The soul queen talks fame, finesse and success—and her new album of Dylan songs.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
“Could you call me back in ten minutes, baby. I’m running a bit behind,” Bettye LaVette says as she answers the phone. Naturally, we’re only too happy to oblige. With Things Have a Changed, her wonderful new collection of Bob Dylan songs ready for release, it’s only natural that a day set aside for press interviews would find her very busy.
Surprisingly enough, we don’t have to make the call because she calls us back. And when I note that my surname is Zimmerman, the given name of one Bob Dylan, she begins laughing hysterically. “I love it! That’s wonderful,” she replies. “He’s haunting me!”
The truth is, she’s the one haunting these songs. As her website states so unabashedly, “Bettye LaVette is no mere singer. She’s not a songwriter, nor is she a ‘cover artist.’ She is an interpreter of the highest order.”
That indeed is what she’s been doing to great acclaim since her re-emergence in 2003 with the album A Woman Like Me, which netted her the prestigious W.C. Handy Award for “Comeback Blues Album of the Year.” Her profile rose even higher with subsequent albums released on the edgy Anti-label, all of which found her adapting her classic soul style to songs of both classic and contemporary vintage. I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, released in 2005, found singer, songwriter and producer Joe Henry behind the boards for an album of songs composed entirely by women. Its follow-up, 2007‘s The Scene of the Crime was recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals and featured instrumental support from Drive-By Truckers. A performance at the Kennedy Center Honors that featured her performing “Love, Reign O’er Me” as a salute to the Who led to 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, a collection of British Invasion standards. In the interim, she garnered an array of prestigious honors and appearances, culminating with a Grammy nomination for Best Blues Album of 2016 for her aptly named album Worthy.
Ironically, the kudos she’s been accorded have come late in life. He began recording in 1962 at age 16, when her first single “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man” hit the R&B top ten. She subsequently toured with such stars as Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Otis Redding and Barbara Lynn, and later, she briefly joined the James Brown Revue. An ever-shifting array of record deals followed, but the album that could have provided her big breakhrough, Child of the Seventies, recorded with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, was shelved. (In 2000 the tapes, thought to have been destroyed in a fire, were unearthed and issued on CD on the Art & Soul label as Souvenirs; Rhino Handmade subsequently released the material, along with some bonus tracks, in 2006 under the original name, with the Real Gone label reissuing it once again on CD in 2015. And now, there is a campaign by vinyl reissue specialists Run Out Groove to release it as a vinyl LP under the name The 1972 Muscle Shoals Sessions; fans are currently voting on whether the label will release that or one of two other proposed titles.) After a short stint recording in Nashville in the early ‘80s at the behest of Motown, she took a hiatus, opting to perform on Broadway as one of the leads in the hit musical Bubbling Brown Sugar.
Consequently, LaVette is still waiting for the wider recognition she’s pursued her entire career. Blurt spoke to her from home in New Jersey while covering an array of topics, but that desire to be considered in the same league as her contemporaries was never far from her thoughts.
BLURT: Your new album is inspiring. How did you manage to reinvent these songs which are so closely identified with Dylan and then make it your own?
BETTYE LAVETTE: I discovered them… You guys have got to stop doing this. They’re just songs. They’re obviously written by Bob Dylan, but they’re still just words on a piece of paper. Which do you think would be more difficult for me to do — to sound like me or to sound like Bob Dylan?
To sound like him presumably.
So when people say you’re making them your own, all you have to do to make them your own is to sing them the way you would sing them. That is what I am doing. Singing them the way I would sing them. He is a songwriter, just like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and I sing their songs as well. And I’m sure I don’t sing them the way they did when they took them in to their publisher, or the way anyone else would have sung them at first. So I sing them the way I would have sung them. That’s all I can do. I don’t hear them any other way. There’s no overt effort to sing or sound different. That’s just the way that I hear them. If I like them, I hear them the way that I would do them.
In saying that though, are there no lingering impressions that you have in your head after hearing the familiar, well known renditions?
No, no, no, no no. No,no, no, no. I wouldn’t let that happen. When I introduce myself to the songs and decide what I’m going to sing, it’s the way I heard the words and the way I would sing them. I’m not hearing the person that’s singing them. Then, after I write the words down on a piece of paper or my husband looks them up and prints them, I get a fuller impression. It helps more when I write them down, because when you put the handle back on the record, you learn them as you’re writing them down. The moment I have the songs down on a piece of paper, in whatever form, I don’t want to hear the other person anymore. After I have the melody in my head, it’s easier to remember, because it’s repetitive, but the words keep changing. So if I learn the melody, then I start looking at the words and sing them the way I want them to go because I now know the melody. So all I have to do is sing them the way I want them to go.
You’re obviously well versed in that technique. You’ve reinterpreted a lot of people’s material.
It’s like the Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow” (included on her album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise. After we got all the changes, it became (sings) “Oh my sister, you better listen to me.” That’s the way I heard it.
Is it at all intimidating to take on these songs, especially when the composer is someone like Bob Dylan? Do you feel like you have to reach a certain standard in order to do them justice, or do you just forget about all that?
