Bettye LaVette brings a magical soulfulness to her 60-year career, including Bob Dylan’s legendary songbook.
The iconic soul songstress and Michigan native beautifully interprets an era of treasures ranging from ‘60s R&B to British rock to deep Dylan cuts. Her latest release, “Things Have Changed (2018),” unearths Dylan’s extensive catalog from 1979 to 1989 as well as other cherished favorites.
“Well, there isn’t a ‘like’ to it, it’s just the way I hear the songs, and that’s the way I sing it. But as I said, I’m really not that much of a music enthusiast, so there are not a great many songs that sat around that I wanted to sing for a long time,” said LaVette, who was born in Muskegon and grew up in Detroit as Betty Jo Haskins.
“It’s the songs that appeal to me most, that’s why the Bob Dylan album worked so well for me because the lyrics have to be absolutely solid and be there. I’m almost 75 years old, and I can’t look my audience in the face, and people who are sitting close, I look at them even more intently, so I can’t have a whole bunch of gibberish coming out. It has to say something because I’m holding a conversation with them.”
LaVette will hold an engaging conversation with Ann Arbor audiences Saturday at the 43rd Ann Arbor Folk Festival, which also will include Nathaniel Rateliff, Mandolin Orange and Cold Tone Harvest. In her first-ever Folk Festival appearance, LaVette will share her career highlights and interpretations with a nearly sold-out crowd of 3,500 at Hill Auditorium.
“Most of those (Dylan) songs, I think there were 10 or 12 tunes on that album, I only knew four of them before I sung them. It’s interesting having almost a clean slate because I didn’t grow up listening. Many of these things didn’t make it to black radio, but ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ did and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.’ I certainly know who he is,” she said.
Recording ‘Things Have Changed’
In late 2016, LaVette’s friend, photographer Carol Friedman, suggested she record an album of Bob Dylan songs with Grammy Award-winning producer Steve Jordan and husband Kevin Kiley.
LaVette used her interpretive skills to intricately rework 12 Dylan tracks selected by Kiley on Things Have Changed,” including “Seeing the Real You at Last” and “The Times They Are A-Changin,’.” With Jordan at the helm, Friedman pitched the idea to Verve Records, and by 2017, LaVette was signed to her first major label since 1982.
“I’ve recorded two or three others over the years of his songs, but it’s always been ‘this caught my ear,’ and I listened to the lyrics and did it. But to be faced with doing a whole album of them, just mounds and mounds of lyrics, some of the songs I had to remove as many as four verses from. He says the same thing about 19 different ways, and since I wasn’t putting on a songwriting exhibition, I just took the way that he said that I liked,” said LaVette, who admits to not being a big Dylan fan.
Written and recorded originally for the 2000 film, “Wonder Boys,” the album’s fiery title track features LaVette’s bluesy vocals intertwined with pulsating drums and deep-tone guitar – “A worried woman with a worried mind/No one in front of me and nothing behind/Sitting on a strange man’s lap drinking champagne/He’s got light skin and an assassin’s eye/I’m looking up into a sapphire tinted sky/I’m all dressed up and waiting on the last train.”
Another “LaVette-fied” Dylan gem includes 1989’s “Political World,” which exquisitely blends rhythmic percussion, cymbals, shakers, bass and organ with hints of blues and reggae swagger. The track also features Keith Richards lending a hand on guitar – “We live in a political world/Wisdom is thrown in jail/It rots in a cell/Misguided as hell/No one to pick up the trail.”
LaVette creates a gorgeous slow groove with Trombone Shorty on “What Was It You Wanted” (1989) as bluesy trumpet is interspersed with swaying bongos, rhythmic bass and shimmering synths – “What was it you wanted/Tell me again so I’ll know/What’s happening in there/What’s going on in your show/What was it you wanted/Could you say it again/I’ll be back in a minute/Get it together by then.”
“I’ve been so surprised at the attention they’ve paid to the songs, and I’ve tried to do the songs with all of the sincerity that I can bring to them and show people what great words they are, you know, speak succinctly so you can hear. I’ve had so many people come and say, ‘I’ve loved this tune since I was 15, I never knew what he was saying,’” LaVette said.
