On any night out with Lavelle White, two things are guaranteed: she will sing, and she will flirt. So it surprises nobody late one Saturday night this fall, in a dark outdoor courtyard behind Austin’s Skylark Lounge, that she begins absentmindedly running her left index finger up and down a younger man’s shirt buttons as she talks with him. In her other hand, she holds the stub of a cigarette, and she relaxes into a wrought-iron chair, where a table of half a dozen young fans are dressed casually in jeans and T-shirts. She stands out among the crowd—stage-ready in a snowy, Cleopatra-style wig and a glittery silver headband. Suddenly, she notices that her ruffled, sleeveless blue dress has migrated up above her knees, and she readjusts herself in her seat. “Look, I’m showing off my legs,” she tells me. “I’m a bad bitch.”
White is ninety years old, and unlike her peers—many of whom stopped performing years ago, if they’re still around—she keeps a relatively brisk schedule. She currently holds down three residencies in Austin at Antone’s Nightclub, the Skylark Lounge, and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, and despite the bridge she provides to the past seven decades of blues, soul, and funk, her show bears no resemblance to an oldies revue.
Longtime listeners may hesitate to embrace some of her newer directions, such as forays into rap and reggae, but she doesn’t. She can’t even feign sustained interest in her past, answering questions about her history with a whiff of let’s-get-this-over-with impatience. After I introduce myself at the Skylark, telling her I’m a reporter wanting to know more about her, she replies: “You gonna ask me about my drawers? I ain’t got no drawers on.” She winks, then raises her glass of champagne to make a toast to the table. “Hey! Gimme this shit! Cheers!”
White sits up straight when she hears her band playing the Mardi Gras bumper “Big Chief” inside the club—her cue to get onstage. Gently, she places her champagne glass down, then she hands off her red purse, pushes back her chair a bit, and steadies herself against the table as she gets up. Anyone nearby becomes a de facto bodyguard, standing by until a young volunteer takes her elbow and escorts her inside the Skylark’s intimate, dingy room. White eases onto the corner stage, each step seeming a little perilous.
The audience appears both excited and concerned as she grabs the microphone stand, catching her balance. White keeps her eyes on the ground for a few measures, bouncing her leg in time as the band begins “I’ve Never Found a Man to Love,” the woman’s perspective on an Al Green hit. Then she straightens her back, tips her chin up, closes her eyes, and opens her mouth to let out a sound with so much soul it’s as if she were channeling it from the center of the Earth.
Anyone primed for a puritanical show dispatches their misgivings pretty quickly at a Lavelle White concert. While many listeners would be perfectly happy with her passionate ballads like a soul version of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” and rocking standards like the Motown classic “Money (That’s What I Want),” audiences would do best to leave their pearls and tight neckties at home. Take, for example, “Bright Lights, Big City,”which, done by White, sometimes becomes “Bright Lights, Big Titties,” accompanied by the advice, “Some of you ain’t got big titties, that’s all right, use what you’ve got.” In another song, called “Take Your Drawers Off,” White muses about what kind of underwear the members of the audience prefer: Boxers? Old lady undies? She sings: “Take your drawers off, lay ’em on the table, show everyone you are able” and “If your drawers aren’t clean, put ’em in the washing machine.” White’s manager, Deborah Lerner, says that, on occasion, a male member of the audience will dance in front of White and begin to undress—White egging him on the whole time—spurring the need for an intervention.
Her irreverence may be the logical consequence of learned durability. When White was fifteen years old, in 1944, she had left her mother back in Louisiana and was living in Houston’s Third Ward, already craving a life in entertainment. White had seen how Jim Crow laws kept her mother in jobs like housecleaner and cotton-picker, and she’d hoped that Houston, where her older brother lived, might offer her better opportunities. Rather than attend school, White waitressed, and at night, after her brother went to bed, she snuck out the window to visit Houston’s nightclubs. Sitting in the Club Matinee or the Hamilton Inn, she sipped the occasional Coke and swung her legs on chairs as she watched groups like the Midnighters and Grady Gaines. She knew then that she had found her people, and that one day she would be onstage.
At sixteen years old, her life changed. White was performing a matinee show when the blues singer and guitarist Johnny Copeland heard her singing some standard blues hits. Copeland, a star whose advice came with the weight of a rare insider, told White there was one place in town that would allow her dream to come true: Duke Records. Run by an industrious African American businessman named Don Robey, the label was drawing some of the very best of its era, people like Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and “Big Mama” Thornton. “I can introduce you,” he said.
This was not a chance White was going to pass up. White brought along a new song she had written, a classic-sounding fifties ballad called “If I Could Be With You,” and Robey, impressed, offered her a contract. By 1958, she was writing R&B dance songs like “Teen-age Love” and “Stop These Teardrops” along with the slower tunes like “The Best Part of Me”—making a hit, in 1960, when Bobby “Blue” Bland recorded her melancholy ballad, “Lead Me On.”
