Do So Many Young Men Go Wild”, “Stop These Teardrops” –that’s stuff that’s on Duke. Those are old things that I did when I was young, and I started recording. I don’t do all of it. Some of it I do, some of it I don’t, you know.

The things I write about is real life. I didn’t write “Watch What You Do to Me” but it’s a real truth song because people need to watch what they to do other people. I recorded that but I didn’t write it.

So you can empathize with other people’s song. But what does it mean when it’s your song?

It means a lot more when it’s my own thing. It’s one of those things. I’ve been singing long enough to have that feeling ‘cause I sing from my heart, and I sing to please other people, and I sing about real life. A lot of people come to see me –they have troubles when they come, and when they leave they smiling. Because this is what I do: I sing for the audience. I sing to make people happy. I sing to lighten the trouble off of their lives. I sing for life to be a better thing, and make people happy.

How attached are you to the song “Mississippi, My Home”, which seems to speak about your early childhood?

Yes, it is about my early childhood. It means a lot to me, a whole lot. Because I used to ride on my mother’s sack, and she would pick cut on while I would ride her on the back. It’s really a true [story]. Like I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, raised up in Louisiana. I still got people down in Greensburg, Louisana, and I still got people in Mississippi. I got a nephew here, and nieces and things in Houston, Texas, in Chicago… all over.

Many sources say that you were born in Amite City, Louisiana. But in the song and in other sources you say “I was born in Mississippi, down on the farm; I went to Louisiana when I was real small.”

No, I wasn’t born in Amite. I was born in Jackson [Mississippi], and raised up in Amite [Louisiana]. Who says that? They got it all mixed up.

Why do you consider Mississippi your home?

I was born there! That’s where my mother birth me –at Mississippi. I was born there and raised up in Amite, Louisiana. So that’s why they say Amite is my home, but it’s not. I was born in Jackson, and that’s what’s on my birth certificate. These people don’t know where I was born. They weren’t there.

Often when we think of Mississippi it’s like a magic place.

Yes, Mississippi and Louisiana. New Orleans is really the music capital of Louisiana, and Jackson is the music capital of Mississippi. I know that because I know about Natchez, and all those places. But the only place I know [that] is really musical is Jackson, Mississippi, as far as I am concerned –because I haven’t been back to Mississippi since I’ve been grown. I’ve been to Lousiana. I haven’t been back to Jackson, but I wrote [a song] about it because that’s what happened. I used to ride on my mother’s sack, while she picked cotton I was riding on her back, you know. Like “I gotta get back to Mississippi”, but I’m not going back to stay.

That’s what the song says, that you want to get back. Do you really want to go back or is it something you only put in the song?

I put it in the song to finish it, ‘cause I’m not going back to stay. That’s not gonna happen, that’s not gonna happen. But it’s what I put in the song to make everything rhyme. When you write a song you got to adlib some things. Well, the truth thing is I was born there but you know I’m not going back, it’s out of the question.

Why wouldn’t you want to go back?

I’ll tell you about Mississippi. Mississippi is very prejudiced. Jackson is very prejudiced against black people.

Is it still like that?

Yes. Sure it is. Yes, sir. It’s still prejudice. It’s not a good place for blacks to live, being factual. I’m getting ready to do a movie about it as soon as I get everything straight. They did a lot of movies about Mississippi but not the way I am gonna do it.

So you want to paint a different picture?

No, I’m gonna paint the picture that it is, and that it was. How prejudiced they was against blacks, and all that stuff. They were more prejudiced then than they are now. It’s just one of those things. They don’t like black people.

Is that the reason why you left?

No, I left when I was a baby. My mother moved to Amite, and I grew up there. I left when I was a kid but it’s such a bad name I never want it to go back. Not a good place for a black person, I’ll tell you that right there.

Tell me a bit more about the kind of music you were involved with. 

When I grew up to be 12 years old I was in church. My mother played piano, I sing in church, and we would travel around different little towns like Belzoni, Mississippi, and Arcola, Mississippi. We would travel around the different churches, my mother would play and I would sing.

Was there a lot of blues and spirituals, or work songs?

Well, I didn’t know anything about blues then. I was too young, my mother didn’t like me to go sing no blues. I was a kid, 12 years old, knew nothing about no blues. I didn’t know nothing about blues until I got 14 or 15 when I came to Houston. That’s when I started trying to sing, still trying.

I wanted to know how much of the childhood memories you put in the song have shaped who you are and are still in you –‘cause you’re still perform the song…

I don’t shape too much. That’s as far as I went –“Mississippi, My Home”, what I did there. I try not to think about the memories about what happened to me back there. I don’t wanna go back, I wanna go forward. I don’t wanna go back and think about what happened years ago, I wanna go forward. Because going forward is better than looking back. Looking back is when you get old and get Alzheimer and all that shit. I’m not looking back, I’m looking forward. If you look back that’s the way your life is gonna be, backwards.

