by Morgan Davis
Photo Portrait by Carlos J. Matos
Ovrld and the SIMS Foundation recently partned for a Cultural Arts Division-funded portait project titled Heart of the City (which you can donate to here). Spearheaded by our own Carlos J. Matos, the project aims to put faces to the struggle of music industry professionals in Austin with beautiful portaits of 12 of those professionals, ranging from performers to sound technicians to radio personalities. We also interviewed each of the subjects and will be releasing the full interviews throughout the year. We previously shared our conversations with veteran singer-songwriter Gina Chavez, KUTX personality KUTX DJ Laurie Gallardo, veteran hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm, beloved Austin producer and musician Jim Eno, Mohawk stage manager “Jesus” Josh Siebert, prolific fan favorite singer-songwriter Betty Soo, veteran booker and artist Aaron Miller (aka Multi-tracker), Continental Club icon Dianne Scott , Danielle Renae Houtkooper, who handles marketing for Spider House, Khattie Q, an eclectic performer who has played for groups as diverse as the Tuna Helpers and BLXPLTN, and today we’re thrilled to bring you our profile of Miss Lavelle White, one of Austin’s most celebrated and experienced R&B performers.
Morgan Davis for Ovrld: I wanted to start by talking to you about your life in Austin, and your life in general. You’ve had a long, incredible career.
Miss LaVelle White: Why yes, I have, I’m thankful and blessed.
Ovrld: You originally came from Louisiana, right?
MLW: Well, I was born in Jackson, Mississippi but I grew up in both places, Louisiana and Jackson. My mother was a sharecropper, so was my dad, so was everybody. So I know what the hard roads are. I know how life is. I know everything is not easy. But you see, life is like this: it’s what you make of it. So you’ve got to hang in there. That’s what I’ve been doing. And I’m hoping the rope don’t break [laughs].
Ovrld: A lot of your music talks about that hardship and the journeys you’ve taken…
MLW: It hasn’t been easy.
Ovrld: From what I understand, until about 1994 you had mostly recorded singles, specifically doing a lot of work for the Duke label. I’m curious about how you got to be on Don Robey’s label.
MLW: This is how I got there. I was singing with Johnny Copeland’s band and I wrote this song [sings] “If, if, if/I could be with you…” And when I wrote that he said “You know, that’s a pretty good song. Why don’t you show Don Robey this song?” So he took me down there and he liked this song and I had like four or five other songs. And they recorded it and that’s how it got picked up the Duke label.
MLW: Mmm hmm. I did that song “Lead Me On,” do you like that song?
Ovrld: I do, I love that song. And I was listening to your version earlier today. It’s fantastic. It’s a great track.
MLW: It was written by my mom.
Ovrld: Oh really? Was it something she would sing to you when you were growing up?
MLW: Yes. And it was like when she passed, it really hurt. I was singing to what happened to her and me back then. That’s what I was thinking about. That’s why I sing “Lead me on/Take my hand/Here’s my hand/Lead me on/You don’t know how it feels to be a stranger/In this unfriendly land,” I was talking to her.
Ovrld: So it’s a song about guidance?
MLW: Right. I wanted her to guide me.
Ovrld: I read that when you originally wrote that for Bobby Bland, it was credited to Don Robey under a pseudonym…
MLW: Yes. It was credited to him, but it’s mine.
Ovrld: Was that just common practice at that time?
MLW: Yes. Also I wrote one for my friend here, in Austin, and she’s recorded it. You know Marcia Ball?
MLW: Well, I wrote something for her.
Ovrld: Which song did you write for her?
MLW: I can’t remember its name right now, but I really like her cadence. I like when other artists want me to write for them. It’s like life is so fast, you know? Life is so fast for me right now. Sometimes I can’t even think. It’s a busy time for me right now. And it’s a pleasure, I’m having a good time.
MLW: Yes, it was a great time.
Ovrld: I heard it was fantastic! I missed it but everyone was talking about it…
MLW: It was beautiful. I wish you could have been there.
Ovrld: I do too, but I was out of town when it happened.
MLW: I want to do a show for you guys, I gotta get you out to take some pictures of my shows and stuff. You can come and do some videos.
