Veteran singer Bettye LaVette doesn’t listen to music. Yet she has become one of our foremost interpreters of contemporary songs. Think of her rendition of the Who’s “Love, Reign o’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. Her treatment of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration. And now her collection of Bob Dylan songs.
“Kevin [Kiley, her music historian husband] is listening to music all the time,” LaVette said recently from their New Jersey home. “And I’ve got ‘The Thin Man’ on Turner Classic Movies. Then I go from there to CNN, to MSNBC. That’s what I look at all day long. Now the days I record, I listen to the songs all day long. And then after I do them live onstage for the first time, I don’t listen to them anymore for the rest. Of. My. Life.”
LaVette’s Dylan project, “Things Have Changed,” is one of the best albums of 2018 as she transforms his tunes into new experiences for even the most dedicated Dylanophiles. She gets inside songs, revealing new meanings to lyrics that may be overly familiar. And she does it by taking liberties, such as rewriting lines and excising some of his wordy verses.
When LaVette returns to the Dakota in Minneapolis on Wednesday, it will not be an all-Dylan program, which was the case there in the spring when the album was released. The R&B stalwart promises a program of some Dylan material as well as other songs from the series of acclaimed albums she’s recorded since launching her comeback nearly 15 years.
In a colorful conversation, the opinionated LaVette, 72, talked about Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Keith Richards, who played guitar on her new album.
Q: Have you heard from Dylan about the album?
A: No-ah. Other than his manager saying how much he loved it.
Q: Tell me about the time you met Dylan at a music festival where you were both performing a few years ago.
A: We were in Italy together. They wouldn’t let anyone come out of the dressing room or be in the area where he was going on the stage — which I wasn’t going for. So I came out of the dressing room and he was going one way and I was going the other and I said, “Hey, Robert Dylan.” He looked over at me and his bass player was walking with him. I saw [the bass player’s] mouth, “That’s Bettye LaVette.” And he came over to me, put my face in both his hands and kissed me right on the mouth. And walked on the stage.
Q: I understand that your husband gave you 50 Dylan songs to consider. How did you pick and choose which 12 to record?
A: I liked the melodies of the ones I chose. Except the ones I had to change the melody to, like “Times, They Are A-Changin.’ ” I never cared for that song. But in my head I heard it much funkier.
If I liked the melodies, I went back and looked at the lyrics. I wouldn’t listen to all those damn lyrics. I like to be able to hum songs.
Q: In “Seeing the Real You at Last,” why did you change the lyrics about Annie Oakley and Belle Starr to Otis Redding and Bruno Mars?
A: I think more people would know who that was than Annie Oakley and especially Belle Starr. You’d have to be at least 60 to know who they are.
Q: And you inserted yourself, as Bettye Jo on a specific street in Detroit, into “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight.”
A: He put Alicia Keys in one of his damn songs. I had to put me in there myself. [She laughed.]
Q: Why did you cut verses out of some of his songs?
A: He uses so many words to say something and then he repeats himself. And because he knows words, he says the same thing three or four different ways. So I try to take the strongest way he said it and say it strongly. And say it once.
Q: I understand Verve Records insisted you record some songs from Dylan’s heyday in the ’60s.
A: The record company wanted those signature songs like “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” which I’ve fallen in love with now because I decided to attack it so fiercely. Like Jimmy Reed would have.
Q: At the Dakota, you said Dylan doesn’t write poetry, he writes arguments in prose. What do you mean?
A: He’s not a pretty writer. He doesn’t write beautiful songs like [the Beatles’] “Michelle.” He may take a beautiful sentiment and write a song about it. But he really writes good arguments. That’s his best.
Q: And you said you’re the one who finishes the argument when you sing them.
A: When he sings something fierce like “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” he sings it in such a lackluster manner. “I’m telling you to go jump off the ledge.” It’s like he opens the door for you. When I interpret it, I can scare you off the ledge if you don’t want to jump.
Q: You said he complains as much as you do.
A: Just like an old woman. He strikes me like he’s an old woman.
Q: What role did guitarist Larry Campbell, who was in Dylan’s band from 1997 to 2004, play on this album?
A: I used his anxiety. He had wanted to play these songs different for years. So he just brought so many fresh ideas.
Q: What did producer/drummer Steve Jordan contribute?
A: He was magnificent. I call him “The Bettye Whisperer” because I usually explain things like “ooka, chooka, boom,” and he’d say, “She wants you to play this seven times and turn around and ...”
Q: Were you there when Keith Richards recorded his guitar parts?
A: We weren’t in the studio very long, maybe three or four hours. But we had a great, great time, and we both resolved had we known each other in the ’60s, we would’ve gotten into terrible trouble. We got into a little trouble in the four hours sitting on the couch together.
He was so gracious and wonderful. We’re so much alike. We’re the same age and pretty much like the same things. He came in with his vodka on the rocks, I came in with my Champagne. He had a joint, I had a vaporizer. And we sat there and blew smoke into each other’s mouth. And laughed. You would have thought we’d known each other a long time. And the next day he sent me two dozen roses.
Q: You spent most of your life in Detroit. Please share an Aretha Franklin story.
A: No. You don’t know the Aretha that I know. So anything I said would be sensational. You didn’t know any of the people at Motown when they were 19 and broke. Many of my contemporaries in Detroit became fabulously wealthy, and I didn’t see them anymore. I hadn’t seen Aretha in 30 years till I did the Kennedy Center Honors. But at one point I used to see her every week. I don’t know what kind of mother or grandmother she turned out to be. That’s it.