Bettye LaVette was signed by Atlantic Records in the ninth grade, and toured with Ben E. King and Otis Redding years before she was old enough to drink at the venues she sang in. At 72, her career has followed the serendipitous path from a country music upbringing through her R & B singing career and beyond. Her adventures have spanned from interpreting British Rock songs at the Kennedy Center, to singing at Obama’s inauguration, to a GRAMMY nomination for Best Blues Album in 2015. And then there was her foray into Americana music with the Drive-By Truckers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. And now, just this past winter she signed with Verve Records to create an album interpreting songs of Bob Dylan, in her own enchanting, powerhouse style. The album, Things Have Changed (Verve), is coming out Friday, but you can get yours ordered today.
Americana Highways had a chance to speak with Bettye LaVette the other day. First, we asked: “What were your basic initial reactions to singing Bob Dylan songs for the new album?” “Bob Dylan is a troubadour but I sing his songs Rhythm and Blues,” LaVette said. “At the beginning, I thought to myself, all I have to do is sing the words to the songs. But there are so many words. There are around 100 words in each verse of his songs. (laughs) It seems Dylan becomes exasperated telling the stories, and tells them to you again in another way. So I went in and picked the strongest verses and put a black woman’s voice to them and offered it: “this was what I think he was saying.””
“Once I got them to the way I could sing them, then I really had fun with them, and then the songs felt like they started to belong to me too, just adding attitude to these bitchin’ stories.”
How did you approach the songs initially when they were first set there in front of you? “I really learned so much from this man from having to learn these songs because I had to make them fit in my mouth, but he wasn’t saying things the way I would say them. Dylan seems frustrated and gets all the way up to the line where a black woman would say “f*ck you” and then he doesn’t say it, so I have to step in and say it for him. (laughs) The songs call for it.”
“This man had just won a Nobel Peace Prize for words, and they really had to be spoken. He has such a clever way of saying things. He says them cleverly and I say them sassily.”
What was the process you followed, to get them from his versions to yours? “The first step was to understand what he meant, and that took some listening. I wrote the words down and got the syllables down to singable size, to where they were songs that I could sing, then I got with my music director and sung them to him the way I wanted to sing them to him, and then he recorded it and gave it to Steve Jordan (Bob Dylan) — drummer and producer of the album — and Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan) guitarist.”
“I have taken to calling Steve Jordan “the Bettye whisperer” because he understood everything I was saying and interpreted my needs to the musicians. I told everyone from the beginning, they will never hear these songs sung this way again. I sung them just by myself with a piano, and we built up the music around them that way. Larry Campbell was with Bob Dylan for eighteen years. I was surprised he was so thankful, and said he had really looked forward to playing the songs differently, to see what else they could do. I am very very pleased with the way the album came out.”
LaVette had previously ventured into Americana and alt-country music when she worked and toured with the Drive-By-Truckers in 2007-2009, when the Truckers backed her on her album Scene of the Crime (ANTI-). The album was produced by Patterson Hood and recorded in Muscle Shoals at FAME studio with the Truckers and David Hood backing her. The album garnered a nomination for Blues Album of the Year in 2008.
How did you settle into a way to work with the Drive-By Truckers during that time? LaVette joked, “I’d cuss everybody out and then I’d be happy. In all seriousness, I’d have to tell them to play the way I was singing, and there was never any problem. These are all just songs, and they are musicians so they’d learn the parts. Patterson [Hood] said I was so mean (laughs), he said the first thing I said when they picked us up from the airport was “don’t think you’re going to have those twanging guitars playing with me.” I don’t remember saying that but it does sound like something I might say. But whenever I see them it’s a love fest, I love them.”
Have you worked with any of them more recently? “I just did that show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville during Jason Isbell’s residency there this past October. I opened for him, it was really fun, I got to give Jason a hug. I was grateful that he would remember me from the Trucker days and would think to ask me. I wish my Mom could have seen me there, she was such a country fan, such a Grand Ol’ Opry fan. Growing up I knew B.B. King songs just as well as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans songs. I would have liked her to have seen me there, she would have been just so proud.”
Bettye LaVette demonstrates a real versatility and openness to trying new things musically. We asked her if she had any advice on how to last in the music business? She offered two suggestions. “First, my first manager Jim Louis told me when I was 16 years old: You may never be a star but you can always sing if you take care of your voice. So I’d say do whatever you need to do to make sure you always give a great performance and take care of yourself in the process. Of the people in my group of singers who started out in 1962, Stevie Wonder is the youngest, and then there were the Temptations, the Marvelettes, the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, these people became millionaires en masse and many of them didn’t live long enough. To have a whole gang of musicians who recorded for Atlantic and Motown, this was the first that these people had this kind of money, everything was done with reckless abandon. If I had been a millionaire I might have ended up dead too. Just as we couldn’t imagine ourselves being millionaires, we couldn’t imagine ourselves dead either. My group lost so many people. Most of my group didn’t make it to their ‘60s. You’ve got to take care of yourself to last.”
“It was easier for me to take care of myself because I didn’t have the money to be really indulgent. (laughs)”
Secondly, LaVette attributes success and longevity to an ability to recognize the very human need to balance performing with home life and time alone refortifying oneself. “The Dells are the only group I know that have stayed together almost sixty years now. All these other groups had broken up prematurely: the Temptations, the Beatles, the Eagles. The Dells understand that the key to longevity is to learn how to meet, do the show, do whatever the show requires, and go home. You just meet, don’t even have to speak, just smile at everybody on stage, do the show, and then take your old grown-ass home,” she says with her infectious laugh. “You should, as a grown person, be able to go your separate ways at the end of the night. This could have helped a lot of super groups stay together, a respect for everybody’s need to balance alone time with work and the performance.”
Congratulations were in order on the new album and signing on with Verve Records. About her path through the landscape of various record labels, LaVette recounted: “The first time I went onstage I was sixteen years old, I already had a record in the charts, I was on the Atlantic Record label. People always ask me why I wasn’t on Motown, it was because Motown was just getting started. In ninth grade I was already on the road with Ben E King; Motown wasn’t around yet, I was on Atlantic. But my new record company, Verve, owns Motown, I’m loving that. When I was home in Detroit last week, I was telling some of my friends, you know my company owns your company.” (laughs)
A conversation with Betty LaVette is an adventure in fascinating stories and gales of laughter. It’s the kind of talk you never want to end. LaVette said “I can tell stories to you all night and I think you’d just sit there and giggle.” That sums up the conversation; and when hanging up, Bettye said “Bye bye Baby, thank you for talking with me.” We are thankful for the opportunity, too.
And her new album is fabulous, get yours right now, here:
here’s a video preview: