It’s been a long time coming and as an interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette has started a new chapter of her career with her tenth album, Things Have Changed.
It’s the first album for the soul singer on a major label in nearly thirty years. On the album, she takes on the songs of Bob Dylan with a mixture of grit, soul, and blues to spin it into an interpretive masterpiece of her own. To pull off the transformation of the original songs, LaVette worked with producer Steve Jordan, and musicians such as Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis. Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty were added to the mix to create a recipe of rock ‘n’ soul. The album will be released on Verve Records on March 30.
Bettye LaVette has had a highlight worthy career that spans nearly six decades; from bringing down the house with her rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors to President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration concert when she joined the stage with Jon Bon Jovi to sing “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song fitting for a woman whose change has finally come with recognition.
NMAAM caught up with Bettye LaVette to discuss her new album.
This is completely different for you to devote an entire album to one songwriter. What made you do that for your new album, Things Have Changed, and why Bob Dylan?
Bettye LaVette: I don’t know that I went in thinking I just wanted to do one songwriter. I certainly would not have decided this on my own. A friend of mine, and photographer Carol Friedman, who has done most of the photographs of me recently, especially the ones that make me look like I have long legs (laughs). She is a good friend and a life -long Bob Dylan fan and it’s always been her dream to hear me do Bob Dylan songs. I’m sure she knew unless that unless something big happened, it would not be forthcoming. Here again, as an artist, I would never hone in on one artist at this point. But when the biggest record company in the world says they think it’s a great idea, I said, ‘so do I!’ (laughs) So, that’s how it came about. The man just won a Nobel Peace Prize for lyrics. I recorded a few of his songs previously. One was called “Most of the Time” and it appealed to me and the way I felt at the time, then another one called “Everything is Broken,” and one called “Unbelievable” on the Worthy album. I did those because they were funny to me. They actually tickled me, because the lyrics were funny to me. I enjoyed those. I never would have chosen twelve of his songs, but with that task before me, I’m not a cover artist and I wasn’t trying to cover him and I wasn’t going to do a tribute to him.
That took a long time, longer than I have ever taken on any one piece of music. These, I had to rewrite some of them, like the verses and lines and put them in my mouth. He’s a very weird writer because he writes vignettes, not songs and they have chapters. Then it took weeks to learn however many of these songs. But I took verses out and lines out and freshened up some lines and some things that only 80 percent of the country knows who Belle Star and Clark Gable are, so I had to change those to Bruno Mars and Otis Redding. I had to find something that captured me emotionally. The song “Emotionally Yours” was one of those. I liked the words. I knew that I wasn’t going to cover them or tribute them, and that was one of the things I expressed to my producer Steve Jordan. He is now known as the ‘Bettye Whisperer,’ because I can’t play anything so I had to act out and sing out everything that I wanted. This is the first time I’ve had a Black producer in many years. It was interesting.
Once you got that part down, it only took you a few days to knock out the album in the studio.
Bettye LaVette: It only took 3 days. I don’t go in the studio with questions. I’ve already thought of what we are going to do. I have the attention span of a child, so doing things over and over I just can’t do it (laughs). Steve Jordan was on a very tight schedule so we were very fortunate to have him, and many of the others as well. Larry Campbell had been with Bob Dylan for many years. These guys work 24/7. It was going to be tight anyway, but I don’t think they knew how tight I can hang. I was like I’m from Detroit (laughs).
Why did you name the album Things Have Changed?
Bettye LaVette: So many things have changed. I have a new manager, a new booking agency, this new brilliant record company, this new producer, and I’m going to be blonde most of the time. I don’t want to call it a last- ditch effort, but I want this to work.
I had to find songs that could be turned around that could naturally fit. I chose those because Bob Dylan will occasionally lean [toward] gospel every once in a while, and those lent themselves to that. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been heard on Black radio and we could completely turn it around. That’s why I wanted to do “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I wanted to go completely different and Steve understood that. I sung with my keyboard player and made a tape with him, and I had to show them how to make rhythm with the way that I was singing it. The keyboard player just played the changes to the song and I put the rhythm in my voice so that gave Steve the indication on where to put things. He is such an intelligent musician and producer.
The way that you sang those Bob Dylan songs on your new album, Things Have Changed, are so soulful.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you very much. I’m very interested to know what Bob Dylan fans think. His fans are like worshippers and Blacks don’t know anything about him at all. I’m interested to know what Blacks think about the album and Bob Dylan worshippers.
The lyrics of the songs really stand out because you made them your own.
Bettye LaVette: A lot of Bob Dylan fans say they absolutely love him, but they never knew what he was saying (laughs).
Let’s discuss a few of the songs on the album. Talk about “What Was It You Wanted.”
Bettye LaVette: For that one and everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I said let’s put trombones on it. I wanted a New Orleans feel and they went right to Trombone Shorty, and I said ‘I didn’t mean New Orleans itself!’ (laughs) But, it was exactly what I wanted. Bob Dylan will lead you to the ledge, but he won’t push you, see I will. I had to push to get this sound.
How about “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight?”
Bettye LaVette: Yes! That one and “Emotionally Yours” made me say ‘wow he will cry!’ (laughs) When I drank a bottle of champagne and sang both of those, and I said listen at this song. I found out a tremendous amount about Bob Dylan and these songs. The only way I could put them in my mouth, I had to get all the way into them. I had to sing them not because I liked them, but because I wanted to say it. It had to be something I wanted to say.
What about the song “It Ain’t Me Babe?”
Bettye LaVette: I wanted it to be so different from what he did on the song, I wanted it to be more blues. I wanted it to be more like a drunk Jimmy Reed song. Singing it like they did is like trying copy someone’s art, but how do you feel about it? How mad are you? (laughs)
In your book A Woman Like Me, you mentioned having “buzzard’s luck,” looking back at that and your journey to now, what kind of advice would you give to someone to not give up and keep going?
Bettye LaVette: I would say people have to use logic, it’s the most important thing. If you are following some stuff that you know you can’t do, try to get some logical opinions and try to weigh it good. If people hadn’t been pouring their money into my career, I would have long since quit and not just kept going because I want to sing. People kept calling me, maybe it was the wrong people, maybe the deals fell apart, but they kept calling. If I had joined the church and they didn’t call or if I ran off with some man that beat me every day and they didn’t call, then I probably chose the wrong thing, but they kept calling. When they called, they said, “I have your last record, and wanted to know if you want to do another one.”
I have an album that was recorded in 1972 that was not released, and I talk about it in the book. I got under the dining room table and wanted to stay there. That was the most heartbreaking thing that ever happened to me, and someone else called and I came out from under that table.
It’s like if you have some kind of logical indication that the road you are on is correct, stay on that joker and don’t do nothing that will impair it. Don’t stay up all night and do all that cocaine if you want to sing, don’t go out with some dude that’s going to hit you and mess up your face if you want to be a model. Make logical conclusions. When I left Detroit and left Atlantic and got released from my contract, there was no logical reason for me to do that, and I’ve thought about that for over 50 years. No logical reason for me to do that and it cost me 20 years. All you ask for on your deathbed is more time. Don’t give your time away. That would be my only regret. Once I embraced logic, it has helped me. Plain old logic.
Why do you think having a place like the NMAAM is so important?
Bettye LaVette: It’s strange that there hasn’t been something like this already. They can use it to show the connection from this to that, from the field to this and that. I’d love to see it.
For more information on Bettye LaVette visit bettyelavette.com and other African Americans making an impact on musical culture, visit our blog.