Lillia Mae “Lavelle” White was born on July 3rd some 83 years ago, at least according to recent tallies. I add that because I am not all that sure 83 is correct. I have known Lavelle for years now and she has always been cagey about her true age, 83 is the number she has been using lately. But considering that I remember her having two birthday parties in the same year a while back a person might take that with a grain of salt. Lavelle may know her true age but I think she likes to keep the rest of us guessing.
But whatever the exact number, my old friend has a sizable number of years under her hat, and she has lived them all to the fullest. She’s one of the last of the true blues giants, almost a living, breathing stereotype of the genre. The daughter of Louisiana sharecroppers, she started writing poetry when she was twelve and used to sneak out her window at night to go to the juke-joint up the road. By the time she was fifteen she was in Houston performing in nightclubs. She was signed to Don Robey’s Duke/Peacock records in the late 50’s and put out a string of 45’s including such hits as Lead Me On which was a hit for Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1960 and Stop These Teardrops which was a hit for Lou Ann Barton in the early 80’s. She moved to Austin in the early 90’s and was signed by Clifford Antone to his Antone’s Records label and she put out the first of 3 highly acclaimed full length CD’s, Miss Lavelle. That was followed by It Haven’t Been Easy in 1997 and Into The Mystic in 2003. Her cover of Van Morrison’s title cut has become one of her show stoppers in recent years, bringing a depth of soul that even Van the Man would have to sit up and take notice of. And in 1997 she shared an Austin City Limits with Delbert McClinton, an episode sorely in need of re-broadcast.
So, with all of those decades of hard, constant work, and with all of those accolades a person might think that they would today find Miss Lavelle sitting comfortably in some lavishly furnished house with a safe place to sit and reminisce on the old times and to plan her next move. After all, she is still very active and has recently recorded an EP not yet commercially available, Do The Funk. But that’s where it all breaks down, and some of the ugly realities of the music business rear their heads. The actuality of it is, as with many of the early blues artists, Lavelle didn’t receive much in the ways of royalties from her early stuff She sold the rights to Lead Me On to Don Robey and wasn’t even credited with writing the song. And her albums recorded on the Antone’s label have long been out of print, tied up in the bankruptcy hearings from when that label folded. And without her old friend and mentor Clifford Antone behind her it has proven impossible to get signed to another label. At her age she is hardly able to tour extensively behind any new album so most record companies just aren’t interested. Her live shows are well attended and she has a following worldwide She was recently flown to Rome for a star-studded show there. But she had to go without her band and after expenses barely came out ahead financially. So it has been a hard row for Lavelle in recent years, and things have not been looking up. When I first met Lavelle in 1998 she was living in a small efficiency apartment in Hyde Park, in among university types who were mainly unaware of the legend living among them. Since then it has been pretty much a continuation of the same, when rent would get too high in one place she would move on to a smaller, more cramped apartment in another location, and always surrounded by memorabilia such as plaques commemorating certain days as “Lavelle White Day” for both Houston and Austin, all signed by mayors and city council members. When money was very tight she would stay in my spare room for weeks until we could put together enough money to get her back on her own. Her long time guitar player John Garr was always there to assist her as well as others, but for the most part her plight was below the radar.
So it was good news all around a few months ago when some of her other peers got together to start what would become known as H.O.M.E., the Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers. This is a group spearheaded by such luminaries as Marcia Ball, Carolyn Wonderland, Susan Antone, and booking agent Nancy Fly. They recognized the problem as being something that touches many in this “Live Music Capitol”. After all, one of the hard cold facts of life is that when the rent comes due the landlord is not going to be interested in rave reviews or accolades, he is going to want some cold hard cash. And when winter comes and you’re faced with having your utilities shut off all those plaques on the wall mean nothing. Unless you can maybe burn them for warmth…..So now Miss Lavelle has been chosen as the “poster child” for that effort, and it is already making a difference in her life. She now has a roomy, well maintained apartment in south Austin, her rent and utilities are being covered by the group. She also has medical coverage thanks to HAMM, another of the amazing groups that Austinites have been supporting to provide the “quality of life” assistance that so many of our entertainers are in need of. In the almost fifteen years of knowing her I have never seen Lavelle as relaxed and happy as she currently is. And this was most obvious at the big gala and salute to her held at Antone’s nightclub this past October 1st.The artists on that bill represented the finest of Austin’s musical giants, besides the above mentioned there was also Sara Hickman, Shelley King, Cindy Cashdollar and way too many to list here. All the songs performed that night were songs written by Lavelle herself, an amazing body of work that covered every decade back to the Fifties. Moving on and off stage was Lavelle herself, beaming in a new outfit and one of her signature hats. Austin music fans did themselves proud that night, we paid tribute to one of those who elevates the Austin scene to where it is incomparable to anywhere else in the world.
So I’m hoping the readers here at Rank and Revue, both our regulars and those in for such events as Fun Fun Fun, will keep Miss Lavelle and H.O.M.E. in mind. The years keep adding up for all of us, the old “live fast, die young” adage is not really a model to base your later years on. We should all be so lucky as to reach 83 (or whatever age we decide to call it), and if so we will be faced with how to pay the rent and keep the wolves at bay same as Lavelle. So any contributions made to H.O.M.E. should be considered as a down payment towards future use if you are in the business, or as an investment in good karma if you are not. For those of us who are strictly fans of the artists that we go out and watch on stage the story of Lillia Mae White is one to keep in mind, the share croppers daughter who ran away from home to share her gifts with us. Now it’s time for us to return that favor, and provide some gifts for her. All contributions are tax deductible and can be made through their website, I will add their contact info at the bottom of this. Please be generous and keep in mind that Lavelle is just the first of many we hope to assist, as with HAMM and the SIMS Foundation we are hoping to keep the Austin music scene happy, healthy and alive going far into the future. So please give as the start to what we hope is a lifelong adventure for all of us.