At 77 years-old, singer and song interpreter extraordinaire Bettye LaVette just keeps going. Her new album, LaVette!, features a set of songs so perfectly suited to the recording artist’s voice and perspective many listeners assume she wrote the material herself. But this collection was all penned by Randall Bramblett, whose songs were first selected by LaVette’s husband of 20 years, Kevin Kiley.
“[Kevin] has actually sought out these tunes for me, about 100 tunes,” LaVette explains via phone. “He narrows it down to about 50 that he knows I’ll like and then I narrow it down to the 10 I’m going to record… But if I could write, these songs are exactly what I would have written.”
Whether she’s covering Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Van Morrison, or Bramblett, LaVette has a striking ability to make a song her own – a hallmark of her style since her earliest days as a recording artist, tracking singles like “He Made a Woman Out of Me” and “Nearer to You” as a teen, now more than 60 years ago. For this installment of First & Latest, we compare and contrast these two early singles from the late ’60s with LaVette’s latest album, which has a special vinyl edition dropping today, Friday, August 18, with a vinyl-exclusive track, “What You Don’t Say” featuring Reverend Charles Hodges of Hi Rhythm on organ. Hear a BGS-exclusive preview of “What You Don’t Say” above.
We reached LaVette via phone to chat about her First & Latest recordings and about what’s changed within her creative process and her perspective over the last 60+ years.
BGS: What goes through your mind when you listen back to those first recordings of yourself from the earliest days of your career? What comes back to you? What do you remember about those times and recording those tracks?
BL: I don’t think I look at it quite so sentimentally. They’re just fleeting. There’s no one big thing. From your questions, I immediately knew that you were probably very young. [Laughs] Because old people don’t think like that. That’s what you might think about, but do you know how many singles I had before I even had an album? The fact that I wasn’t having an album out was not a pleasing situation. Those singles made me think of various things, but it wasn’t on a trajectory, the way you may think about it.
I do know that since this journey of mine started when I was 16 years old, I was thinking something different during that period. You know you age in periods of about five years at a time, so from 16 to about 20 or 21 I saw one thing – and I kind of felt that way about everything! Not just a particular song or anything, that was just my mindset for about five or six years.
[“He Made a Woman Out of Me” and “Nearer to You,”] those songs were back to back and were meant to be an A side and B side. They were the first time I recorded in Nashville, with the people that became the Memphis Horns, with Wayne Jackson as leader. I was in love with him. And that’s what I remember most. [Laughs]
At that juncture, when you were recording those tracks, did you think you would still be singing this many years later? Did you hope you would be? What was your frame of mind?
No. I thought I was going to be a star right after that came out and that would be it. I didn’t think in long range at that point. I’m thinking in long range now. Like, “Am I gonna get through this next tour?” That’s long range now. I saw somebody with a t-shirt the other day that said, “Do not fuck with old people. Life terms in jail do not bother them.” I will kill you!! [Laughs] No…
If somebody had even come up to me and said, “At 77 you will have a new album out.” I would have been like, “Okay… and it’s been large talking to you.” [Laughs] You know, I don’t know that anybody – if they exist they are certainly more brilliant than I – who were thinking at 20 about what they were going to be doing at 77. We’ve got to force ourselves to think that way, we plan better.
Listening to your music made me think about how it has morphed and changed over the years, but also how it has stayed the same. I think there’s so much enjoyment and so much love in what you do, musically. Is that what’s kept you going and kept you in it?
Do you seriously believe, even if this was my husband we were talking about and I married him when I was 16 years old, do you seriously think I’d still be getting giddy every time I saw him? [Laughs]
I don’t know how to do anything else this proficiently! [Laughs] And I would look foolish trying to do something new. I do this well, it would be stupid for me not to do it. And since they didn’t let me get rich, I can’t not do it. But have you listened to the new recording? Have you listened to the lyrics?
Yes! I love it.
[Sings:] “I keep right on rolling, but the thrill is gone…” and I don’t say anything I don’t mean, at this point. [Laughs] No, honey! I’m somebody’s grandmother! If you think I want to put on real tight clothes, a lot of makeup, and go holler and scoot across the stage, you’re wrong. [Laughs]
But I would like at this point, I would like to have what I keep calling a “Ray Charles career,” where they pay a lot of money for the tickets. Everybody’s sitting down. It’s a beautiful venue. And I just sit there and talk to them and sing for an hour to two hours and a half. But, no! [The music business] isn’t even what I think about when I’m not doing it.
