During a career spanning six decades, the rhythm’n’blues singer has had hit singles, starred in an award-winning Broadway musical, sung with music greats such as Otis Redding, and performed at President Obama’s inauguration celebration. However, she considers Things Have Changed to be perhaps her crowning achievement.
In an interview with uDiscover Music, she says: “It was hard to select the Dylan songs, because choosing a song is very much like choosing a lover… and who you really want to get with. I live inside songs and they actually have to do something to me. They have to hurt me or tickle me or really interest me in the way they are put together.”
Back in November 2016, LaVette’s husband, Kevin Kiley, selected around 60 songs for Things Have Changed, and that list was gradually narrowed down. “On the last day, Verve’s Executive Producer, Carol Friedman, sent me the song ‘Things Have Changed’, and I said, ‘OK, I like this one and I want it to be the title of the album.’ Everyone was very surprised because it came in so late in the process. But I knew the album was like a puzzle and I wanted that to be part of it.
“Then I had the process of taking the songs out of Bob Dylan’s mind and out of his mouth and putting them into mine. I spent a lot of time figuring out what he was talking about – and he does go on and on – and how much of that needed to be said. I took four verses out of one tune! Bob Dylan is agitated by a lot of things and most of them have been right prophetically. I am old and agitated too, but I argue differently from him, so I had to use the words that were right for me. I think I got it. I am extremely pleased with this album.”
As well as bringing her remarkable phrasing and vocal texture to Dylan’s work, with Things Have Changed, LaVette successfully stamps her own powerful personality and R&B sensibility on complex songs such as the title track, ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ and ‘Going, Going, Gone’, which is a true gem.
‘Emotionally Yours’, from Dylan’s 1985 album, Empire Burlesque, is given an intensely moving makeover. LaVette says, “That song had such an impact on me. I sat in my house one night, while I was trying to learn and understand the songs. I had drunk several bottles of wine and I started to sing ‘Emotionally Yours’, very much in the style it appears on the album. I started to cry. I called my husband in and said, ‘Bob Dylan is making me cry.’”
LaVette says that living for a long time with so much of Dylan’s work has made her want to know what makes the Nobel Prize-winning songwriter tick. They met briefly a few years ago, at an Italian music festival – when he gave her a big kiss – but she is desperate to see him again. “I want to talk to him so bad because I have so many questions for him,” she explains. “In the past I would just have wanted to chat to him because he is such an interesting writer, but now there are things I want to know. I’m not saying what… and If I never get a chance to ask him, the world will never know!”
The 72-year-old has had a tumultuous life and career. She had her first hit when she was just 16 – with ‘My Man, He’s A Lovin’ Man’ for Atlantic Records – and as a youngster toured with Ben E King, James Brown and a young Otis Redding (years later she would call her shelter cats Otis and Smokey, after her Detroit friends Redding and Smokey Robinson). She had love affairs with Redding, Jackie Wilson and Bobby Bland, and even had to work for a “mean pimp” for a time.
There was certainly a lot of missed chances and bad luck. LaVette’s first manager was shot; a key record producer was found dead in a ditch; and, by the mid-70s, after Atlantic Records had inexplicably shelved a strong album called A Child Of The Seventies, she had a series of singles behind her but no album. Ry Cooder advanced the theory that “the greatest female soul singer in a hardcore vein” was “perhaps just too ferocious for mass white taste”.
The passion and power are still there, and when she got the chance to record Things Have Changed for Verve Records, the original home for many of the stars she had grown up listening to, LaVette leapt at the chance. Her manager, Jim Lewis, the person she credits with having the most influence on her career, drilled into her that the litmus test for a singer was a standard such as Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life’, performed by Verve stars Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
She says with a smile: “You should have seen me when I came downstairs from the meeting at Verve Records and they said the project was going to be ‘a go’. I met with Tony Bennett’s son Danny, who is the President and CEO of the Verve label. I asked him how old he was, and I said, ‘I’m just checking that I have known the word Verve longer than you have.’
“After we had finalised details, I walked downstairs. They have a big collage of all their great past stars, people such as Louis Armstrong, Anita O’Day, Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Dizzie Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, and it reaches almost from floor to ceiling. There was my photograph. I almost collapsed. They almost had to carry me out of the lobby.
