R&B great Bettye LaVette talks about new album, new book ahead of Ark date
LaVette’s career began auspiciously in 1962 with the release of the Atlantic Records single “My Man - He’s A Lovin’ Man,” which charted in the top 10 of Billboard’s R&B chart. But further success proved elusive for many decades after that, and not until the Joe Henry-produced album from 2005, “I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise,” did LaVette once again find comfortable footing in the music industry.
Things have been considerably rosier for her since then, including appearances at President Obama’s Inaugural celebration, where she sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and the Kennedy Center Honors, where she tore the roof off the place with her version of The Who’s “Love Reign o’er Me.”
Recently I had the chance to speak to Bettye LaVette by phone during a short break in a whirlwind tour that has her both playing gigs and signing books. She performs at the Ark this Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Q: How did the idea for your new memoir “A Woman Like Me” come about?
Bettye LaVette: I thought it would be more like a conversation, but it was more like a confession. It was daunting at times, but it’s my life. I’m not telling anything that people around me don’t know. It was quite an experience, as it took about a year and a half, and I had (collaborator) David Ritz helping me.
What we had was a series of long conversations; eight, ten, twelve hour conversations. I thought it was something that would be written about me after my death, but I have a manager (Eric Gardner) who asked me if I’d like to write a book. When I said that I didn’t know how to write a book, he said he’d get someone to help me. When David first came into my dressing room, I thought he came to meet me, but he came to start the book!
Q: There have been numerous memoirs from musicians recently, including Bob Dylan, Mitch Ryder, Keith Richards and Pete Townsend, just to name a few. But yours is as personal as any of those, sometimes shockingly so. Was it tough to write with such unsparing candor?
B.L.: This is the greatest time for me to write the book, because the people in it are never going to speak to me again. The people have not said anything to me (for years), I’ve not been privy to work with them, but as they got bigger it was interesting to know them as people. It’s my story and I can do with it as I wish. We had a lot of attorneys involved.
Q: Was there a part of your life that was particularly satisfying to write about?
B.L.: Oh no, because this book isn’t something that I’ve been feeling all my life I had to tell If I sat down (myself) to write my memoirs it probably wouldn’t even go like this; it would be more reflective and more sentimental. But I was asked to repeat my life and some of these stories I had told over the years. It wasn’t cathartic, it didn’t feel like a weight had been lifted off me. These weren’t things I had to tell.
What I want to talk about now is how hard it was the last 20 years to get to this point here and how happy I am to be at this point. But when you read about what happens to me in the book, when you turn the page it was over, and it was just like that for me. That was because somebody else called and somebody else had an idea, and that was what kept me hanging on in my career. There was no reason for me to quit. People were paying my bills, people were telling me that I was still good, people were asking me to record, and so my career has been varied and different from all the rest.
Q: Let’s move to the subject of your new album “Thankful 'N' Thoughtful,” where you do versions of songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, the Black Keys, Gnarls Barkley, Patty Griffin, Tom Waits, Savoy Brown and others. How did you go about deciding what songs to record?
B.L.: They’re a selection of songs brought to me by three different people. My producer (Craig Street) brought me some, my husband (Kevin Kiley) brought me some and my record company president (Andrew Kaulkin) brought me some, and they’re tunes that I liked taken from the ones they liked. Every once in a while I’ll do something I’ve always wanted to record, but generally I leave it to them to come up with the tunes.
Q: You added some of your own lyrics to Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” and really personalized the song. How did that come about?
B.L.: That was funny; I had never heard that song (in its entirety) before. When I’d do a gig with my band that was particularly rough, we’d get back in the bus or the van and they would sing, “Dirty old town, dirty old town.” So it got to be a thing and I would sing it with them, but I thought the words were something they made up.
When I got ready to record this CD, my husband said, “Why don’t you do ‘Dirty Old Town’.” He then explained that it was a Ewan MacColl song and played it for me, but I didn’t like it that well and didn’t know what he was singing about. My husband suggested that I re-write it and make it about Detroit. That was really easy to do. After I did it, it made me cry. I thought about Northern (High School) and the bus to Dodge Main stopping right in front of my house; I remember lines of men going to Dodge Main. When I sing it now, I almost cry every time.
Q: Many songs on the album are ones I grew up listening to, Including Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and Savoy Brown’s “I’m Tired.” Were you familiar with most of these songs as well?
B.L.: The only song I was really familiar with was (Sly and the Family Stone’s) “Thankful 'N' Thoughtful.”
Q: Does that actually free you up to interpret things your own way, so that you don’t feel burdened to live up to or deviate from the original version?
B.L.: No, it’s just a song, baby; I sing. If they had asked to do a painting I might’ve been nervous. It’s just a song.
Q: Gnarls Barkley’s hit single “Crazy” has been covered by a ton of people, and yet you still find some something new in that track, performing it in slow and compelling fashion. What was your approach in recording that one?
B.L.: If you are in this business you are more than likely crazy, and since I’ve been in this longer than they have, I’m crazier than they are. I’m crazier than Gnarls Barkley, I’m crazier than all those people. That seemed like a perfect thing for me, because there is a craziness to this. It’s like letting someone kick you in the face or people having the opportunity to say anything they want about you, and then you come back and you hope they will say something nice next time.
Bettye LaVette performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. Tickets are $27.50, available from The Ark box office (with no service charge); Michigan Union Ticket Office, 530 S. State St.; Herb David Guitar Studio, 302 E. Liberty St.; or online from the Michigan Union Ticket Office.