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How Bettye LaVette Finally Learned to Let The Songs Sound Like Her (Part 1 of 2)

Aug 20, 2020

How Bettye LaVette Finally Learned to Let The Songs Sound Like Her (Part 1 of 2)

When Bettye LaVette covered “Your Time to Cry” nearly fifty years ago, she wrung every ounce of hurt and drama from the lyrics, but especially on the chorus. She stretches out the word “time” until it breaks into two syllables, implying a similar emotional break that doesn’t undercut the song’s determination, but shows what cost she has paid for it. It’s a riveting performance, a raw, southern soul slow burner that should have established her as one of the finest R&B voices of the 1970s.

During those same sessions, she also covered Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and John Prine’s “Souvenirs,” among other tunes, yet for reasons that were never made clear, Atlantic Records shelved the project, declining to promote “Your Time to Cry” as a single or to release her debut album. That has been a defining moment in LaVette’s long career — and one she subtly and slyly addresses on her new album, Blackbirds. She is the woman wronged, the embodiment of the music industry’s disregard for talent, especially that of Black women. For three decades LaVette continued to work, developing and strengthening her voice and expanding her repertoire. She explains, “When people say I had a resurgence, I want to say, ‘No, I never stopped. You just didn’t come to where I was!’”

Now, nearly fifty years after recording “Your Time to Cry” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, she has become one of the finest and most accomplished singers in R&B or any other genre for that matter, with a string of albums that showcase her stylistic range as well as her deep understanding of pop history. After releasing a comeback record on the tiny Blues Express label in 2003, she caught the ear of Andy Kaulkin at Anti- Records, who signed her as a new artist at the height of the soul revival of the 2000s.

Since then, she’s covered The Who for the Kennedy Centers Honors ceremony (famously bringing Pete Townshend to tears), recorded with Drive-By Truckers (back in the Shoals, for an album appropriately titled The Scene of the Crime), and reimagined Dylan tunes so thoroughly even his own bandleader didn’t recognize them. And those original Shoals sessions did finally get an official release, first in 2000 on a small Dutch label and again in 2018 from vinyl specialists Run Out Groove.

Blackbirds is among her most powerful albums: a collection of songs by female artists active from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, including Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, and Nina Simone, whom LaVette refers to collectively as “the bridge I came across on.” It’s an album that celebrates these artists, but also emphasizes their shared experiences as Black women in the music industry. “Every broken promise broke my heart,” she sings on “Book of Lies,” a song made famous by Ruth Brown. Her voice is lower than it was in 1972, but no less expressive, and she makes that sentiment more than just romantic; it’s also a professional lament, addressed to the industry that derailed her career so long ago.

We spoke with LaVette about Blackbirds in our second half of the interview; here, she tells BGS about her early hopes and disappointments.

BGS: What was your impression when you were down in Muscle Shoals? Had you been there before you recorded?

LaVette: No! What would I be doing there?! What would you go there for, if you weren’t going to record? They had to win me over. I’d wanted to record in New York and Chicago. I always wanted to be very bougie. But after I had accepted how different my voice was — how un-girly-like it was — I identified more with Solomon Burke and Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. After I was down there for a day, I was absolutely as happy as I could be. They were absolutely wonderful — and wonderful to me. When I got back to Detroit, I could not stop talking about them, especially with the way they wrote and read music.

Were you ever told why your ‘72 sessions were never released?

That has been one of the big mysteries in my career. I can think of that album and my dog Mickey, that I had when I was 11, and just burst into tears at any time. I had Brad Shapiro, who was Wilson Pickett’s producer. I had the Swampers, who I had wanted. I was at the label that I had loved. But when they told me they weren’t going to release the album, I got up under the dining room table and stayed three or four days. My friends brought me food and wine and joints. I’m telling you, I’m about to cry now. It was to be my first album, after having already had a string of singles. For years, all I had was “Your Turn to Cry.” Whenever people would come in with their latest whatever-it-is at my house or at a party, I always kept that song handy, maybe on a cassette. I’d say, “I made a record that was really, really good one time. Y’all wanna hear it?”

I just found out — when I say “just found out,” I meant in the last twenty years, maybe — that it was a split between Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Jerry Wexler was on my side and Ahmet was on Aretha’s side. For the longest time I never knew what happened. I had no idea, and it sounded so stupid, for thirty years, to tell people, “I have no idea.” Many people had heard “Your Time to Cry,” and they said, “If that stuff is anything like this, I can’t understand.” When Atlantic put “Your Time to Cry” out, it was just out. They didn’t mention it to anyone. They just put it out. What you wanted at a label was to have one of everything, and maybe a junior one of everything, too. So they could see where that wouldn’t work with me and Aretha. I think Diana [Ross] is probably the reason I was never at Motown. Those personalities wouldn’t have worked.

Judging by reissues from those sessions, you had already worked up a pretty diverse repertoire.

