On her album Young
Gifted And Black Aretha Franklin does a version of The Beatles’ “The Long
And Winding Road” that so completely transforms that song-one of Paul
McCartney’s weaker efforts-that true justice would demand that her name be
added to the songwriting credits. None of the songs on Bettye LaVette’s Interpretations need that drastic a rehabilitation;
they’re among the best the British rock and roll bands of the 1960s and ‘70s have
to offer. All of the reworkings are successful even if sometimes some of the
more severe changes were unnecessary. Certainly The Beatles’ “The Word” isn’t
improved by losing the rhythm and cadence of the original. As mentioned, Franklin’s take being an
exception, most Beatles songs aren’t in need of improvement even though most
are strong enough to stand a little artistic license. Joe Cocker’s version of
“With A Little Help From My Friends” being the one that first comes to mind.
But going another way with Elton John’s “Don’t Let
The Sun Go Down On Me” or even Traffic’s “No Time To Live” is another matter.
With “No Time To Live” LaVette takes it even more slow and deliberate than the
original and it’s a soulful highlight. So is Led Zeppelin’s “All My Love.” That
one is flat out breathtaking. Before LaVette took on George Harrison’s “Isn’t
It Pity” it was unimaginable that anyone would rival the job Billy Preston did with
it at the Harrison tribute “Concert For
George.” If LaVette, whose voice and style are something of a cross between
Mavis Staples and a richer, more commanding Tina Turner, doesn’t knock Preston off the top it’s at least a surefire contender.
The good news is you don’t have to choose.
Her song selection is so spot on that it’s
tempting to lay them all out here but suffice to say that none are obvious
choices and that on this album LaVette goes as far as anyone ever has to break
down the forced and superfluous barriers between rock and roll and rhythm and
blues. This album will break your heart at least half a dozen times (“Wish You
Were Here”) and twice that many times (“It Don’t Come Easy”); it will put you
flat on your ass with your mouth wide open. By the time you get to the bonus
track, the live reading of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” that brought them to
their feet at The Kennedy Center Honors Show in 2008 (when George W. Bush made
one of his few positive contributions to American culture by honoring Pete
Townshend and Roger Daltry; did he know they were British?), you’re a glutton
if you’re not thoroughly satisfied. And by including The Rolling Stones’ “Salt
Of The Earth” in this collection, folks may come to realize that beyond the
excesses of their live shows of the past thirty years, Keith Richards and Mick
Jagger have some magnificent songs to their credit. Beyond that, if this record
helps shine a brighter light on a criminally under-noticed veteran soul singer
like LaVette then maybe it might be safe to turn your radio on again.
Standout Tracks: “Love Reign O’er Me,” “All
My Love,” “Salt Of The Earth” RICK ALLEN