Drivin' the Devil Away

Miss Lavelle White

by Christopher Gray

"Signe particulier de cette red-hot mama"

-- French record review of Miss Lavelle, Miss Lavelle White's 1994 debut on Antone's Records

photograph by Ursula Coyote
Loosely translated from the French, that means exactly what it says: Ooh-la-la, Miss Lavelle! Denying it is pointless, especially after stumbling out of one of her shows all hot and bothered at 1:30 in the morning. The image to a young man of 22 is, shall we say, powerful. Lavelle White is undoubtedly "de cette red-hot mama," but she's much more. Above all, she's every inch a genuine, white-gloves, honest-to-God lady. That's why we call her Miss Lavelle.

Live, Miss Lavelle is in her element, testifyin' like a Southern diva leading a whooping dance revival, preaching to a choir seething with boogie-woogie abandon. From the middle of the stage, clad in a gold-and-green outfit with matching shoes and hat (of course) that's half Nudie Suit, half Church Lady, she waves her hands, wiggles her hips, and wags her finger, alternately scolding and encouraging the singles and couples in various stages of flirting, foreplay, and fornication. She's a righteous disco queen that don't take no mess, her intoxicating R & B pouring down like summer rain. It's August on the Gulf Coast, the right time of the night time; midnight in the garden of good and evil. Want and longing hang thick as the inevitable smoke and sweat.

After she returns from a short break, the air in the club is even thicker -- if that's possible. She changes outfits in the cramped backstage area that doubles as the office of the Continental Club, emerging in a soft, black, calfskin shroud that's equal parts lingerie and choir robe. Through the tasseled fringe of a black pillbox hat, she bats her fluttery eyelashes at an audience already every inch under her spell. She says a few kind words as the Soul Sensations, her band of John McVey, Leland Parks, Sauce Gonzalez, and Fredde Walden, lays on a groove thick as good cream gravy. Then she becomes the sinister, seductive Black Widow Spider of her song, just in case there's anybody left who still hasn't gotten the point. Tonight, celebrating the release of her second Antone's/Discovery album, It Haven't Been Easy, everybody's feeling a touch more, er, excited.

Sweet Jesus. It isn't even the Continental Club anymore, it's Babylon, or at least Cinemax at 3am. It's definitely Chicago, New Orleans, and Houston -- all places where Miss Lavelle perfected her smooth soul and raunchy rhythm & blues. She does it with such swagger and verve it's hard to believe she's been doing it 40 years. Though it's true that as a seductive art, Lavelle White may well be carrying on the world's second-oldest profession, she does it with such spirituality, surety, and grace that you gotta believe her when she says not a word leaves her lips without being to the praise and glory of God. Hallelujah and Amen.

She is, in a word, fascinating. She's also mysterious, and make no mistake, she likes it that way. With her, the past is just that. She's not one who tells. She's had her share of fun, known her share of pain, done plenty of livin'. Anything beyond that is her business and hers alone. A lady keeps her private affairs private.

She's more forthcoming about her music, though, despite the fact that she doesn't really have to be. Everything she knows, everything she is, is right there. When she sings, "I've had it rough, I've had it tough," it's with as much authority and fervor as "You rock my body and you rock my soul." When she sings, "It haven't been easy lovin' you, but I'm trying," it's as simple as that. Her voice carries at least four decades' worth of passion and wisdom, and her life holds far more mysteries for others than for her. Music is her God-given talent, her essence, and it's in those emotions unleashed by singing and performing where she finds the strength to continue.

Her chief strength -- and this she'll tell you herself -- is her devotion to God. Spirituality runs through her like electric current; she is lit from within by the peace that passes all understanding. "God is the greatest power," she says. "Even in his days there was music. He give us music to make us happy, and he give us music to soothe our feelings. The way we are supposed to come together is in God and musically."

Taking those words literally to heart, White's music goes far beyond simply coming together to have a good time. Part of her spirituality is an almost soothsayer quality, which makes the singer very sensitive to events in the world most people choose to ignore or tune out. She sees all the senseless violence and darkhearted confusion we live with every day, and sings to beat the devil -- or at least make him dance.

"There's a different kind of music in every walk of life," she says. "It's given to every generation to enjoy, to soothe the inner feeling of fear. Music drives out fear in you. The beat drives away fear -- listen to the beats. The beats that I have in these songs now is to drive fear out of people.

"What's gonna happen in the world, or what is happening in the world?" she continues. "`I'm afraid to do this, I'm afraid to do that.' It's called fear. The fear in people, the fear that might make somebody want to kill or whatever. Music kills that fear in a person."

White thinks whoever shot Bill Cosby's son Ennis will one day bring himself to justice or be caught, because, "Can't nobody walk around with that forever." Closer to home, she's suspicious of some people, like a man driving a red car who once tailed her during a power walk. "Some people see me with it, they wanna try to take it away," she sings on the new album's "Can't Take It (Don't Give a Damn)."