Robey often took White’s songwriting credit as his own, as he was wont to do, an exchange White said she views as a sort of low-paying internship of its day. (He gave her $100 to take her credit for “Lead Me On.”) Regardless, the contract jump-started her career in music, and within a few years, she was touring with Junior Parker and Bobby Bland. She went on the road with B.B. King, who told White how to dress up for the stage, and from there, she started opening for every big act in America—Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ray Charles—eventually relocating to Chicago around 1977. For almost two decades after that, she often sang at Chicago’s legendary Kingston Mines club and toured, occasionally swinging through Texas.
But it wasn’t until 1993 that she saw a hunger for her shows in a young Texas audience and moved to Austin permanently. A year later, blues club owner Clifford Antone offered her an opportunity to record a full album. White recorded Miss Lavelle on Antone’s Records, and her songs started to make the regular radio rounds across the U.S.—including in Austin, where blues fans and musicians flocked to her at Antone’s, which then dominated the music scene. (Lou Ann Barton recorded a version of White’s song “Stop These Teardrops.”) Antone persuaded White to play his club regularly, and, seeing her popularity rise, recorded “It Haven’t Been Easy” in 1996 and “Into the Mystic” in 2003.
She was in her sixties by then. Instead of reflecting on her esteemed, uncommon career, she instead toured all over the country and Europe. White’s longtime drummer, Paul “Buddha” Mills, who started playing with her in 1994, told me, “She was goin’. She wanted to party and rock.” At a festival in Pennsylvania, soon after Mills started playing with her, she walked onstage in a full-length, white, sequin dress with feathers around the collar and a white hat covering one eye. “She came out and just killed it. I was like, ‘Is that Lavelle?’” he said.
Austin’s music scene may have changed since the nineties, with large and small venues popping up to eclipse the blues scene, but the energy at White’s shows remains the same. During her first of two sets at the Skylark, White busts out a new song, a call-and-response blues shuffle called “Yeah You Right” that flushes all thoughts out of the room: grievances, to-do lists, attractions, concerns about a need for another beer. She points at the audience and they are pointing back, angling for a better view. “She sounds better than ever,” her sax player, Mark “Kaz” Kazanoff, would tell me later; her range is intact, her projection enviable. All over town, performers are jumping and sliding, often in futile attempts to move the audience night after night. How is it, then, that White barely has to move to engage people? Her power’s ingredients can seem elusive. A few couples get up in front of the stage to twist and twirl while the tables and walls gently shake. “I wrote this song three days ago,” she says, almost rubbing it in.
Taking a break after her first set, White sits down in a booth near the stage and orders a second glass of champagne, pleased that the song went over well with the crowd. “I’ve gotta record that!” she says. “The crowd likes it because it includes them.”
She brightens when a young guy approaches her. “Can I take a picture?” he asks. He begins to pose with his head next to hers, but White does him one better, clutching his face and closing in as if she’s about to kiss him on the lips. I tease her about being a flirt, and she leans back toward me to shout above the crowd noise. “I got the stigmata,” she says, holding her right palm face-up on the table. “I was born like this, so I can see things.” She encourages me to pull out my phone so I can use its light to get a better look at the mark below her pinkie, which looks like a dime-sized spiderweb of broken blood vessels. “I know bad people and good,” she continues. “I don’t fool with anybody too much. I first recognized this Jesus in a shroud on my hand when I was twelve. God guides me through. Ask him. Tell him you love him above all things. Starve yourself and not eat. Let God know where you’re going. You’re not eating, you’re praising.”
She waits for me to write this all down, then acknowledges her manager, who looks up from her phone and scoots into the booth with an amused expression on her face. “Someone wants to book you for $150,” Lerner says, laughing.
“For the whole band?” White asks.
“For the whole band!” Lerner replies.
“Tell them they can kiss my ass,” White says, and Lerner nods in agreement. White then spots a young man passing by. “Hey!” she shouts, and starts up a conversation with him.
As the band warms up the second set, White closes her eyes and snaps her fingers to the music, awaiting her cue. She apologizes to me that she is going to take her purse with her when she returns to the stage, explaining that someone stole from her a few weeks prior. Then, when the band starts the reggae song “Give a Little Love,” she is back on the stage again, controlling the room, swaying back and forth on the two and four. She asks audience members to tip the band, though she doesn’t call it a kitty fund: “Feed the pussy!” she yells.
At 12:15 a.m. the crowd begins to thin, and those who have left seem to have taken some of her energy with them. There is another problem vexing her, too. Her left sandal has gotten catawampus at some point while she was singing, and as she stands at the microphone it’s clear that the misalignment is distracting her. Her mouth twists over to the side and her eyebrows twitch, and she announces her last song, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”
Until this moment, it’s almost like she has suspended time. It’s a rare experience, seeing someone with this magical power. That magic is also, in this case, as temporary as Cinderella’s ball gown: when the clock has struck midnight, the spell wears off.
As she cautiously descends the stairs, she seems to shrink with each step. White sits down in a booth and looks into the distance, catching her breath and shooting the occasional glare at her sandal. She didn’t want any help, just a few minutes. Yes, she told Lerner, she was ready to go. Right now, by God, she would be lucky if she got into bed by one. She needed rest. After all, she had a show the next night.