WhatsUp Interview: Bettye LaVette, Coming to the Greenwich Odeum Saturday

Lookout people – R&B star Bettye LaVette is coming to town.

The tour de force Detroit native has been making music since 1962 when she recorded her first hit “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man.” She achieved notoriety touring with James Brown among others, and was a lifelong friend of Aretha Franklin.

Her musical resume also includes performances with artists as diverse as Otis Redding, Paul McCartney, Ringo Star, and Cab Calloway. She’s sung on the Motown label, played the Newport Jazz Festival, recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, and performed a tribute to The Who at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008. She even recorded the disco hit “Doin’ the Best I Can” in 1978. Certainly one of the best resumes in music.

Songs of Bob Dylan

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We spoke to LaVette earlier this week and learned about her latest project and the focus of her current tour – the songs of Bob Dylan. She released a critically acclaimed album in May, Things Have Changed, named for the 2000 Dylan tune from the movie “Wonder Boys.” LaVette has interpreted songs by many artists during her career – we wondered if there were unique challenges with Dylan’s music.

“Probably more fun because it’s more words, but because I’m old, its been quite trying,” explained LaVette in our interview. “I’ve been telling folks from the stage that I’m not even gonna live long enough to remember all these words,” LaVette joked.

“Bob was not played a lot on black radio, the first 25 years of my career and his, he was in a completely different thing than I was. I knew of him of course, but I think the only thing I really knew about his lyrics for a long time were things like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ that Stevie Wonder did, or songs that another rhythm and blues artists had done.

“I did ‘Most of the Time’ on the first Anti album (2004) and then I did ‘Everything is Broken.’ I did those because they were fun but they were still difficult to remember because there were just so many words.”

LaVette offered some thoughts on the “cult” of Dylan.

“He’s always arguing, either with himself or other people, but when you argue with a black woman, she can get the argument over in four verses. He repeats himself a lot and often says the same thing in a different way. So I just took the strongest way that he said it, and made it true in my voice. It’s been an experience learning about him and trying to find him in the tunes, because he wants to reveal nothing but words, and I want to reveal nothing but emotion. It’s a very good match as there was something there for me to go and get.”

Indeed, LaVette’s style emerges from a place of emotion, of feeling. Her process for interpreting great songs is simple.

“I just feel different about the song than the other person did, really it’s as simple as that. I can’t possibly feel the exact same way you do about a song and since I don’t sound the same way, it just comes out differently. I’m very emotional and very passionate and that the way the songs come out of my mouth.”

Lavette had a career resurgence in the early 2000’s with the release of a number of albums including I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, an cover album of leading female artists, and Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, where she sang songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and The Who.

An Accomplished Artist

“My first manager, the first people involved in my career were mentors, they knew I could sing when I didn’t know it. I just thought I was cute. It took me about ten years to realize that I had to take care of my voice. Since I left school so early, this was all I really knew how to do, so I knew I better do it very well. When I first started singing, I did everything Ray Charles had out. I wanted to be able to holler like Etta James but to be sophisticated at the same time, and it took me a long time to be able to put those things together.”

Her late career renaissance is proof she’s succeeded. Check out what we mean when Bettye Lavette plays the Greenwich Odeum Saturday night. It’s a WhatsUpRI “don’t miss” show. Tickets and further information available here.