All I have to do is hold them up to the standards that people are expecting of me. I don’t have to hold up to his standards. I’m not as good a songwriter. Nobody’s offered me a Nobel Prize. But I know how Bettye LaVette sings a song, and I try to sing it as best as Bettye LaVette can, and I try to sing songs that I really believe in and feel in my heart. If songs are silly songs, I try to make them as funny as possible. But I don’t sing songs that have words I would never say. I don’t use the word “boy” unless I’m using it to insult a man. So far I haven’t run into that yet. And I never say, if you do this, I’ll die. Because there would be nothing you could do to kill me. You do know I’m 72 years old, right?
Yes we do know that, Ms. LaVette.
And Bob Dylan’s first record came out around the same time as my first record came out.
We know that as well.
So what should be intimidating to me about him?
A lot of people look at Bob Dylan as…
Are you married?
Yes I am.
How much critique did you do on your wife?
She critiques me more than I critique her.
So I’m getting ready to do the same things with these songs that you do with your wife. I live with them, love them, make love to them, marry them, marry them with me. And I don’t need other people’s opinions about that. I draw my own conclusions.
It was said that your husband Kevin listened to literally hundreds of Dylan songs, and then narrowed down the choice to somewhere around 100 for you to choose from. How did you further narrow them down? Was it simply by the way you related to them?
Yes, it’s how I related to them. There was one song that had 96 verses. Bob Dylan will say something over and over. It’s almost like a really nagging broad. “Let me tell it to you like this, or do you understand it better this way?” So I got it down to the line that everyone would understand. That’s what I did. I captured as many things as he said and then got to the point, which is what a black woman will do. I’m now calling myself the finisher of these songs, because he will take you all the way to the ledge and say jump off. But I’ll push you if we’ve gone that far. (laughs) So that is what I do with his songs. I just go ahead and push people off the ledge. The tender ones especially. “Emotionally Yours” now makes me cry. “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”… when I listened to the verses, it was like oh my God, and then I sat here with a bottle of champagne (begins to sing) and I said, “Oh I like that!” And the next thing I knew, I was crying. He’s been hiding that tenderness from me behind this classic song for all these years. (Sings “I will always be emotionally yours.”) I like it. I like it, and I ain’t gonna say no more.
Didn’t you add some lyrics of your own to some of these songs?
Yeah. On “Seeing the Real You at Last,” he was talking about Clark Gable and somebody else of that era, and I said, “No!” Only 20 percent of the people who are alive now know who that is. I’m fortunate enough to know, because I’m on my last legs. I’m part of the 20 percent. I put Betty Jo Haskins, my own real name in there. And Tina Turner. His manager loved it and gave me license to do anything I wanted to do. So now I’m thinking like a child. I’m thinking euphemistically that (whispers) maybe Bob will love it.
We read that you met Dylan once backstage very briefly and he came over and gave you a big kiss. So maybe now this record will lead to a second, more lengthy encounter.
We’ve been calling it “The kiss.” There were no words. Now we’re waiting for the words. It was just a kiss, so maybe the lyrics are yet to come. (laughs)
Larry Campbell is on the new album with you, and of course, Larry Campbell famously plays with Dylan. Did he offer any input into the material or the arrangements? Did he say anything like, well Bob meant it to sound like this?”
No, he really didn’t. But he did say he was so happy to be involved with this project and play them in a different way. My producer, who is Steve Jordan, is the person who speaks on my behalf. I don’t talk to anybody.
So what exactly did Steve Jordan bring to the table in terms of the production?
With a brilliant producer like Steve Jordan, he understood every word I said. I’m not going to sing anything the way you tell me to sing it. Steve came to my house and I made jambalaya for him and we got with my keyboard player and we worked out the moods and the thoughts and the feelings. Steve took those moods and feelings and put rules to them, and Larry took his parts and gave Pino (Palladino) and Leon (Pendarvis) their parts. I sing for the piano, but being black, the drums kick me every time. Still, I sing for the piano and Leon Pendarvis was there to help with everything I wanted to say vocally. It was a magical recording, it really was. We did it all in three days. Everybody understood exactly where I was going, and they knew that I knew where I was going. That was one of the things that speeded it up. The only thing that we recorded twice was “It Ain’t Me Babe.” We recorded it one way, and then I took the recording at home and listened to it and I came back the next day and I said, “Steve, you can actually skip to this.” And I held his hand and we actually skipped across the floor. I said, “You can’t actually tell people to jump off the ledge while you’re skipping.” One of the things that came into my mind was Jimmy Reed. (Starts singing “Come lightly to the ledge…”) I wanted to do it like that. And the moment I started to sing it differently, they started to play it differently.
Keith Richards makes an appearance on this album. Had you known Keith for awhile?