Ovrld: Definitely! That reminds me, when I was looking through your recordings, I noticed that there are a ton of videos of your performances, from all kinds of different eras, but most are from Antone’s and Continental Club here in Austin. I know in the ‘70s, though, you had moved to Chicago and became part of that great Chicago scene.
MLW: I had some great times. I was there for nine years.
Ovrld: And then you came to Houston and it was in Houston that you had a new renaissance.
MLW: Yes, yes. I made it my home.
Ovrld: What brought you to Houston from Chicago?
MLW: Well, what brought me to Houston from Chicago was my brother. My brother was living there then, I came to live with family because they needed me there. Back when we lived there as kids, I used to sneak out of the windows at night and go to the clubs [laughs]. I wasn’t but 15 or 16 then.
Ovrld: So you had a lot of good memories of Houston?
MLW: Oh yeah, a lot of good memories. We used to play in this club called Menutis’, it was really cool, you know? But we didn’t make a whole lot of money [laughs]. Maybe $25 and drinks.
Ovrld: Well, unfortunately I can’t say payout has changed much today.
MLW: No, it hasn’t [laughs].
MLW: Well, right now they do, but back then they were too much into country.
Ovrld: Right, and when you returned in 1994, it was more on the blues side.
MLW: Yes, it was more blues. I wrote this song then…[kid laughs in the background] Ain’t she the cutest? I love kids. I was one once. But anyway, like I was saying earlier, “Gonna Make It” is the song I wrote for Marcia Ball.
Ovrld: That’s great. The other thing that was interesting to me was that it wasn’t until you were back in Houston in the ‘90s that you recorded your first full length album, though you had been performing for close to 40 years by that point.
MLW: Yes, that was the first time I really got a break.
Ovrld: And that was on Antone’s label. Not long after that, you relocated to Austin, what prompted that?
MLW: Well, what shifted it was Clifford Antone. He set up his club and so I came here and I sang at his club for two years.
Ovrld: And that won you over to the city?
MLW: Yeah, it was a music city.
Ovrld: You seemed to get a lot more recognition when you came here. You got elected to the Texas Music Hall of Fame around then. The city seems especially drawn to the history you have.
MLW: Yes, it is drawn to my history, my connection to the music.
Ovrld: You’ve performed with some truly incredible people over the years…
MLW: Oh, yes, like the Isley Brothers, James Brown…
Ovrld: Otis Redding…
MLW: Yes, I actually accepted his award [The Otis Redding Award] in France.
Ovrld: Do you have any particular memories of playing with artists like that that stand out as exceptional stories or experiences?
MLW: Oh yes, oh yes. I’ve had a beautiful life. I was with The Drifters, we’d get up and play and BB [King] would play behind me…BB taught me how to dress [laughs]. He went shopping me and we’d pick out stuff. I was with some amazing people. It was astounding. Beautiful. I loved it.
MLW: Yeah, I always try to wear something that’s pleasing to the public. I see some people who perform, they try to be like me…
Ovrld: But there’s only one Miss LaVelle White…
MLW: Exactly! It makes me feel good to dress beautifully.
Ovrld: It seems like that really clicks with a lot of people, too. People are always blown away by what a great style you have.
MLW: I developed my own style. I didn’t take my style from anyone else. I didn’t even take a voice lesson. I didn’t do any of that. I looked to God to teach me everything I know and he did. And He still is teaching me.
Ovrld: Something that I love about your style is how you built it by integrating a lot of different soul and R&B and blues styles. Like how you work in a lot of Louisiana R&B…”Voodoo Man” is a great track with that.
MLW: Oh yes, that’s Louisiana there!
MLW: Yes, I enjoy it, and I think the audience does. My fans all do. I want to please them. I love my fans. I’ve got some loving fans. They come out to me in spite of rain or whatever, they’re always there. I want them to know I love them so much, and I appreciate them. And I’m gonna keep on doing it, baby.
Ovrld: What are some things that you’ve seen that have changed in the scene recently? What are some new challenges or obstacles that you didn’t face back in the day?
MLW: There are a lot of new challenges that I didn’t know were gonna come. But I change with ‘em.
Ovrld: You feel like you’ve got to adapt and evolve.
MLW: Yeah, you’ve gotta adapt.
Ovlrd: You’ve been good about doing work to get your music out onto new platforms. Like you’ve got all of your albums up on Bandcamp so that people can stream it now. Are you getting even more fans now in the internet era?
