In February of 2002, I got a call from Bettye Lavette. Bettye’s long-time music director, Rudy Robinson has passed away suddenly and she needed me to cover a 2 week gig at a 5 star hotel in Paris and a concert in England. I joined David Brandon, Pat Prouty, Billy Farris and Bettye for a month of rehearsals held in a tiny basement room in her house on Detroit’s north side. None of us knew just what was in store, but my god, that voice! In rehearsals, without a mic, she directed us toward how to feel her music, without musical terminology, but with a will and vision not be denied. After a warmup show at a suburban Detroit BBQ joint we headed to Europe, my first time across the ocean. We killed it in Paris, then headed for England where Bettye and I did an early morning, Budweiser-fuled radio show in Manchester, then flew to Blackpool to rest up for a few days before the concert.
That summer, on stage at the Chicago Blues Festival, she introduced me as her Music Director. Since then we’ve played on 6 continents, been on Leno 3 times, Letterman twice, Conan O’Brien, Austin City Limits and a bunch of other shows, some of which I honestly don’t remember. I’ve now played every US state except Hawaii (working on that).
We’re out playing duos right now, FL this week, Texas next week, just me, Bettye and her long-time tour manager Robert Hodge, driving around in an SUV. Even though I gave my notice a week ago, we’ve yet to discuss it. I’m enjoying the shows. I don’t think she knows, but it’s been very emotional for me. Sixteen years. That’s a lot of photographs. I’m so grateful for the experience and I’m not sure I want it to end.
It’s been large, as Bettye would say. But it’s time for me to leave. Writing this brings a tear, but I can hardly contain how excited I am to play my music, Whit Hill’s music, music with my friends and folks I’ve yet to meet. I’ll miss Bettye, Robert, and the band. I’ll miss the laughs. But there are laughs everywhere if you can keep from crying. So many memories. Castles, croissants, cruise ships. Euchre, Jack Daniels, endless loops of “Dirty Old Town”. Fish guts. squid ink, mackerel plates. “Ze greatest sound man in ze world.” I’ll be thinking about that stuff a lot, but making new memories, so, rock on. This is what I do, I’ve known it for a long time. Thank you Bettye, for asking me to work with you way back then. I used to regret that I’d never get to back up Otis Redding, but I don’t feel I missed anything now.
It’s been large, indeed.