By Eleni P. Austin
A few years ago, Bettye LaVette was on the bill of an Italian music festival. As she prepared to emerge from her Dressing room, security stopped her, refusing to let her out. “Well, why?” she asked. She was informed “Mr. Dylan is going on stage,” and I’m like, “I don’t care! Let me out of my dressing room. So I come out of my dressing and I’m angry, because he’s got my band and me and everybody trapped while he walks 50 steps to the stage. So, I’m walking on the same path that he is, but on the other side of the room and I said ‘HEY, ROBERT DYLAN!’ He was walking with his bass player and he mouthed to Bob, ‘that’s Bettye LaVette.’ He walked over to me, took my face in both of his hands, kissed me dead on the mouth and walked on stage.”
There’s something kind of classic about that story, and it illustrates that even though Miss LaVette is not a household name, she’s well-known in the circles that matter. Although her career has experienced something of a renaissance since the turn of the 21st century, Bettye’s been a working musician since she was “discovered” in 1962 at the age of 16.
Unlike her contemporaries, (Aretha, Gladys, Patti), Bettye didn’t grow up singing in church. Born in Muskegon, Michigan, she was raised in Detroit and would sing at home for family and friends. Somehow, she came to the attention of legendary music promoter Johnnie Mae Matthews. She recorded her first single, “My Man, He’s A Lovin’ Man,” and it was a regional hit. The Atlantic label bought the distribution rights and it shot up the charts into the Top 40.
This led to tours with artists like Clyde McPhatter, Barbara Lynn, Ben E. King and Otis Redding. Her second single, “Let Me Down Easy” was released in 1965. James Brown became a huge fan and included her in his James Brown Revue.
Throughout the ‘60s, she cut songs here and there and had a couple more Top 40 hits, but it didn’t feel like her career was gaining traction. When she signed with the Atlantic subsidiary Atco, it felt like her big break. Home to Aretha, Ray Charles and a plethora of R&B superstars, the label sent her to the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama. The result, Child Of The Seventies, was shelved by the label without explanation.
For Bettye, the ‘70s was more of the same; one-off recordings for tiny labels with little to show for it. At one point she signed with her hometown label, Motown. Typically, they couldn’t find a way to harness her epic talent. She quit the record industry for a few years, joining the company Of the Broadway musical, “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” an homage to the African-American composers who were at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance. The show lasted six years and included legends like Honi Coles and Cab Calloway.
By the ‘90s, Gilles Petard, a Soul Music aficionado from France located the master recordings of Child Of The Seventies and released them himself under the new title Souvenirs. Concurrently, the Dutch Munich label released a live set; Let Me Down Easy, Live In Concert. Both triggered a renewed interest in Bettye. In 2003, she signed with the small Blues Express label and recorded A Woman Like Me. The following year it won “Comeback Blues Album Of The Year” from the W.C. Handy Foundation. This brought her to the attention of the Anti- label.
Anti- is a sister label to the venerable Punk indie, Epitaph. Everyone from Neko Case and Merle Haggard to Wilco and Tom Waits has made a home there. Anti- paired Bettye with Producer/Musician Joe Henry. In addition to maintaining a critically acclaimed solo career, he has handled production chores for artists like Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, as well as Loudon Wainwright III and Bonnie Raitt.
Arriving in 2005, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, offered a dazzling fusion of singer and song. All the tracks were written by female Singer-songwriters and Bettye artfully interpreted well-known songs by Fiona Apple, Rosanne Cash, Aimee Mann, Sinead O’Connor and Lucinda Williams. The album raised her profile exponentially, introducing her to younger fans. Hitting the ground running, she quickly collaborated with alt.country rockers, the Drive-By Truckers. 2007’s Scene Of The Crime, received universal critical acclaim and garnered a Grammy Nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album.