MLW: Oh yes, oh yes, a lot of new fans. And I’m attracting some young people. People in their teens and twenties come into the club. And I talk to them, and mess with them. They just love that, you know? And I’m teaching people about music they didn’t know about before. They say that, they tell me “Hey, I wanna be like you,” and I say “Well, go right on ahead, be like me, I don’t care, it makes me feel good.” [laughs]
MLW: Oh yeah, I always like playing them.
Ovrld: What do you think about some of the newer artists doing similar soul styles to what you were doing early on, like Sharon Jones?
MLW: I think they’re great. They do it in their own way and this is what matters. They don’t try to sound like me, they’re doing their own thing and I think that’s great.
Ovrld: Are there any new artists that stand out to you as especially interesting or inspirational?
MLW: I loved Whitney Houston, and I like things like that. I can’t think of names right now because I’m all excited. But there are a lot of artists I like to listen to. I like to listen to music like dance music. I can feel it in my soul. And hip hop.
Ovrld: I actually heard that you’ve got a claim to being one of the pioneers of rap.
MLW: Yeah, I do that! A lot of the artists would ask me “How do you do that? How do you rap?” I don’t know, I just do it.
Ovrld: What are you working on now?
MLW: I’m working on some reggae music. I got a song about loving the world. I got some songs about what’s going on. I’ve even got one about ISIS! But I’m afraid to read the lyrics [laughs].
Ovrld: You’ve got to be careful on that subject, don’t you?
MLW: Yes you do!
Ovrld: Who are some of the reggae artists that influenced you?
MLW: I love Bob Marley, and his sons…Ziggy and there’s another one…
MLW: Yes! Him! I love him! I love some of the girls too. I think reggae is going to take over.
Ovrld: It has been having a major resurgence lately…
MLW: Hasn’t it? I love it. I got one song that I wrote and it says “God, give us love/Like he spread it/This love from above/One nation under God/Under which they say it stands/And we should love all our fellow man/Stop the killing/Stop the hate/Get together, we can’t wait/It’s been so long/It’s been going on/We gotta stop it now/Before it gets any further.” We’re not loving each other like we should be. We should love each other right, and from the heart, that’s the way it should be. That’s what I’m working on with my band.
Ovrld: I’m excited to hear that. There’s a lot of talk about love and unity in your music in general.
MLW: Yes, there is. And a lot about shaking your booty too! [laughs]
Ovrld: That is equally important!
MLW: I have one, “Take Your Drawers Off,” “Take your drawers off/And lay them on the table/Everyone in the club if you are able/Take your drawers/And lay them on the floor/And if your drawers aren’t clean/Take them home and put ‘em in the washing machine.” Everybody likes that song.
Ovrld: I can see why.
MLW: It is crazy.
Ovrld: For people who are moving to Austin to have a career in music now, what are some of the lessons you would impart on them?
MLW: I try to put the lesson on them that all music is good. That you can’t just love one type of music. I don’t love one type of music. I love all types of music.
MLW: Right! They got some people who only want to do country, they don’t want to hear that black people music. I try to tell everyone, why be that way? It’s just one of those things that we have to deal with. Because they don’t like us black people. They want us black people out of the way, you know that.
Ovrld: There are a lot of artists in Austin who have been trying to combat that and speak up, a lot of other acts have talked to me about that feeling.
MLW: Yeah, like Gary Clark Jr. and myself and a lot of the rappers on the East Side. We go and talk to our people and share names. We try to get others to see that hatred is not the solution.
Ovrld: Right, and music is all about connecting and making people cross boundaries anyway.
MLW: Right, right.
Ovrld: Would you say Austin audiences have been more accepting than other cities you’ve been in?
MLW: I think so, some of them. Most cities I’ve been to have accepted me. They treat me real good. But Austin is different. In Austin, they come out to see you. Every time you play. Every time I play someone is there. And that’s what has made me love them. I think they’re more receptive to me than when I was younger.
Ovrld: You don’t have to prove yourself as much.
MLW: I don’t have to work as hard! [laughs]
You can donate to the Heart of the City project here. Heart of the City is funded in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department. Thank you to our sponsors Rojo Hospitality and Distinctive Life.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes here at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.