“I really felt like they were going to be looking at me kinda like, ‘Who the hell does she think is?’ But it’s been just the opposite, I met some of his staunchest fans and some of the people who absolutely hate him, and they’ve given me the most wonderful compliments.”
LaVette relished working with Jordan on “Things Have Changed” and dubbed him her “very own personal Quincy Jones” and a “Bettye whisperer.” For LaVette, it was the first time she’s had an African-American producer since the 1960s, and she continues to feel a special kinship with Jordan. While they didn’t grow up with Dylan’s music, LaVette and Jordan could easily select different Dylan tunes to interpret and record.
“Most black musicians don’t get a chance to live as broadly as both Steve and I have had the opportunity to tap dance at a Tony Award-winning show. I’ve had the opportunity to sing at the White House, it usually happens to really, really, really big people, and those people are either rich and unattainable, but Steve Jordan and I seem to be about in the same place now,” she said.
Finding ‘The Place’
For LaVette, it’s been a long journey to reach that “place,” a six-decade trek interpreting tracks written by a host of songwriters. At age 16, she recorded her first single, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” which was picked up by Atlantic for national distribution. The track hit #7 on the Billboard R&B chart and allowed LaVette to tour with Ben E. King, Clyde McPhatter and Otis Redding.
By 1965, she released another hit single, “Let Me Down Easy,” written by Dee Dee Ford on the Calla label. As an atmospheric masterpiece that’s considered one of the greatest soul songs of all time, the single hit #20 on the Billboard R&B chart and put LaVette on tour with The James Brown Review.
Additional collaborations occurred with Kenny Rogers’ brother, Leland Rogers, and other producers in Detroit and Muscle Shoals. Over the next 17 years, LaVette recorded a series of singles that failed to chart, but appeared with a touring company of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” as Sweet Georgia Brown. She worked closely with Charles “Honi” Coles and Cab Calloway during her four years with the touring company.
In 1982, Motown president Lee Young Sr. signed LaVette, and she recorded the “Tell Me a Lie” album, which included the single, “Right in the Middle (Of Falling in Love).” Unfortunately, a corporate shake-up removed Young and prevented promotion of the album. As a result, it failed to chart.
Throughout the ‘90s, LaVette played locally in Detroit until she experienced a resurgence in 2000. At the time, European music collectors and label owners discovered LaVette’s unreleased recordings and created a renewed interest in the soul singer.
LaVette quickly released a series of albums, including “A Woman Like Me” (2003), “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” (2005), “The Scene of the Crime” (2007) and “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” (2010). After performing an exquisite rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, Kiley encouraged LaVette to interpret and record a series of tracks from British artists who were influenced by American R&B music.
“Songbook” featured LaVette’s interpretations of tracks by The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues and Elton John. The Grammy Award-nominated blues album highlighted her exceptional abilities for making 13 British-based tracks her own.
“These most recent albums, the ones that have come out during my husband’s career, which has been going on now for 15 years, and I’ve got the five Grammy nominations in it, so this career here has been the best one so far,” said LaVette, who now lives in West Orange, N.J. “Kevin will find maybe a hundred tunes in whatever vernacular we have decided to record in, and I will listen to them and narrow them down.”
After the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, LaVette will perform during the Feb. 26 Tibet U.S. Benefit Concert with Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Laurie Anderson and The National’s Matt Berninger at Carnegie Hall and at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 23. She also will be inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame May 6 at the Halloran Centre at the Orpheum in Memphis.
“Well, I thought I was going to die broke and obscure, and now I know I’m just going to die broke. The obscurity part is no longer one of my nightmares, you know, that 75 years from now, my great-great-great granddaughter will be saying ‘My grandma was Bettye,’ and they’d say, ‘Who?’” LaVette said. “As I said, this fiscal year here was almost worth waiting for, so it means an awful lot to me to be recognized, and it certainly puts me on a track to become legendary.”
Doors 6 p.m., Show 6:30 p.m. | Saturday
University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, 825 N. University Ave. in Ann Arbor