When the Kennedy Center honored the Who in late 2008, Bettye offered a scorching version of “Love Reign O’er Me” from Quadrophenia that brought down the house. Two months later at President Obama’s inauguration she killed it again with Sam Cooke’s epochal (and wholly apropos) anthem, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Both events directly influenced her next album, 2010’s Interpretations: The British Songbook. It was an agile collection of British Invasion hits from the Animals, the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Stones, Traffic and of course, the Who. Two years later Thankful N’ Thoughtful was another winning effort, including wily interpretations of songs by Tom Waits, the Pogues and Neil Young. In 2015, she reunited with Joe Henry for Worthy, a seamless collection that included songs by Mickey Newberry, Brown, Over The Rhine, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, along with Amazing Rhythm Aces and Mary Gautier.
Now at age 72, she has signed with the iconic Jazz label Verve, which has been home to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa, (just to name a few). Apparently, she is the oldest living artist with a new recording contract. Zeroing in on Bob Dylan’s voluminous catalogue of songs, she winnowed 60 possibilities down to a 12 song collection entitled Things Have Changed.
To bring this project to fruition, Bettye partnered up with producer/musician Steve Jordan. The drummer is best known for anchoring the sound for everyone From the Blues Brothers, David Letterman’s Late Night band, to Keith Richard’s X-Pensive Winos, as well as Eric Clapton and John Mayer. He’s also worked as a producer for Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield and most recently Boz Scaggs.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with the title track. A with a bit of studio chatter rolls into a kick-drum rhythm, swoony keys and rambunctious guitars, she launches into a sweet Soul version of the song that Bob originally wrote for the Michael Douglas film, “Wonder Boys.” Although the lyrics were written to reflect the movie’s themes, in Bettye’s hands, it’s less of a cranky rant and more of a statement of fact; “Lotta water under the bridge, lotta other stuff too, don’t get up gentlemen I’m only passing through/People are crazy and times have changed, I’m locked up tight, I’m out of range, I used to care, but things have changed.” A barbed-wire guitar solo underscores her world-weary apathy.
Millions of musicians have covered Bob Dylan throughout the decades. Bettye distinguishes herself by digging into deep cuts and ignoring more obvious options. From the ‘60s, she tackles “It Ain’t Me Babe,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” drastically recasting all three.
Swapping out the acoustic Folk flavor of the original for a slow-cooked Soul groove, “It Ain’t Me…” blends in-the-pocket percussion with sanguine organ notes and sugar rush guitar. Bob’s caustic kiss-off is re-fashioned as a sweet and gentle farewell. Bettye’s vocal delivery is Bluesy but contrite; “You say you’re lookin’ for someone, someone who’ll promise to never part, someone to close her eyes for you, somebody to open up your heart/Someone to die for you and more, but it ain’t me babe.” Keith Richards adds a meandering guitar solo on the break.
With “The Times, They Are A-Changin,’ it feels as though Bettye has taken a Volkswagen, stripped it for parts and rebuilt it as a sleek Dune Buggy. A classic Folk anthem, with roots in Scottish and Irish balladry, this rendition is propelled by a walloping backbeat and resonator guitar riffs. While the arrangement is positively danceable, the gravitas of the lyrics mirror these desperate days; “Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown/And accept it soon you’ll be drenched to the bone If your time to you is worth savin,’ then you better start swimming or You’ll sink like a stone, for the times, they are a-changin.”
“Mama…” which Bob wrote and recorded in 1964, remained unreleased until 1991’s Bootleg Series. Written for his girlfriend Suze Rotolo, it’s one of his most heartfelt love songs. Bettye’s version flips the script, offering a beautiful encomium to her mother. Spare and bare bones, it’s accented by warm piano notes, sweet acoustic arpeggios and weepy pedal steel. Bettye’s vocals are front and center, equal parts soft and steely, she admits “I’m just whisperin’ to myself, so I can’t pretend that I don’t know, Mama, You been On my mind.”
The ‘80s are generally considered Bob Dylan’s wilderness years, most of his recorded output was lackluster at best. But Bettye rescues some uncut gems from that era, giving them a bit of polish. From his 1985 album Empire Burlesque, comes the tough confrontation of “Seeing The Real You At Last” and the tender “Emotionally Yours.”
