When Bettye LaVette performed at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville last September, the wiry, weathered, then-71-year-old R&B singer opened with a version of Bob Dylan’s “Unbelievable.” Wearing a blue-denim pantsuit, silver bracelets and short, spiky hair, she prowled the edge of the stage at the 12th & Porter nightclub menacingly, as if to make sure the audience understood the stakes.
It was less than eight months since Donald Trump’s inauguration, and she added a “Can you believe this is happening?” shock to Dylan’s lyrics: “It’s undeniable what they’d have you think,” she sang/growled over her band’s vintage soul groove; “indescribable, it can drive you to drink. They said it was the land of milk and honey, now they turn around and tell me it’s all about money.”
LaVette’s voice and instincts are still rooted in the Detroit streets where she grew up and in the studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals where she made her classic recordings. But since 2005, she has applied her soul-music impulses to the rock and Americana songbooks, tackling material from The Beatles and Elton John to Willie Nelson and Rosanne Cash. These songs have given her a rich new vein to mine, and she has given them a tougher, more rhythmic musculature. On Friday, she’ll release Things Have Changed, a new album devoted to a dozen Dylan compositions.
“The songs I’m recording now have to say something else, something I want to say. I wanted to say a lot of things Dylan said, but I didn’t want to say them the same way. He’ll take you up to the ledge, but he won’t push you. If I get that close to the ledge, I’m going to push you.”
“Over my career,” she says on the phone from her New Jersey home, “I’ve said just about everything that needs to be said about ‘He left me; I left him.’ I don’t need to say that anymore. The songs I’m recording now have to say something else, something I want to say. I wanted to say a lot of things Dylan said, but I didn’t want to say them the same way. He’ll take you up to the ledge, but he won’t push you. If I get that close to the ledge, I’m going to push you.”
With its insatiable hunger for the new thing, the music biz applies copyright and marketing pressures to compel artists to record songs that have never been done before. This has led to a decline in the art of interpretive singing, even though everyone from Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin and Emmylou Harris have used that approach to make indelible art. LaVette reminds us just how fruitful reinvented songs can be in the right hands.
“I let everyone know that I don’t do covers,” she insists, “because a cover is a copy. I don’t do tributes. I won’t sing a song unless I can express something about myself.”
Her first manager in Detroit was Jim Lewis, a former trombonist for the brilliant big-band leader Jimmie Lunceford. Lewis pressed her to get out of her comfort zone and learn songs from every genre. If she did, he promised, she would always be able to make a living as a singer.
“I thought he was doing it because he wanted me to sound older and white,” LaVette says today, “but he did it because he wanted me to be able to work. A lot of my friends in Detroit had hits, but when their sound went out of style, they couldn’t work. I learned those different songs, and I’ve been working for 57 years. I’d sit in with a jazz group and sing ‘I Had the Craziest Dream’; then I’d sit in with a blues group and sing ‘Every Day I Have the Blues.’ It stretched my musical personality tremendously. So when the opportunities came along for me to sing in Bubblin’ Brown Sugar or to make an album of British rock songs, I was able to do it.”
The crucial opportunity, after a long series of R&B recordings that were treasured secrets among collectors but never hits, came in 2005 when the alt-rock label Anti- Records signed LaVette and put her in the studio with producer Joe Henry to record 10 songs written by women ranging from Joan Armatrading to Fiona Apple. It won LaVette more praise and attention than she’d ever had before—and deservedly so, for she picked songs with attitude and gave them more attitude than their composers had dreamed possible.
When she sang one of those songs, “Joy,” in Nashville last fall, she introduced it by saying, “This was written by the only woman who might possibly—note that I said ‘possibly’—outdrink me: Lucinda Williams.” When LaVette sang about all the people who had stolen her joy, she wasn’t lamenting the loss like Williams but angrily plotting a counterattack. “You got no right to take my joy,” she snarled in warning; “I want it back.”
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Among those who took away her joy was Atlantic Records, which refused to release her brilliant Child of the Seventies album, recorded at Muscle Shoals, Ala., in 1972. Hence the title of her second Anti- album, 2007’s The Scene of the Crime, recorded in Muscle Shoals with Drive-By Truckers, who grew up there. That project included songs by Patterson Hood and John Hiatt, who were fresh stimuli for her muse, something different than what she’d grown up on.