But I ain't gonna give it up, I don't care what they say...

They want to take the way I walk ...

They want to take the way I am ...

They want to take the way I talk ...

But I don't give a damn ... 'Cause I ain't gonna let 'em take it away."

photograph by Ursula Coyote
She ain't either, so don't even try. When she says, "I don't want to be in nothin' the Devil got his hand in," she means it. This is not the rakish, lascivious devil that comes out after one cocktail or one sidelong glance too many. This is the Prince of Darkness, Father of Lies. Singing is how she casts him out: "That's what the drums are for, drivin' the Devil away." Since she started singing in church at age 12, that's what she's been doing -- just drivin' the devil away.

She's known him for a long time. She came from the keyboard lessons of her mother and the gospel music of her childhood in Mississippi and Amite, Louisiana, to the lights and fights of Houston at the tender age of 15 or 16 (she isn't quite sure). She sang in nightclubs up to five nights a week, for the meager sum of $20 or $25 a night. Along the way, she picked up the heartbreak that fuels Miss Lavelle's "You're Gonna Make Me Cry," the survivor soul of "Tell Me Why," and the joie de vivre of "Voodoo Man."

"Shoot, $20-25 dollars a night was all I got," she says. "Twenty-five dollars a night, that's $100 a week. It was fun. Going to these places -- I'm not going to say it wasn't fun. It was real fun. Things was a lot different back then."

In Houston, she began learning from Clarence Holliman and his brother Sweets, as well as Johnny Clyde Copeland and the other Houston blues greats of the late Fifties. This was the city and an era that gave the world the first sounds of B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Gatemouth Brown, Little Richard, the Five Blind Boys, the Gospel Hummingbirds, Willie Mae `Big Mama' Thornton, Junior Parker, and the late, great Johnny Ace on Duke/Peacock Records, and put label bossman Don Robey on the same tastemaking impresario level as Sam Phillips and the Chess brothers. Houston R&B in the Fifties was the model and jumping-off point for the Stax/Volt stable of the Sixties and the stellar collection of artists Ahmet Ertegun assembled for Atlantic. White herself toured with Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Isley Brothers, and James Brown, not to mention virtually the entire Duke Revue.

But Robey was no angel. White says he was "rugged," then lets it be known that, perhaps, it would be best to change the subject. The man had an ear for R&B, but also a quick temper and a hunger for green. Under the name `Deadric Malone,' he took songwriting credit for just about everything he released on his label, including Bobby "Blue" Bland's 1960 hit "Lead Me On." White wrote the song, then sold it to Robey, who stamped it with `Deadric Malone' and collected the profits. In addition to her uncredited songwriting, White says she released between six and eight 45s on Duke, including a collaboration with Copeland, "If I Could Be With You," that got her signed in 1958.

"Johnny Copeland did pay me $50 a night," she says. "Johnny Clyde Copeland. He's a great fellow, man. Clarence plays all the time on my CD, and he's another great guy. He and his wife Carol [Fran] both."

If White is bitter about Robey's chicanery, she doesn't care to share it. About all she'll say about those particular times is, "Now I can look back at it and laugh, not be angry about it, because it was fun." She might laugh because she's long since forgiven the behavior of Robey and those who cause her to say, "Some people would make fun of me -- oh, they was bumpin' my head, they was makin' all kinds of fools out of me." Still, she laughs the longest and the loudest, because the joy she finds in music and the fun she has far outweighs any negative aspects of singing for a living.

"You say, `Boom, this is what I want to do,'" she explains. "Somebody clap, and they say `Oh, we like you' and that give you confidence. This is what give me confidence. That was it. Then I said, `This is what I want to do.' That's where it comes from."

White says she first had that feeling when she heard Johnny Copeland sing. She felt it in Chicago, singing in the spotlight for eight years (1978-86) at the Kingston Mines nightclub, she felt it recording her two albums for Antone's Records (this latest one for Antone's/Discovery), and she feels it every time she climbs onstage and turns into the Black Widow Spider, ready to weave her web.

"It's a happy thing to be able to do something that other people will enjoy and like," she says. "I love to see smiles on people's faces, and dancing out there, and howling going on. When I'm up there, it makes me feel good. I like people.

"I'm beginning to gather moss now," she says. "I think I feel pretty good about it. I appreciate everybody coming out to my record party. And I want to say thanks to everybody in Austin. I want to say thanks to all my fans. I love you so much. And I want to tell you, the [night of my release party] was the greatest night of my life -- to see all of you out there to see me. I want to say thanks again, and I want to say thanks to everybody involved that helped make this possible for me, because it's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. Thank you."

With that, White is done being interviewed; that's all she has to say. Anything else that doesn't come out in her music is concealed beneath her mysterious opaque eyes, and for good reason. The lady wouldn't have it any other way.

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