On the former, time signatures shift from a Rock rhythm to a rock steady Reggae riddim. Steve Jordan rides his kit much like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, with economy and authority. Stinging guitar riffs sidewind through percolating keys. Bettye giveth; “When I met you baby, you showed no visible scars, you could sing like Otis Redding, you could dance like Bruno Mars,” and Bettye taketh away; “Well, I’m gonna quit this bullshit now, I guess I should have known, I got troubles, you got troubles, I think we better leave each other alone/Whatever you’re gonna do, please do it fast, I’m still trying to get used to seeing the real you at last.”
The latter is one of Bob’s most underrated love songs; here he’s jettisoned the casual misogyny that characterizes most of his work, declaring his love without the usual equivocation. Bettye’s rendition doubles down on the tenderness, adding a measure of urgency. As filigreed Guitars, stately piano, lush organ colors and lyrical mandolin gently wash over the arrangement.
Although it’s couched as “tough love,” “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight,” from the Infidels album, mines the same level of kindness and affection. Plaintive piano notes give way to tumbling drums before locking into a languid groove. Flick-of-the-wrist guitar licks ebb and flow, as Bettye passionately makes her case; “Yesterday’s just a memory, tomorrow’s never what it’s supposed to be, and I need you.” Even as she admits “I ain’t too good at conversation,” she works in some flattery; “Do you remember on 14th street, when you blew Billy Joel’s mind/You were so fine Tina Turner would have fell at your feet and left Ike hangin’ on the line.”
The best ‘80s material comes from 1989’s “Oh Mercy.” The album that signaled he was abandoning the slick synth coating emblematic of the times, instead, returning to his acoustic roots and more socially conscious lyrics. “Political World” opens with rattlesnake shake percussion and swampy electric guitar before settling into a relax-fit Bo Diddley beat. Crunchy metallic guitar and whooshy keys ride roughshod over slinky syncopation. Even though the song was written 30 years ago, the lyrics feel tied to today’s issues; “We live in a political world, where courage is a thing of the past, houses are haunted, children unwanted, the next day could be your last.” Keith Richards’ provides a sandblasted guitar solo that reinforces the song’s visceral truths.
“What Was It You Wanted” is the real revelation here. Bob’s original felt understated and conversational, Bettye recalibrates the mood, making it feel like more is at stake. “Make me wanna Holler” congas open the arrangement, giving the track it’s swagger. Rumbling bass lines connect with muted keys and wah-wah guitar. The arrangement hews more closely to Blaxploitation anthems like “Trouble Man,” “Freddie’s Dead” and the “Theme From Shaft,” than bucolic Folk songs like “Blowin’ In The Wind.” New Orleans’ own Trombone Shorty adds a plush solo on the break that intertwines with flange-y guitar and jazzy Clavinet from Big Easy icon, Ivan Neville. Bettye bobs and weaves demanding An explanation; “Is the scenery changing, am I getting it wrong? Is the whole thing going backwards, are they playing our song/Where Were you when it started, do you want it for free, what was it you wanted, did you get it from me?”
Other interesting tracks include an apocalyptic, string-laden take on “Ain’t Talkin’” from 2006’s “Modern Times” and a surprisingly muscular read of “Do Right To Me Baby (Do Unto Others)” from the apex of Bob’s late ‘70s Gospel phase. The album closes with “Going, Going, Gone” from the wildly underrated “Planet Waves” album, Released in 1974. Stripped down to low-country Blues, accented by lonesome pedal steel and acoustic guitar, it offers something of a restless farewell.
This record is packed with iconic players from guitarist Larry Campbell (who toured as Bob Dylan’s guitarist from 1997 to 2004), legendary bassist Pino Palladino, Jazz pianist Gil Goldstein, the Fiery String Company (Nikola Workman on cello, Ina Paris on viola And Charisa Dowe Rouse and Rose Bartu on violin), and Leon Pendarvis, who has had a storied career as a session musician For the last 40 years, and played keys in the “Saturday Night Live” Band for more than 30 years.
If Bob and Bettye ever reconnect, he owes her an even bigger smooch, maybe even dinner and a movie! While his music remains classic, she has injected some much-needed Soul, salvation, grit and gravitas to his oeuvre. Bob Dylan created these songs, but Bettye LaVette has made them her own.