Now, don’t laugh at old people… [Laughs]
The tracks that we chose from the latest album are “Lazy (And I Know It)” and “In the Meantime,” and I wanted to start talking about how you’re known kind of famously as being this song interpreter, somebody who takes songs and makes them your own. How do you find songs? What’s your process for collecting and putting together a collection of songs?
It took me 50 years and kissing a lot of frogs to find a husband. And he loves music. He has everything that everyone has ever recorded in the history of the world. [Laughs] I’m exaggerating, but he is a record historian and a record collector. This still thrills him, even if it doesn’t thrill me. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary and in the 20 years we’ve been together this career, this “fifth career,” I call it, has been going on that whole time. He has actually sought out these tunes for me, about 100 tunes. Then he narrows it down to about 50 that he knows I’ll like and then I narrow it down to the 10 I’m going to record. I could not sit at this point and listen to that much music for any reason in the world.
[Kevin] pretty much knows what I like. When I’m looking for a song, the lyrics have got to be solid. Absolutely solid. I’m too old to look in your face and say bullshit. As I said, I mean the lyrics that I sing. This young man, [Randall Bramblett,] he wrote all the tunes on this album, he said, “Do all the tunes have to be about you?” I said, “Yes.” [Laughs] He said, “Okay…”
But listen, I’ve lived 77 years now. There isn’t a genre of song you could write that wouldn’t pertain to me at this point. And that is why there are so many different genres of songs on the album. I picked the ones out of them that that pertain to me.
Everybody keeps saying in interviews, “Did you write the songs? Did you write them for you? Did you write them together?” None of those things are true! [Bramblett] and I are about two years apart in age. He’s the only person I know who’s had more flop records than I have. [Laughs] He’s done the same thing, devoted his whole life to it for 50 or 60 years, and he pretty much feels the way I feel about this. There were adjustments I had to make in the tunes, but if I could write, these songs are exactly what I would have written.
I’m very pleased with them. When you talk about the tunes, like when you when you were talking about “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” since I was 20, I have just become such a different singer now. The basics of me have always been there, but I’ve broadened so and become such a different thing, a different woman. “He Made a Woman Out of Me,” by now it’s almost a throwaway, a novelty [song] on stage. I sing it when I’m somewhere where people are familiar with it, but it’s no longer a part of my show. It’s now just a part of my life. And my recordings’ lineage.
I wanted to ask you about “Lazy (And I Know It),” because I make this joke constantly lately that laziness is a radical act–
You know what, I’m writing this down – and I’m slapping you! [Laughs] A radical act! [Turns to her husband,] He said “Laziness is a radical act!”
You know what? White people associate laziness with Black people so much, I took the tune out of the list 50 times. [Laughs] I’d take it off, then I’d put it back. I put it back [ultimately] because I was thinking about – girlfriend in Blazing Saddles… She’s laying in the bed. She’s like, “I’m just tired.” Wasn’t she named Lili Von… something? But I thought about it and I think that’s the attitude that I wanna have about it. Oh yes, Lili Von Shtupp!
I entertained myself with it. When I could make it entertaining to me and I got away from that initial feeling, then it was just fun. And it’s just fun to do on stage. I love it.
What do you do when you need to be lazy when you need to take a vacation? What’s your what’s your favorite way to relax?
Oh no, I just come home. I like to be at home. I’ve got 50 plants in the house and with summer, I’ve got 1,084! Me and the deer have been having a constant battle over whose hostas they are, mine or theirs. I love my home. If my mother had lived to know that I would love being at home, she could have lived to be 200 years old, because she could have just been so satisfied.
I don’t want to go out to dinner. I entertain at parties, at a place where people are having a good time. And I drink and I eat and I don’t want to do that when I come home. I want to taste my food that I cook and you know, but I’m not that anxious to look decent and go out and have dinner.
That’s what you gotta do for work!
Yes, I do not want to do that. [Laughs]
Photo Credit: Danny Clinch