“I thought of all the people who would have wanted me to become whatever I have become as a singer, and work for this iconic record label. Oh my goodness, they would be so, so proud. The person they ran into 40 years ago is not the person I am now. People like Jim Lewis, they saw this person.”
LaVette says that most singers have doubts about their credentials. “It took me a very long time to decide I could sing. The perfect example is Elvis Presley. He never decided that he was who they said he was. Now I know the limits and abilities of my voice. I know it will never be bad again because I know too many things to do with it. Jim Lewis took more than 20 years to show me my worth.”
Her initial love of music was inspired by the jukebox in her childhood home. Her parents were not musical themselves, however. “The closest to show business was my father’s brother, who ran off with the circus in 1918. He was the only person in the family before me who had done anything so stupid,” she jokes.
Her parents sold corn liquor for front-room gatherings (there were no bars for African-Americans to safely attend in segregated 40s western Michigan), and as a toddler she would stand on top of the jukebox, dancing in a diaper while belting out hits by BB King and Louis Jordan.
“My father was a gospel and blues fan, and my mother liked country and western, so I also learned songs by Red Foley and Roy Rogers,” she says. “I just thought that they were all songs. I didn’t know you were one type of singer. They would put me on top of the jukebox but I never knew I could be a singer. Later, the people I saw on television were mostly white, so being a singer didn’t even occur to me.”
For someone who never saw a music show as a child, it was a true thrill to work in musical theatre. LaVette has always been up for a challenge. In 1978, with a week’s notice, she stepped into a lead role on the hit musical Bubbling Brown Sugar, which gave her a chance to work with Cab Calloway – and to tap dance for the first time. “We were dressed in ball gowns and white tuxedos, and I enjoyed that more than anything I have ever done in my entire life. That was the life I wanted in show business. Doing that show every night for six years was like stepping back into Harlem in the 20s.”
Flashback-Bubbling Brown Sugar pic.twitter.com/45Z3XyjKnS
— Bettye LaVette (@BettyeLaVette) April 21, 2017
She adds that the training of knowing where to stand and how to perform on stage has served her well. As the veteran singer prepares for a US tour to promote Things Have Changed, she does stretching and yoga exercises to keep in shape. LaVette says that performing on tour is “like doing an aerobics workout for a 72-year-old”.
LaVette’s history in show business impresses her fellow musicians. Through Friedman, she found the perfect producer for Things Have Changed in Steve Jordan. The award-winning producer and drummer grew up copying Art Blakey and went on to work with an array of stars, from Chuck Berry to Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones.
“I had done one gig with Steve before, a tribute to Robert Johnson at The Apollo,” LaVette says. “The people Steve admires I have worked with and know. His idol, Benny Benjamin, from original Motown band The Funk Brothers, was one of my best friends in life.”
She describes the rhythm section he brought in for the three-day recording session – including Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis – as “absolute stars”. They superbly underpin her singing on Things Have Changed, a collection that spans more than five decades of Dylan songs. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards features on the track ‘Political World’ and New Orleans jazz ace Trombone Shorty plays on ‘What Was It You Wanted’.
The title track, ‘Things Have Changed’, was written in 1999 for the Michael Douglas film Wonder Boys. It won an Oscar for best song and was described by Dylan as having words that “don’t pussyfoot around nor turn a blind eye to human nature”.
LaVette says some of Dylan’s lyrics remind her of how much of a struggle life can be, and adds, “But I’m glad of what I know and who I am now. I am glad of my lineage and I am glad of the bridges I came across.”
As someone who was born into a segregated America, in 1946, one of the high points of LaVette’s career was performing the Sam Cooke classic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ at Barack Obama’s Inaugural Celebratory concert. Change is, of course, also the theme of Dylan’s 1964 masterpiece ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’.
“In the current political world, a song such as ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’ feels so necessary,” LaVette insists.
“It is hard to be in this business for as long as I have, when you see so much sugar turn to s__t, and still be totally optimistic. The things that are happening politically have pretty much destroyed my faith, but I do have hope – though that’s probably because I am an idiot,” she adds, with her distinctive cackle.
Buy Bettye LaVette’s Things Have Changed here.