My manager, Jim Lewis, who was the assistant to the president of the musicians’ union in Detroit and a trombone player with the Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, was a hard, hard taskmaster. When we started to work this management thing out, he said, “You’re cute. You’ve got a cute little waistline and a cute little butt, but you’re going to have to learn some songs, because there’s a possibility you may not be a big star.” That’s not a given, but you can be a singer for the rest of your life, if you will learn a lot of songs. He said, “You’re a different kind of singer, and you should learn that.”

How so?

I’ve accepted that I sound more like James Brown than Doris Day. But I used to think I had to sound the way Nancy Wilson sounds, which discouraged me from even wanting to learn how to sing. The thought that I could sing it and it didn’t have to sound beautiful didn’t even occur to me, until Jim came along. He told me, “Just let ‘em come out of your mouth. They’re gonna sound like you.” So I had to satisfy myself with the songs. I had to choose songs that I really like, and I would tell people, “Do you like the song or do you like the record? Because those are two different things.”

Jim made me learn a lot of songs. He insisted I learn “Lush Life,” which permitted me to be comfortable at the Carlyle Hotel for ten years. He insisted I learn “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “God Bless the Child,” which put me in the lead role in Bubbling Brown Sugar. He made me learn country and western. Otherwise, I would have been fighting with the local songwriters over them giving songs to Aretha and not giving them to me, you know? I was able to say, “Hey, I can go on and just be real good.” So I approach what I’m doing a little differently. I thought Jim was telling me to sing these songs like these people, but he just wanted me to sing them how they came out of my mouth. However they come out, sing them like that. Now that I’ve accepted that, I’m not so concerned about how it sounds, but how I feel about the song. That helps me present it. I’m very grateful to him.

That comes through on these sessions from 1972, where you’re covering Neil Young and John Prine and doing a song that Bowie was doing at the same time. There’s that range.

Well, it was after that that I did “What Condition My Condition Is In” by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. And that got me another record contract. Kenny Rogers came to Detroit and Jim said, “Why don’t you take it and let him hear it?” I didn’t think he’d like it, but Jim said, “You don’t know how it’ll sound to him.” So I took it to him and Kenny loved it. His brother, Lelan Rogers, was just starting a record label called Silver Fox, and they flew me down to Nashville. I was with them for four or five years, but still no album. All these albums were set to come out and didn’t come out.

After finally breaking out in the 2000s, you established yourself as an interpreter of songs. What do you bring to a song? How do you make something familiar sound like you? Or is that even something you’re thinking about at this point?

That isn’t something that I plan or set out to do. When I hear the song and start to sing it, that’s just the way I sing it. The thing that makes it new is that it’s different. I doubt I could come up with anything new. But it is different, and so I need for people to change their attitude about it. That was one of the things with Interpretations, my British rock album. The thing that helped me the most recording that album was that I didn’t know most of the songs. I had never heard most of them. They didn’t play them a lot on Black radio. So all I did was just lift the lyrics and sing them the want I wanted to.

Michael Stevens was brilliant, and he did the arrangement of “Love, Reign O’er Me” by The Who that I did for the Kennedy Center Honors. When I went to rehearsal, they got ready to go into the tune, and I told him, “I can’t sing it like that.” And he said, “Well, sing it the way you want to sing it.” So I sang the song to him a cappella, and he took a break and after a while came back and redirected everybody. He’d been listening to this song for thirty years — since he was a teenager! — and I’d only been listening to it for three or four days.

Something similar happened on the Bob Dylan album, Things Have Changed. We had Bob Dylan’s guitarist, Larry Campbell, playing on it, and he had a ball. He said, “I’ve wanted to hear these a different way for seventeen years!” Because he knew about the inner workings of each one of the tunes, more than any of us, he started to find clever little things, probably, that he had always wanted to play, and he played them for me.

How was working with these songs on Blackbirds different?

Working on this album was intimidating, in that I didn’t want to bastardize any of the songs or cast them off. I didn’t want to do anything to them just for the sake of doing something, you know? That was kind of daunting. But that’s the thing that makes Steve [Jordan, producer] so important to me. When we develop an arrangement, what I usually do is I’ll get my keyboard player to go in the direction that I want to take the song.

When Steve hears me with the piano, singing it the way I want to sing it, that speaks to him to put something else in there. He no longer hears Billie Holiday’s interpretation of “Strange Fruit,” and he arranges what he hears in his head, not what the other record was. I’m not going to change any of the notes — I’m just going to put them in different places and say them differently, so you can’t follow that trajectory that you know from the record. It has to be different.

(Editor’s Note: Read part two of our interview with Bettye LaVette.)

Photo credit: Joseph A. Rosen

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How Bettye LaVette Finally Learned to Let The Songs Sound Like Her (Part 1 of 2)
How Bettye LaVette Finally Learned to Let The Songs Sound Like Her (Part 1 of 2)