Lounging on a couch upstairs at Antone’s, Miss Lavelle White gazes out the window and spies a grackle on a nearby rooftop, its mouth hanging open as if waiting for a handout. “I’ll come feed you later!” she says, with a sly cackle that suggests she’s both joking and serious at the same time.
White, who turned 88 on July 3, has long been beloved in Austin by birds, fellow musicians and legions of club-going fans. Many have seen her play here for decades, most often at Antone’s, where her history dates back to the legendary blues club’s first location at Sixth and Brazos streets.
White might not have gotten to know founder Clifford Antone if not for Evelyn Johnson of Duke/Peacock Records, the label that issued a slew of White’s singles in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Johnson introduced them around the time that the original Antone’s opened in the mid-’70s. Clifford, who died in 2006, became Lavelle’s first champion in Austin.
“He was a great guy,” White says. “He did a lot for musicians and entertainers. I still miss him, I love him. I really do.”
Such comments are common in conversation with White. When she talks about her long and adventurous life, she punctuates it frequently with shoutouts to those who have made it better. From managers Nancy Fly and Deborah Lerner, to booking agent Nancy Coplin, to Clifford’s sister Susan Antone, to current Antone’s booker Zach Ernst, to C-Boy’s owner Steve Wertheimer and the Skylark Lounge’s Johnny La Touf, and many more, she spreads her gratitude with a broad brush.
“There’s so many that I couldn’t call all the names,” she says, “but all of them meant a lot to me. Still do.”
Born July 3, 1929, in Jackson, Miss., and raised largely in Amite City, La., White arrived in Texas as a teenager in Houston, where she began a long career as a nightclub singer. In Houston, she played venues such as Club Matinee, opening for the likes of Little Richard, and caught on with performers such as Clarence and Sweets Hollimon and Johnny Copeland, who connected her with Don Robey of Duke/Peacock.
Ernst, an avid blues historian who studied at the University of Texas under Antone, is effusive in his assessment of the label’s legacy.
“Duke/Peacock Records, and particularly everything cut by Don Robey in Houston, represents the gold standard in Texas blues and the horn-driven, heavy R&B that Clifford Antone and a lot of the Austin blues players in the ’70s loved most,” he says. “It’s impossible to overstate how influential those artists were to the Antone’s sound. Miss Lavelle’s sides for that label are just mind-blowing.”
Life wasn’t all club gigs and record sessions for White when she lived in Houston. Her 30-odd years there were full of day jobs that supplemented her music career. “I worked at fast food places, and I worked in people’s houses, and waitressing,” she says. “And I was a nurse’s aide for about 15 years.”
It wasn’t until White hit retirement age, a few years after she’d moved to Austin, that her first full album got released. Blues guitar master Derek O’Brien produced her self-titled debut for Antone’s Records in 1994, as well as 1997’s “It Haven’t Been Easy” and 2003’s “Into the Mystic.” The records featured many songs that White wrote or co-wrote, including “Lead Me On,” an R&B hit for blues great Bobby “Blue” Bland in 1960.
With “Into the Mystic,” she also put her stamp on classics by Stevie Wonder (“Livin’ for the City”) and Van Morrison (the title track). And she tackled Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” which isn’t as much of a surprise as it might seem on the surface.
“I take country songs and turn them around into soul music,” she explains. “I think that’s the greatest song that Merle ever did. He was a great artist, and Derek O’Brien insisted that I do it.”
White’s willingness to disregard genre boundaries is part of what makes her such a good fit for Austin, a city long known for artists who mash up musical styles into unclassifiable new creations. Was Doug Sahm country, blues, Tejano, rock ’n’ roll or something entirely different? How would you categorize Joe King Carrasco? Or Shinyribs, or Emily Gimble? The magic is in the mongrelization, a point that White has long understood.
“Oh, yeah,” she says. “This is what I learned about Austin. It’s mixed with country, blues, jazz, funk, soul, rap — it’s a city that really accepts their artists. And I’m so happy for that.”
Though her identity is closely associated with the “home of the blues” reputation of Antone’s, White insists that “I’m not just a blues singer. I sing it all. My thing is soul and funk, blues, a little rap, jazz and spirituals to God. I want to thank God for everything.”
She especially appreciates Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers, an organization created a few years ago to help make sure that White had a place to live in Austin. White had been living for a few months in Louisiana with a cousin, whose death in 2012 left her without a home.
She came back to Austin and sought help from a group of women friends that included Fly, her former manager, and several musicians. Among them was Marcia Ball, who first met White more than 25 years ago. Ball recorded White’s song “I’m Gonna Make It This Time” on the 1990 “Dreams Come True” collaborative album with Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton.
“We did the first thing all musicians do when they’re petitioned for help: We threw a gig,” she recalls. “We had a great night at Antone’s where we all sang Lavelle White songs.” Ticket sales and proceeds from a live CD of the evening helped raise money to establish HOME and find White a place to live in 2013.
Once a month, White plays at the east side bar Skylark Lounge, and she also performs occasionally at South Congress hangout C-Boy’s. The Victory Grill has been in her rotation over the years, too. But since Antone’s reopened on East Fifth Street in 2016 after a two-year absence from the Austin club scene, it has once again become her home base.
She’s there most Sunday nights, backed by her “L Men” band featuring Kaz Kazanoff on saxophone, Appa Perry on bass, Paul “Buddha” Mills on drums, George Rarey on guitar and Matt Farrell on keyboards. They start out the show around 6:30 p.m. with a few songs of their own plus a different guest artist each week. Miss Lavelle takes the stage around 7 p.m. and plays two sets.
Once a year, that weekly show turns into something bigger. White’s birthday happens to fall right in the midst of the club’s extended anniversary celebration in July, which allows a lot of legends in town for the festivities to take part. This Sunday she’ll be joined by Lazy Lester, Bobby Patterson, Benny Turner, Deacon Jones, Jimmy D. Lane and Ike Stubblefield.
Ernst says he’s honored to have White at Antone’s on a nearly weekly basis. “There are very few artists associated with Duke/Peacock and Robey who are still living, much less a singer and star like Lavelle,” he says. “And she sings better now than she did way back then.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH, JULY 2017: Miss Lavelle White
Born: July 3, 1929.
Recordings: self-titled, 1994; “It Haven’t Been Easy,” 1997; “Into the Mystic,” 2003 (all on Antone’s Records). Also, many singles on Duke/Peacock, 1958-1964.
Performance: 88th birthday celebration on July 9 at Antone’s.
Austin360 video: See a video featuring an Antone’s performance and an interview with White at austin360.com.