I remember a quote by Miles Davis that was like you always gotta know what you got behind you, but always move forward.

That’s right. You know what’s back there, but you don’t wanna go back there. You wanna go to something different, and something new. I look at a lot of people living in the old stuff, and you cannot live something that has happened, unless you’re going back in time. So you gotta look forward in life. Life is forward, life changes every day. There’s something in life every day –it’s a different medicine, it’s a different time, it’s a different thing, it’s a different age… And you got to live like that. You can’t live in what happened last week. That’s over. You gotta keep moving, and that’s what I’m doing.

Lavelle White in 1972 (Photo: Burton Wilson)

So it’s that idea of keep moving why you travelled so much –Houston, Chicago, Austin…?

No. I travelled because I want to, because that’s my life. My mind is not like the average person. I don’t think like nobody else, I think in a different matter. I pray, I got God, and I ain’t got time for no wishy-washes stuff that live in an old age. It’s okay to do old music, but I’m not just going to lean on old music, and do old music.

It’s the way I feel, and what suits me. If something don’t suit me I get up and leave it. If something is not up to my satisfaction I get up and leave it. This is the way it is. I’m not gonna stay around nothing too long that’s gonna be very hurtful, misunderstanding or hold you back because life is too short for that.

How do you compare Austin to the other places you’ve been to?

Austin is cool, Austin is cool. But you don’t see many black people here, for real.

And what about the “live music capital of the world”?

Oh yeah, that. That’s one thing they say, you know. I guess you can say that it is. Yes, sir. Everybody have their own opinion. See, the main thing about it, I have a lot of fans. But a lot of people don’t like black people’s music. A lot of people here like country, white people. You understand? And it’s a different thing. I’m not going into that. I appreciate my fans, I love them to death, and they love me because they come to see me, and I’d do anything for them. They give to me, they come, and I love that. This is one thing I love about Austin: my fans. They comes out and that’s what I like.

When I went to your show I was talking to different people and they were all very enthusiastic.

Yeah! That’s what I’m saying… I love them. They are so nice to me, and come to see me regardless to what. All I can say: “I love you!” And I love every one of them, I do. Because they puts out their lives for me just like I put out my life for them. I think it’s a tremendous thing because they haven’t let me down a day. My fans haven’t let me down a day, they are there for me, and I appreciate that, I really do. I got some that give me things, it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s that the goal of every artist –to communicate and be in touch with their fans?

Yes, sure it is. If you can’t communicate with your fans, what have you got? Nothing. If you don’t love your fans, what have you got? They are for you, why can’t you be there for them? You know what I mean?

Yes, I talked to Birdlegg and he was like that too.

Oh, I love him. He’s something else! He’s a mess! And I love W.C. Clark too. He’s beautiful, he is. And that Birdlegg is crazy.

Birdlegg told me: “Once people think you’re crazy, you can do whatever you want”

Oh yeah. See, I told him that. I’m teaching everybody that. Once they know you’re crazy, you can say or do… Just like I say: “pass the pussy!” My friend Stephanie told me: “Oh, stop saying that…” I told her: “Stephanie, please don’t tell me to stop saying what I’m saying on my show ‘cause I will lose your friendship in a minute.” Life is so short, man. If you can’t have some fun at what you’re doing, it’s no use to you doing it, if you’re not happy. Quit. If you can’t laugh and have fun with people quite, ‘cause that’s the way it is.

You got to cooperate with the audience. You can’t be stuck up and get a big head. You got to talk the audience. What you gonna have if you don’t have them? If it wasn’t for them, where would we be? If they didn’t come to see us where would we be? And I love all of them, ‘casue of all them is crazy like I am. We drink some wine and we really get down. You got to love people. It’s one thing about me, I love these people in Austin, I do. I love the fans, I’ll tell anybody that. But there is some people over the music, they don’t recognize us black people.

I also talked to Harold McMillan and he said a lot of good things about you.

He’s a good guy. I love him. He’s a wonderful guy. I’ve been breaking around with hell for years, and he’s always been the same. All the time.

You shared many experiences with Blues Boy Hubbard at Ernie’s Chicken Shack and Charlie’s Playhouse.

Yeah, way back there! I was a young girl and he was tough then. We all were young, you know how that is. Blues Boy is what’s happening, I love him. And Soul Man Sam. Oh man, he’s bad. Blues Boy Hubbard, that’s my guy. I’ve been knowing him for years. He’s beautiful. All of them.

Paul Oscher recently moved to Austin…

Oh man, ain’t he wonderful? That’s my guy. Oh Paul, he’s funny. He brings back memories from the Kingston Mines [music venue]. I stayed 9 years in Chicago. [Listen to Paul Oscher & Miss Lavelle White – “Dirty Dealin Mama“, 2018].