“My husband is Irish,” LaVette says. “Blue eyes aren’t fascinating to him because he’s been around them all his life, but they are to me, because all I’ve known are brown eyes. Rhythm and blues was all I heard growing up, and at one point all I was permitted to sing. For me, the blues is like looking at a lot of girls. I’d rather look at a man.”
LaVette introduced herself to a lot more listeners when she was invited to the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. Wearing a sleeveless black gown, she began The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” quietly and built it into a thrilling climax of gospel testifying as president-elect Barack Obama and The Who’s Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey shook their heads in wonder from the balcony. That led to her singing a duet version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at Obama’s inauguration in January. It also led to her 2010 album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which found her covering The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin as well as “Love Reign O’er Me.”
She soon recorded three Dylan songs: “Most of the Time” for 2012’s Chimes of Freedom (a multi-artist, Dylan-tribute album), “Everything Is Broken” for 2012’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful and “Unbelievable” for 2015’s Worthy. LaVette’s husband Kevin Kiley and their friend Carol Friedman thought those initial efforts worked so well that she should do a whole album of Dylan songs, and they convinced Verve Records to give her the budget to do so. She’s only had one encounter with Dylan, but it was enough to make her want to pursue the project.
“I was coming out of my dressing room at this festival in Italy,” she recalls, “and the security guard said, ‘You can’t come out; Mr. Dylan is about to go on.’ That ticked me off, so I ducked around the guard. I saw him and said, ‘Hey, Robert Dylan!’ I could see his bass player tell him, ‘That’s Bettye Lavette.’ He walked over, grabbed my face with two hands, kissed me on the lips and walked on stage. We still haven’t talked. But that’s the way he writes: the kiss first and then the words.”
To choose the songs, LaVette asked her record-collecting husband to come up with a list of 50 Dylan songs that might work before she started listening. She narrowed it down to a dozen. Verve had asked that at least two would be well-known songs from the ‘60s and she chose “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” for those slots. With one exception, the others were all post-‘60s album cuts that appealed to LaVette for one reason or another.
“When I first heard ‘Emotionally Yours,’ for example,” she recalls, “I took it as something he had just tossed off. But I sat here one night by myself, drunk, and sang that line without the sing-song, and it hurt me to sing it. I realized he was being hurt and tearful instead of being brash the way he pretends to be. It was like, ‘Please have me.’ He doesn’t let that out blatantly, but that’s my strength—to spill it out on the floor—so that’s what I did. I wasn’t aware of the O’Jays’ version till a friend of mine played it. It sounded like something white people would like—black people singing like a church choir—but I made it sound like a black woman talking.”
She had trouble not only memorizing all the words in Dylan’s word-crammed songs but also making them fit the music. The key, she found, was treating them like Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” another number with a lot of words and unusual phrasing. To help her, LaVette recruited two key collaborators: a musician who really understood her music and a musician who really understood Dylan’s music. The first was drummer/producer Steve Jordan; the second was guitarist Larry Campbell, Dylan’s music director from 1997 through 2004.
“I don’t play an instrument,” LaVette explains, “so I have to rely on musicians to understand what I’m hearing in my head. I call Steve ‘the Bettye Whisperer,’ because I can explain what I want and he gets it right away. I would feverishly act out with my body what I wanted in a song—even if I had to drop to the floor—and he’d get it. I knew what I wanted my body to do when I sang it and Steve was able to translate it.”
“Rhythm and blues was all I heard growing up, and at one point all I was permitted to sing. For me, the blues is like looking at a lot of girls. I’d rather look at a man.”
Dylan wrote “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” for a woman he left behind but remembered fondly. But LaVette transformed its meaning by singing it to her mother. The line, “I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset…. I do not walk the floor bowed down and bent,” for example, was rewritten as, “Although I caused you trouble, you didn’t put me down or get upset…. You used to pace the floor bowed down and bent.” Performed slowly and quietly without a rhythm section, the song becomes the apology of a child who didn’t appreciate her mother until it was too late.
“I involuntarily found myself talking to my mother,” LaVette confesses. “My mother drank like I do, and cussed like I do. I know she must have walked the floor many times wondering where I was, and now I’m like her. Who else would suffer for you like that? If my mother had known I was going to talk about her as much as I do, she would have been so pleased. I was so grateful that Steve and Larry heard it immediately. My voice kept cracking, because I was crying and I wanted to do it over, and they said, ‘No, leave that in there.’”
