A FEW MINUTES WITH… Bettye LaVette
By Don Wilcock
Sometimes the best renditions of songs are by artists who interpret other songwriters’ material, like when The Stones did Irma Thomas’ “Time Is on My Side” or when Joe Cocker covered Dave Mason’s “Feelin’ Alright.” Bettye LaVette, who appears Saturday night at Club Helsinki, has just released Things Have Changed, a CD that does that with a dozen Bob Dylan songs.
At 72, LaVette’s got that weathered, wet leather sound that made Johnny Cash come off so right when he wore his legacy on his vocal cords late in his career, especially working with Rick Rubin after June Carter, the love of his life, died.
Bettye LaVette once told me she had to kiss so many asses in her career that her tongue was slick. But, she’s fought all the battles and won the war. Things Have Changed is on the respected Verve label. Her producer is Steve Jordan, who also plays understated drums. Oh, and just to put the cherries on her birthday cake, Keith Richards, Trombone Shorty and Larry Campbell sit in.
Of course, these guys won’t be with her Saturday, but she could sing from inside a drainage pipe, and she’d still steal the show. She did just that at the 2017 Blues Music Awards when she blew about 25 bigger names off the stage with just two relatively obscure songs: “Take Me Like I Am” by veteran Eddie Hinton (whose work included sessions with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett) and “Bless Us All,” a Mickey Newbury song from her Grammy nominated 2016 CD Worthy. Time stood still, the crowd transfixed as she squeezed out the two songs as if her life depended on it.
If you think #MeToo is new, you haven’t encountered this lady. Like Nina Simone, she’s knows exactly who she is, and you have to keep reminding yourself when you hear her renditions of iconic songs, that she didn’t write them. But she will completely change their meanings to suit her demeanor. Like Odetta, she takes no prisoners when it comes to telling the world that she’s a veteran of several wars on the social battlefield, and she’s at the ready to tell you which end is up.
She started her career back in 1963 at the age of 16 with an R&B top 10 hit. “My Man, He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She toured with Otis Redding, James Brown and Ben E. King, but the title of her follow-up single in 1965 was prescient, “Let Me Down Easy.” In spite of staying “in the business” for the next 55 years, only six of her 45s charted R&B and none have ever broken the pop top 100.
She told me last year, “Stuff was happening so fast, and when I tell people I had a record on the charts before Aretha Franklin, they’re like what? When you think of Detroit, you think of being the lesser of them, and not being the greater of them. I didn’t have the success that my contemporaries did in Detroit, although I grew up in Detroit and knew them personally for a very long time… until they became rich and famous anyway.”
She is arguably the most high-profile African American pop singer to never break into the pop charts. Her “comeback album” A Woman Like Me, earned her a W.C. Handy Award in 2004. The Scene of the Crime, recorded with alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers, earned her a Grammy nomination on 2008.
At the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 her spectacular rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” prompted Barbra Streisand to whisper into Pete Townsend’s ear, asking him if he really wrote that song. President Obama mouthed the words to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” along with her and Bon Jovi at his inaugural in 2009 on international television.
Her 2010 CD Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook covered songs by the cream of the British Invasion rockers including the Rolling Stones, The Who and The Animals, 13 versions that almost make a diehard blues fan believe that those boys from the U.K. got what it’s all about. She shrugs off her amazing versions of these chestnuts as simple renderings of lyrics on a piece of paper. “When I heard the songs for the Interpretations album, I only knew two of those tunes. I had never heard of the rest of them.”
When Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues heard her version of the band’s signature “Nights in White Satin” on Interpretations he wrote: “’Nights in White Satin’ has been covered many times, never more movingly than by soul singer Bettye LaVette. When I heard her version the first time, I was sitting at my computer one morning, and I burst into tears. Suddenly it all made sense to me. I had written it at age 19, going on 20, and it was like I had heard it for the first time at age 65. That was very refreshing.”
LaVette shrugs. “I talked to British guys who said they went to all boys’ schools, and they would get under the bed and pull the sheets down and whatever, and they had this little pen light, and they would be playing ‘Let Me Down Easy’ on the floor under the bed, and I’m like why would English white boys want to listen to ‘Let Me
Down Easy?’ But it’s there I think in the realness. And, I think, like anything else, everybody doesn’t see and capture and accept realness.”
LIVE: Bettye LaVette @ Club Helsinki, 1/11/14
Bettye LaVette Bares her Blues and Jives her Jazz – May 26 at the Colonial Theatre [Berkshire on Stage]
LIVE: Bettye LaVette @ The Egg, 11/19/11
LIVE: Bettye LaVette @ The Egg, 11/19/11 (Take Two)
Bettye LaVette, What Was the First Record You Ever Bought?
BETTYE LaVETTE’s “Do Your Duty”