Betty LaVette releases an album of Bob Dylan songs
Bettye LaVette took liberties with Bob Dylan — well, of course she did. “Things Have Changed,” her critically acclaimed new album of Dylan songs, had to be 100-percent pure, unexpurgated LaVette, because the singer can’t utter an untrue word.
Dylan’s lyrics and melodies filtered through the remarkable vessel that is LaVette, meaning that each word, every note sounds as if it were torn from her heart.
LaVette will perform all 12 songs from “Things Have Changed” at 7 p.m. Sunday at Detroit’s Jazz Café at Music Hall. Alas, for fans who waited too long, the show is sold out. But you can — and should — buy the album.
“It’s been a daunting task,” LaVette said, about the work she had to do to feel singing Dylan. She sat with the songs for a while, to figure out his point of view, and figure out how it could be LaVette’s. And she changed what she had to change.
The two are peers in terms of age (she’s 72, he’s 76), but worlds apart in every visible way. One is a folk bard from the Iron Range of Minnesota, a college dropout who changed the course of popular music. The other grew up running the streets of Detroit’s North End, doing most of her learning in nightclubs,
Then there is Dylan’s famous wordiness.
“He fusses a lot; he’s like an old woman,” LaVette said in a telephone interview from her home in New Jersey. “A black woman would say what he says in fewer words, so I had to cut some verses,” she laughed.
Like, four or five verses in a song.
It was a friend, photographer Carol Friedman, who urged LaVette to do an album of Bob Dylan songs. She had already set the Kennedy Center on fire in 2008 with her burning, soulful version of The Who’s ballad “Love, Reign O’er Me,” which drew tears from songwriter Pete Townshend.
Her album of British Invasion songs that followed in 2010, “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” was well received, too, so doing Dylan was almost a logical next step.
Her new label, the legendary Verve Records, helmed by Danny Bennett (son and manager of singer Tony) agreed.
“They loved it,” LaVette says.
On a recent visit to Verve’s new Manhattan offices, she was knocked out by a lobby display of some of its iconic female artists of the last half century.
“When you come down into the lobby, there’s a huge cylindrical collage that goes around. You see Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington ... and then they’ve got meeeee!” LaVette shrieked.
She was so shocked to see herself on display in such august company that she let out a scream that sent building security on high alert.
“To see this thing going around slowly, and I’m on it!” she exclaimed.
If only her manager from the old Detroit days, Jim Lewis, could have lived to see the display. It was Lewis who urged her to study the great female singers of the ’50s and buff down her rough edges, but LaVette would fight him, not wanting to sound “old.”
Once everybody agreed on the format for her new album, LaVette’s husband, Kevin Kiley, selected a number of songs from Dylan’s vast catalog. LaVette whittled that list down to12 songs. Some are well-known — such as “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and “The Times They Are a Changin’’ — but many are album cuts known mostly to Dylan buffs.
She studied the songs intently.
“At first, I felt like a dictionary, too many words,” she said. “Then when I did get done fitting them into my mouth, it became fun.”
Some of those lyrical changes jump out at the listener, as pure LaVette. She throws in a cuss word here and there, and is sure to enunciate the words in concert, so nobody misses it.
In the song “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight,” where Dylan sang “Do you remember St. James Street, where you blew Jackie P.’s mind? You were so fine, Clark Gable would have fell at your feet, and laid his life on the line,” that line has been Detroitified. LaVette sings it: “Do you remember on 14th Street, where you blew Bettye Jo’s mind? You were so fine, Tina Turner would have fell at your feet and left Ike hanging on the line.”
Any reference to Ike Turner in a song is going to be a show-stopper. In a Dylan song, amplify that to the 100th power.
LaVette is careful to explain that these are not “cover versions.”
“Pat Boone covered records,” she sniffed, of the ’50s crooner. “I’m not covering Bob Dylan. He’s a writer and I am singing his songs.”
LaVette doesn’t know yet if Dylan likes the album. But his management was cooperative — and flexible — about her changes. “So I know he knows about it,” she said.
The two met once — sort of. They were on the same bill, and instead of obeying the promoter’s orders to stay in a backstage holding area with her band, to give Dylan privacy as he walked to the stage, rebel LaVette remained where she was.
“I yelled, ‘Hey Bobby Dylan!’ as he walked by,” LaVette recounted.
He turned and looked at her, which prompted his bass player to tell Dylan who she was.
“So he comes over to me, takes my face in his hands and kisses me.”
That’s it. Her one encounter.
For the album, it was important to her to have a black producer — Steve Jordan, who played drums for Stevie Wonder and Keith Richards, among others.
“Steve Jordan is from Harlem. I had to have a black producer from Harlem,” LaVette said.
They had a similar musical background, and she felt he wouldn’t be as fearful about changing the material. Also appearing on the album is Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell (his ominous, growling guitar riff on “Things Have Changed” is wonderful) and Trombone Shorty guests on one cut, “What Was It You Wanted.”
Her version of the familiar “It Ain’t Me, Babe” is world weary, while the original Dylan vocal is cutting. “Political World” is one of the most enjoyable cuts, with an irresistible, funky beat and Jordan’s former boss, Keith Richards, no less, playing guitar.
“Keith and I sat and chatted, and we agreed that if we’d known each other back in the day, it would have been trouble,” LaVette said, laughing.
Some of Dylan’s songs were easier for her to find her way into, such as “Emotionally Yours. “When he stretched the words out, it made me cry. I said to my husband, ‘Kevin, Bob Dylan is making me cry’ — it was so beautiful.”
She feels torn over the lavish, early accolades for “Things Have Changed.” It makes her feel a little giddy, but she’s been here before, right on the edge of great success. Atlantic Records, when she was 16, and on from there. She never quite achieved the fame of her childhood friends from the north end — Smokey Robinson, whose house was across the alley, or Aretha Franklin, who lived across the alley from Robinson.
And she’s never forgotten the snubs. Told that a Detroit producer called the house and wanted to talk to her, she won’t call him back.
“I remember when we were both sitting on the steps at Motown, and they wouldn’t let us in. They finally let him in, and then he forgot me. They all did.”
She’s had many highs in the last 10 years — singing for President Barack Obama (Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”), being nominated several times for a Grammy, wowing the audience at the Kennedy Center — but she’s never broken through to get the big honors. Now, people are talking this up as her moment, finally — Grammy gold might be in her future.
“Everybody stop saying that!” LaVette shouted, mock-angry. “They’re going to suck me back in. My husband is saying words he’s never said. He’s saying, ‘This is the way I always wanted the sound around you.’ My former producer Joe Henry just thinks it’s wonderful. The reviews are so great and so positive. I’m so happy that these people are letting those (Dylan) records go, and just listening to the songs. I just want everybody to like it.”
Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.
About the album
‘Things Have Changed’