Bettye LaVette has only come face-to-face with Bob Dylan once. She had just performed at a festival in Italy, and after her set ended, the security team was cordoning off the area outside the dressing rooms so that Dylan and his band could proceed to the stage. As they were passing, Dylan’s longtime bass player, Tony Garnier, pointed out LaVette to his boss. The legendary singer-songwriter immediately stopped, came over to LaVette, grabbed her face in his hands, kissed her, and headed out to play his show.
If that was Dylan’s reaction to the sight of one of the great living soul singers, we can only imagine how he will respond to Things Have Changed, LaVette’s new album, which is entirely dedicated to her versions of Dylan’s compositions. Since the great 21st Century rediscovery of LaVette returned her to prominence, she has worked extensively in the rock and folk idioms, including the 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise (made up exclusively of songs written by women, from Fiona Apple to Dolly Parton) and 2010’s Grammy-nominated Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which included classics by such bands as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and Pink Floyd.
Never before, though, has LaVette devoted an album entirely to the material of one songwriter. Things Have Changed spans more than five decades of Dylan songs, from 1964’s immortal “The Times They Are A-Changin’” up to “Ain’t Talkin’,” the epic final track on his 2006 album Modern Times. The concept initially came from the singer’s longtime photographer, collaborator, and friend Carol Friedman, with a big assist from LaVette’s husband, Kevin Kiley. “My poor husband is a music enthusiast, so he sits down and listens as a routine,” she says. “He listened to four thousand Dylan songs and narrowed them down to maybe a hundred for me, and I took that down to these twelve.”
Not that it was always easy to find her way into the demands of Dylan’s writing. “Like Otis Redding said, ‘There’s too goddam many lyrics!,’ “ LaVette says with a laugh. “And at this point, at 71, remembering tons of lyrics is not my strong suit. But my old adage is that they’re just songs, just words on a piece of paper, and it’s my job to interpret them. And the complications of the phrasing appealed to me—if I treat phrasing as my strength, these songs are like ‘Lush Life.’ It’s a challenge, that part is fun.”
In a career approaching sixty years, Bettye LaVette has learned her way around a song. Raised in Detroit, she had her first Top Ten R&B hit at age sixteen, in 1962, with "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man.” After 1965’s “Let Me Down Easy,” she hit the road with the James Brown Revue. She charted with such singles as “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” and “Do Your Duty,” but after 1982’s “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love),” her recording grew more sporadic.
She has recorded a handful of Dylan tunes over the years, including “Most of the Time” for the 2012 Amnesty International benefit compilation Chimes of Freedom. So she knew going into Things Have Changed what she needed to do to take on this material. “I always have to put the words into my mouth—I can’t even imagine singing a song just like another person,” she says. “Other people write songs, but he writes vignettes, more prose than poetry. I didn’t find his words to be pretty so much as they are extremely practical or extremely logical. He can work things like ‘go jump off a ledge’ into a song.”
The first step was editing the lyrics down to the stories she wanted to tell, which took three months. “Ain’t Talking” was the first song LaVette tackled. “I took maybe four verses out, trying to find the point and cut to the chase,” she says. “The tricky thing is that then you have to connect the song back together and figure out how to get from one place to the other. I found in a lot of places that I was dealing with him personally, and as I got involved in it, I got very interested, and started taking the female perspective in the songs.”
Exploring the Dylan catalog, LaVette found herself being drawn to less familiar work that demonstrated the unparalleled range of his writing, from 1990’s sly “Unbelievable” to the devastating “Going Going Gone” from 1974. “I didn’t want to do ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ because everybody did those early songs,” she says. “Of course, I also must be the only black girl who never did ‘Respect!’ “ But she eventually settled on two of his greatest hits, “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”
“I had never really listened to ‘It Ain’t Me Babe,’ “ she says, “And I said ‘This is me!’ But I had to make it more dismissive—not fast and hard, but like a Jimmy Reed tune. And ‘Times They Are A-Changin,’ I had to flip that all the way around, so we worked up the groove on a beat box, just make it extremely surprising.”
To pull off these transformations, LaVette needed a producer who was up to the challenge, and she found the perfect collaborator in Steve Jordan, former drummer in David Letterman’s house band, who has worked with everyone from Chuck Berry to John Mayer. “Steve was absolutely brilliant,” she says. “He remembers everything he has ever heard in a his entire life, and he was able to interpret for the musicians everything I said to him.”
Jordan brought in an A Team of musicians, including Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis. Jordan’s sometime bandmate Keith Richards added guitar to two tracks, and New Orleans ace Trombone Shorty joined for “What Was It You Wanted.” The group was in such sync that the whole album was cut in just three days.
Betty LaVette never could have anticipated that rock & roll songs would be so central to this latest act in her career. “There was resentment in Detroit about the British Invasion, so I wanted to invade these songs,” she says. “But I didn’t envision it becoming such a part of my identity.” She points to her unforgettable performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’Er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors as a special highlight. “To see Pete Townshend crying and to see my husband, who worshipped him, being amazed, in front of President Obama, Beyonce, my old friend Aretha Franklin—that was probably the greatest day of my life.”
But with Things Have Changed, she sees that there may still be new heights to climb. “I started to think of it as a more important thing as I understood it and saw where it might go,” she says. “All the ducks are in a row, and I really think this is the biggest thing that ever happened to me in my 57 year career. Now the greatest joy will be to hear what Bob thinks of it himself.”