“Ain’t Talking,” the nearly-nine-minute opus that closes Dylan’s 2006 Modern Times album, received even more drastic surgery. The nine verse stanzas and nine chorus stanzas of the original were boiled down to eight verse and four choruses. The vengeful accusations of the original “It Ain’t Me, Babe” became the live-and-let-live shrug of LaVette’s version (“I imagined I was Jimmy Reed,” LaVette says, “like I was drunk and didn’t care.”). “On “Seeing the Real You at Last,” the lines “You could ride like Annie Oakley, you could shoot like Belle Star’ were changed to “You could sing like Otis Redding; you could dance like Bruno Mars.”
“Eighty percent of the people who knew who Belle Star and Annie Oakley were are dead,” LaVette explains, “so I used Otis Redding and Bruno Mars. Bruno has so much energy with the way he sings and moves; he’s one of the young people I really like; and there’s not a gang of them. I think James Brown would have liked him—though, knowing James, he may not have admitted it.”
Bettye LaVette performs during the Americana Music Festival and Conference at 12th and Porter on Sept. 16, 2017, in Nashville.
Jordan has played with Keith Richards for years, and LaVette’s producer asked the Rolling Stone if he’d play on her album. He wound up on two tracks and formed a quick bond with the singer. “I told Keith, ‘This is tantamount to helping an old lady across the street,’” LaVette reports with a laugh. “If I’d been big when they were big, he and I would have gotten into a lot of trouble. If we’d known each other when we were younger had more time together, it would have been dangerous.”
Dylan isn’t the only songwriter LaVette is interpreting this year. She also makes an appearance on the multi-artist Strange Angels: In Flight with Elmore James, singing the bluesman’s “Person to Person” with guitarwork from G.E. Smith and John Leventhal. This too brought back memories of her mother, who used to sell corn liquor out of her Detroit apartment, drawing customers in with a jukebox stocked with singles by Elmore James, Mahalia Jackson and Red Foley. Little Bettye used to entertain the customers by dancing and singing along to any song on the jukebox.
That gave her a versatility that served her well as her career zigged and zagged through different genres. Along the way she developed good instincts about what songs she could add something to and which songs she should leave alone. Some songs, especially word-driven songs like Dylan’s, can be done any number of ways, while others, especially music-driven songs, almost demand a certain treatment. And a few have been done so well that there’s no sense messing with them.
“I’ve never sung ‘Respect,’ because I was satisfied with the way Aretha did it, the same with ‘Grapevine,’ the way it was done by Gladys and Marvin,” LaVette says, referring to Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. “I listen to what they did, and I say, ‘Yes, that’s the way I would have done it. That’s how I felt about it.’ For me to do a song, there has to be something left to say. I like to think that no one will ever record ‘Let Me Down Easy,’ because it was written for me and you’d have to go a long way to come up with another version worth hearing.”
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Sometimes a song is worth redoing just because the historical context has changed. When LaVette heard the lines “Wisdom is thrown in jail” and ‘Mercy walks the plank,” she knew she had to record Dylan’s “Political World.” “It’s as if he wrote the song on January 20, 2017,” she says. “The words fit so well. I don’t think this period is so different; there have been worse times in the past, and I think better times are coming. I think we’ll get through this faster because of the internet. What we need is a song that can make a difference, a song that is connected to a movement, like ‘We Shall Overcome’ to the Civil Rights Movement.”
When it’s done right, interpretive singing is a good deal for both vocalists and composers. For the former, it provides songs with richer language and fuller musical release than singers can come up with on their own. For the latter, it allows their songs to be heard with more dramatic, more flexible voices than the songwriters themselves possess.
This was demonstrated during LaVette’s performance at the Americana Festival last fall. She introduced the title track to her 2015 Worthy album with a shout out to the writers Mary Gauthier and Beth Nielsen Chapman. “I’ve gotten so much assistance from Nashville writers in my career,” LaVette said, “that I should wear a fucking cowboy hat.”
By the time LaVette’s raspy voice had worked through the opening verse’s slow tempo and catalogue of woes to arrive at the chorus’s declaration, “Way down beneath the hurt, it was so hard for me to feel that I was worthy, worthy,” she was fighting back tears on stage. And standing next to me in the crowd, taping the song on her phone, was Gauthier, her dampened eyes shining with pleasure.