Bettye LaVette: Things Will Change Page 2

O'Donnell told me that LaVette sang in an isolation booth, and that he captured her voice with a pair of microphones, a Neumann U67 and an RCA 44. The entire recording was done digitally, on computers, in 24-bit/96kHz resolution. "I don't compress a lot unnecessarily," O'Donnell said. "The modern thing of squashing things to bits is no good. It takes the dynamics out of it.

The arrangements on Things Have Changed are all very different from the original versions, and it's clear that LaVette, who doesn't write music, has found a unique way to dig in and be emotionally committed to Dylan's music. Most noticeable of all is that listeners can now hear words in Dylan songs they have never heard before. This lyrical clarity adds previously unheard dimensions to his music. "I feel like I know [Dylan] now," LaVette says. "And I really want to talk to him. I wanna know how come it ain't never his fault? And then he has these beautiful melodies in these songs that I've discovered he never sings. They're there because everybody's playing them, but he ain't singing 'em."

LaVette disputes the notion, repeated in the bio that accompanied advances of Things Have Changed, that she's actually met Dylan.

"No, I really did not meet him. We were in Italy, he was coming out of his dressing room, and security had cordoned off the entire backstage area. My band was standing there breathlessly in a little group. I saw Bob come out of his dressing room, and so I casually sauntered across the little cordoned-off space and said, 'Hey, Robert Dylan!' He looked up at me, and I saw the bass player—who I found out later was a fan of mine—mouth to him, 'That's Bettye LaVette.' He came straight up to me, grabbed my face, kissed me on the mouth, and went straight on stage."

LaVette told me that part of the deal with Verve was that she had to record two well-known, classic Dylan songs. After consulting with Kiley's list of choices, she and Jordan chose "It Ain't Me Babe" and "The Times They Are A-Changin'." LaVette said that she knew from the beginning that she was going to have to radically change the songs, to shield them from comparisons to the originals and to make her own mark. "I said, 'I am going to have to be in a state where I don't know I'm singing these, or we are going to have to flip these all the way around.'"


In the case of "It Ain't Me Babe," Dylan fans may conclude that LaVette chose to interpret several lines of his lyrics a bit too literally. "I wanna know how somebody could do so bad to you that you would tell them to jump off a ledge. That's a pretty severe punishment just for gettin' on your nerves."

For "Changin'," which may be Dylan's most recognizable tune, she fashioned an arrangement that makes her version almost completely unrecognizable as the song Dylan originally sang. "I hummed the groove to Steve—I captured it somewhere else, I won't tell you where—and said, 'I want it to kind of lay like that. And I want it to be unrecognizable from this tune that I'm capturing it from.' Steve just sat down and started doing it."

The song on the album that LaVette thinks came out best is "Emotionally Yours," which came together after she and Kiley began singing it to each other at home. She began to sing it to me over the phone with up-and-down, teeter-totter pitch values: "'I will—always be—emo-tion-al-ly . . .' It became a standing joke, but it turned out to be such a beautiful song. At one point, Kevin and I looked at each other and said, 'We're actually crying over a Bob Dylan song!' He said it was the way I sang it. He felt like I was singing it to him. And as I thought about it, I thought, 'Yeah—this is probably what I'd want to say to Kevin.'"

Needless to say, after making an album of Dylan songs, the always-opinionated LaVette has much insight into Bobby Zimmerman. What about that voice of his? Although opinions on her own singing voice have long ranged from "thin" and "gruff" to "expressive" and "mellifluous," at this point in her career she does seem to be leaning more and more on talking her way through songs. Was she afraid of comparisons of her own singing to Dylan's on his iconic recordings?

"I don't think of him as a singer. His voice never changes, he sings every song the same way. I don't think he sounds any better or worse than Burt Bacharach. And Cole Porter. We know what they are as writers, but as singers, they ultimately sound just about alike."

Although the resilient Bettye LaVette now tours regularly and is still recording, when most of her contemporaries haven't made a record or sold a concert ticket in years, her years of struggling against the cruel whims of the music business have made her prone to rants. Many of these were hilarious.

"I'm frankly very disappointed when someone who strictly is a writer, like Bob Dylan—and a great one—takes up so much concert space. Maybe if he did one a year, or one on his anniversary, or something like that. But taking up nightly gigs? Where people who paid $200 walk out and say, 'No, he can't sing, but I just loved him?' I can sing. Let me have the gig.

"I'm sure that most artists don't look at it that way, and I'm sure I wouldn't either, had I become who I was trying to be at the same time that he did. That would have happened about the same time. But I had lots of things to think about that I didn't like in the 57 years that I waited."

Talking about the past with Bettye LaVette is fraught with jagged edges. She made her first recording in her hometown, Detroit, in 1962, at the age of 16: a single, "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man," which briefly charted. After tours on which she shared the stage with James Brown and Otis Redding (who, she says, wanted to marry her), in 1972 LaVette seemed poised for her big break: Atlantic Records signed her and sent her to Alabama and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, where she recorded an album titled Child of the Seventies.

"I had everything. I had Wilson Pickett's producer. I had Atlantic Records. I had all these songs that Brad Shapiro had pulled together for me. And then, at that time, Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun had their split, and Ahmet chose Aretha over me."

In 1982, LaVette was signed to Motown, who released her first LP, Tell Me a Lie. Again, the vagaries of the record business turned against her. "It was the first time a record company had ever given me a lot of money. Producer Steve Buckingham called me and wanted me to come to Nashville. He said, 'Diana Ross is leaving Motown, and my manager has got me a deal with Motown, and they want me to do a record with a more senior artist—not a kid, not a newcomer.' Lee Young Sr. was president of Motown then. He loved me, loved the notion of me, loved the album. And then they fired him."

Her lost Atlantic album, Child of the Seventies, was eventually released in 2000 as Souvenirs, on the French label Art & Soul. The belated release became part of how LaVette was rediscovered and, in 2003, was signed to Anti-, for which she recorded I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. This album of songs by female songwriters such as Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, and Aimee Mann won her a new audience and resurrected her career. Of course, the trouble with being a survivor now making music in her seventies is adapting to constant change. Having interviewed her several times before—and walked out on one of her live shows—it's easy for me to see that, today, Bettye LaVette's irrepressible personality and everlasting sass, buoyed by the respect her body of work now commands, have given her some measure of peace and satisfaction.

"Oh, honey, the world has changed a million times. And then there's the record industry. I know about as much about this record industry now as I do about brain surgery. I know nobody in it. The fans that I knew from my past careers are getting older, and they aren't the ones who are concertgoers. But you know, at one point, years ago, when we were talking about me getting a job at Burger King in Detroit, I said, 'I am not going to sell hamburgers and have every fifth person ask me to sign the bag!'"


dalethorn's picture

Tho' the others were more successful, this lady has everything but the big money. I like seeing these reviews of the lesser-known artists, since the music is well-aged and a no-brainer purchase.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for reviewing- RB.
this one intrigues me as well.

boomer57's picture

Where is page 2 link on this web page?

Jon Iverson's picture
It's back (and will hopefully stay there!)