No, I don’t know any of my contemporaries. Even though I’m from Detroit, I haven’t seen Aretha or Smokey since my career started taking off. All my contemporaries — even though I started first — all of them are millionaires. So, no, I hadn’t known Keith Richards. I told him, “You’re now a boy scout because you’re helping an old lady cross the street.” We sat there together with our legs crossed on the couch because we’re both about the same size, and I laid my head on his feet and he played his solo and he blew smoke in my mouth, and I blew smoke in his mouth and he had his drink and I had my champagne and it was 11 o’clock in the morning. (laughs)
Well, now you’re qualifying it. You were off to an early start.
I know! (laughs) But I said to him, “You know, you and I are contemporaries and we could have gotten into lots of trouble together. And he said, “I know. I know.”
You have so many admirers now. We don’t have to call it a comeback, but 12 or 13 years ago, your career was reborn. How did that feel at the time?
I call it “coming up out of the crypt.”
Were you thinking, “Where have you all been? I haven’t been away.” Or did it feel like you were getting a second chance?
I felt like I was coming up out of the crypt. (laughs)
That sounds a little dark.
Well, it was dark at that point because I had gotten to be 60 years old and that was the magic number. But prior to that, I had learned to tap dance and had done some things on Broadway, and I’ve always managed to secure some kind of record deal. It depends how much money was spent as to whether you heard it or not, but it came out and it was heard somewhere. I was glad that my husband Kevin, when I met him, he was already a Betty LaVette fan. He has a compilation of everything that has ever happened in my entire life, and I am so grateful for that. So it wasn’t like a second chance. It was like my fifth chance, and that’s why I call it my fifth career. All those other times — when I signed with Motown, when I signed with CBS, when I did “Bubbling Brown Sugar” — all those were starts, like “she’s going to be on Broadway, she’s going to be a star on Columbia…” It’s like when I went to Nashville. “Oh she’s going to be a star in Nashville. She’s going to be a black Nashville star!” So no, this is my fifth career!
And this is the career that really seems to have taken hold.
I learned so much from each of those earlier careers. And I’m so different from each of my contemporaries. I’ve been directed. I’ve been on Broadway, I’ve worked and recorded in Nashville. I’ve worked and recorded in New York. I’ve worked and recorded in Detroit. So now I look so odd and different, when they say we need something different, I say sure!
Are there still things that are still left on your bucket list at this point?
Just the Grammy and some money. Those are the only two things I haven’t been able to achieve. I’ve sung for two presidents. I’ve done the Kennedy Center Honors thing. I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do except to get the darn Grammy.
This record may do it for you. It’s really a transcendent effort.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. I certainly felt this way when my first record came out in 1962. But this is the first time I’ve had all of the ducks in a row. They say this is the greatest record company in the world. This is the greatest songwriter in the world. Steve Jordan is one of the best producers in the world. I’ve got the best manager in the world in Danny Goldberg. I’ve got the best booking agency in the world. Now they say I’m one of the best song stylists in the world. I’m gonna start taking this shit personally.
Speaking of the Kennedy Center, is it true that Pete Townshend was in tears when you sang “Love Reign O’er Me” at the salute to the Who?
All you have to do is go to YouTube and see that he is. I have several frames of it attached to my wall. (laughs) My husband is Irish and grew up here in New Jersey and he was a great fan of theirs and all the rock stars. I really feel that the British Invasion put a great dent in black music in America. Especially when you see the graciousness that B.B. King expressed and the graciousness that Muddy Waters had when you see them talking to the Rolling Stones and talking to whomever. B.B. King barely escaped dying piss poor. He barely escaped it. He wasn’t that rich but he wasn’t piss poor, but he would have been much better off if that British Invasion thing hadn’t happen. But how are you going to resent artists just like yourself, when we’re trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do, but when your own country overthrows you like that and goes overseas… there isn’t another black artist in this country who doesn’t feel the same way. So this thing that is happening to me now is allowing me the opportunity to, not necessarily pay them back, because there’s no way in the world that I will ever have Paul McCartney’s money, but to give them a chance to hear me. I tell my husband that I’m being airbrushed into my past. Every time I take a picture with Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr or somebody, I put it on the wall and say I was airbrushed into that. (laughs)
Still, it’s ironic that the British artists who took black music and reinterpreted it their way, are now getting the same treatment from you on your records. When you did your album Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, it brought the cycle full circle. You’re doing it on the new album, bringing these great songs to new ears in your own particular way.
That is the way that it’s going to be looked at. I really hope that it’s going to be given as much credence. I really need the money now. I don’t necessarily need any more critical acclaim. But I do hope the acclaim will be just what you said.
How is that campaign to release your long lost Muscle Shoals album on vinyl going?
Kevin has been talking to someone — I don’t know. I almost don’t talk to anybody — but Kevin is talking to someone and it sounds really, really hopeful. It would be so interesting. During that time, when I came from Muscle Shoals and went back to Detroit, when you went to somebody’s house, they had the stereo and the albums propped up all over the floor, leaning against the furniture and you’d see albums like Dusty in Memphis and whatever. I always wanted to see my album there. We had our names it, we had taken pictures, and then Atlantic decided not to release it. So now, for it to be released in vinyl would let me prop that album on my living room floor… I’m sure people don’t do that anymore but if you come to my house, you’ll see it.