I read you were happy about the appreciation in Chicago…

Oh yeah, they appreciate me very well. I’m supposed to be going back later on this year some time.

Over the years you have emphasized that you like playing different styles… 

See, they class me as a blues singer. I’m not a blues singer, I am rhythm & blues, and funk, and soul. You’re not gonna see me up there singing blues all night. Blues is cool. That’s where we originated from. But I get bored just doing blues. Blues is cool, I’m not gonna go against it. Blues is cool. But just singing blues all night it gets me… I can’t do it. I can’t see how anybody can. Blues is cool, like I said. B.B. [King] was my friend, Little Milton… all of them, and I loved all of them. In fact, B.B. was the first one to take me out on the road with him. And I knew Junior Parker, Bobby Bland… the greatest. B.B. before he died, he didn’t do all blues. He was doing jump off stuff here and there. And Bobby Bland and Junior Parker really did, you know. And it’s like: “Hey, man, it’s really cool.” I don’t know.

What was your relationship with those artists? You toured with them?

Yeah, I toured with them a little bit. I did short tours around Mississippi and different places. Yes, I’ve been on the road with people like The Drifters, The Isley brothers, James Brown… That was great, man. It was great. I had the chance to do shows with Otis Redding, and all those people. I got a pretty good repertoire.

What do you feel about blues being considered a sad style? Is that why you play different styles?

It’s just a feeling I have, sweetie. I got my own feelings, not like nobody else. If they do blues all night, that’s their business. But I’m not. Blues is cool. But I’m not gonna do no blues all night. Then I would just sing blues.

I’m curious to know what was your relationship with Don Robey and Evelyn Johnson.

It was ok, you know. Yeah, [Don Robey] was pretty tough. But anyway, they had something coming up with Duke-Peacock Records. They was trying to get in touch with me, I don’t know whether it’s money or whatever. Probably money, ‘cause they owed me money.

For crediting issues?

Yes, and it’s probably coming up, and everything, so that would be it.

Now you’re singing at Antone’s, el Mercado, Skylark Lounge, C-Boys…..? Do you feel like you got that recognition?

I have to have that recognition to do that. People have to recognize me, you know, ‘cause if they didn’t recognize me I wouldn’t have it. I’m recognized by the owners and the people that come there. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have it. And I don’t have the big head about it, you know. I appreciate everything they’re doing, and hey, that’s it.

Everybody at Antone’s –Zach and Susan– are beautiful, everybody at the Skylark, everybody at C-Boys –Steve Wertheimer there, he’s a wonderful guy. I love all the club owners like Johnny Latouf and all those guys over there. Really, if you ask me, some people don’t know how hard it is with them people to keep with all those musicians, entertainers and stuff. It’s just so beautiful.

The Skylark Lounge is supporting many local legends like yourself, Blues Boy Hubbard, Margaret Wright…

That’s it. Respect the leader, and we are the leaders.

You also help a lot of younger artists, like your special guests. What do you think about the role that you are playing with younger musicians?

I just think it’s a row. It’s trying to help them be where they need to be.

They all say that they are inspired by Lavelle…

Yeah, that’s what they say. But I don’t know why. I’m not doing anything so great for them to be inspired about me. I don’t think so. Just one of those things, you know. As I said, I don’t get a big head about things. I’m just me, I’m just Lavelle and I say what I say and I do what I do. And that’s it. That’s all there is to that.

Do you have any favorite music you listen to now?

I don’t listen to anything too much. I got my keyboard, I got a record player over there. I know what’s going on in the world and where the music is. Music is on TV now. It’s on there, and this is what I watch. I watch the main thing, the new shit, not the old stuff, the new stuff that’s going on. This is what keeps you sharp, it’s the TV. They got new and old stuff on TV. All you gotta do is look what it turned in to. So this is my listening thing.

Do you think that the African-American legacy in East Austin is being rightfully preserved?

I don’t know, but everybody wanna take from everybody else and that’s not cool. What you think about that?

Well, I feel that there is a real racial tension here.

It is. See, the main thing about it… I’m gonna say this and this is true. Everybody wanna put the white people over us black people, and that’s not right. That can be said in there [in the recording]. Because I think we’re supposed to be respected a little more than we are. Because we once started this black stuff.

Even people like Whitney Houston. I loved her. And people way back before I started: Lady Day [Billie Holiday], Della Reese, all these people. Before I even really got into what I’m doing. But those kind of people really started all this. It’s just sad. And you know, Margaret Wright over there. She’s good. Ain’t she wonderful? Love her. She sounds so like Lady Day in some of her stuff.

I could sit and talk all day, but I ain’t. I want everyone to know that I love them, god bless them, and let’s stay out here and keep pushing.

This interview was conducted in Austin, Texas, on March 30, 2016.

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