Miss Lavelle White & Zach Ernst in Conversation
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Matt Conant
Miss Lavelle White, blues and soul icon, began singing as a child, first with her mother in church and later as a performer in Houston’s blues clubs. Known for her deep songwriting, rich voice, and raucous performances, White has called Austin home since the ’70s, when she first met Clifford Antone and began performing at his legendary club’s original location (Antone passed away in 2006). With Antone’s help, White released her first, self-titled album in 1994 and, decades later, is still wowing audiences with her ongoing Sunday residency at the venue’s newest incarnation on Fifth Street.
Zach Ernst, Antone’s booker and a longtime fan of White’s, knew the importance — both spiritually and musically — of having her involved in the club when it reopened two years ago. The two sat down recently to discuss White’s career and history and managed to cover everything from memories of her childhood to her famous Sunday night potlucks.
ZACH ERNST: Well, for people who are just discovering you, Miss Lavelle, could you share a little bit of your history?
LAVELLE WHITE: Really where I first started was in church with my mother singing spirituals, down in Louisiana and Mississippi. Then later on I started singing around Houston with guys like Clarence Holliman and Johnny Copeland, all those people. I would sing at clubs, making $20 a night. It was kind of a hard thing to start. People would tell me, “You ain’t never going to make it.” “Sit down, we don’t wanna hear you.” They would make fun of me a lot, but I kept pushing.
ZE: What I love about your early recordings is your songwriting. I heard that started because you were writing poetry as a little girl and turning those poems into songs.
LW: Yes. I wrote poetry as a little girl, made things rhyme — silly stuff.
ZE: The stuff you’ve written isn’t silly at all. Some of the lyrics you wrote, even at a very early age, are very heavy. “Lead Me On” is very deep and sounds like someone who has experienced —
LW: That song is about my mom. I wrote that with tears in my eyes. Lots of those early songs have a very sensitive feeling of mercy. I write with mercy and with feeling.
ZE: What brought you to Austin?
LW: I first came to Austin in the ’70s. Clifford had opened his first club right over there [motions behind to Antone’s original location on Sixth and Brazos], and that’s when I started singing “Stop These Teardrops.”
ZE: What is your favorite memory of Clifford?
LW: Oh, man, he was beautiful. He was beautiful. He helped all the blues singers. He was almighty.
ZE: How was he a part of getting you to record your first album?
LW: Well, I recorded it for him, and he did have a whole lot to say about that. I still can feel him.
ZE: I heard a story that at Antone’s downtown one day, someone came into the club during the daytime, and Clifford was playing bass, Jimmy Reed was playing guitar, and you were playing drums. Is that true?
LW: Yeah, that is true.
ZE: So you can play drums?
LW: I can play a little bit of drums. Just a little bit. I’m trying to play the harmonica. I don’t want to sound like everybody else. I’m trying to teach myself, which is the best thing to do with harmonica, teach yourself.
ZE: If someone is thinking about coming to see the Lavelle show at Antone’s on Sunday for the first time, what would you tell them they’re in for?
LW: I try to capture the feeling of the audience when I sing. I say, “Can you feel us? Can you feel us?” and they’ll say, “Yeah!” I got everybody up in the house last night! I like to do it in my own way and in my own time with my band, The L Men. They’re the greatest. I like to see people dance, and I like to do a lot of funk with blues and all the serious stuff. I like to do it in my own way, in my own time, and it is right in this spot.
ZE: One of the most amazing things about you, Lavelle, is how great your voice sounds. Of course, everybody knows that you’ve been in this business for a very long time, but there are singers half your age who can’t sing as well as you. I think that you actually sing better now than you ever have.
LW: Thank you so much. It’s God almighty. And he’s with me all the time. And I never used none of that hard stuff. [Looks at Zach.] Love you, boy.
ZE: I love you too.
LW: Thinking about us loving each other, I forgot that I need to run home and get some food for the potluck.
ZE: Of course! You’re famous for your blues signing, but the crew around here also knows you as a great cook.
LW: Well, thank you. Honestly I usually throw it together.
ZE: What are your favorite things to make when you cook for our Sunday potluck?
LW: I make collard greens, cornbread — you know what chicharrones are?
ZE: Pork skins?
LW: Yeah. I soak them in water and then I make cornbread. I put those in with some corn and jalapeños. I’m going to make that next Sunday, I think.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A native of College Station, Zach Ernst co-founded Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears in 2007 and served as the band’s rhythm guitarist until 2012. He started his job as music booker for the Paramount Theatre in 2013 and has also booked Antone’s since it reopened downtown in 2016.
Miss Lavelle White performs every Sunday at 6:00 p.m. at Antone’s, located at 305 East Fifth Street.
Read more from the Music + Film Issue | March 2018