Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette talks about adlibbing Dylan lyrics; seeing Motown stars broke drunk and naked; and interpreting songs vs and covering them.

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Bettye LaVette

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Interview Recap

Bettye LaVette talks about surviving hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. She said that her house wasn’t damaged but they were without power for 5 days. She also noted that there are beautiful trees in her area of New Jersey that were hundreds of years old that were lost in the storm.

Betty LaVette talks about moving into her 50th year in show business, but at the same time she’s just getting started in a way. She had a long period of years which she calls in her book “The Struggle” where she wasn’t working much and it’s only the past few years that her career has been taking off again. Calvin notes that for many performers, they would be winding down in their 50th year but Bettye’s is accelerating! Bettye says “I’m not a has been and I never was!”

Bettye Lavette talks about the title track, the Sly and the Family Stone song “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.” She says she’d been aware of this song for some time and that it was the some of the last work that. Sly Stone did “before he lost his mnd.” Bettye says, “I chose to do it because people weren’t as familiar with that one an I always wanted to do a Sly Stone song.”

Bettye LaVette talks about the difference between covering a song and interpreting a song because she stresses that she is a song interpreter. Bettye says that covering a song is doing it like the original artist did it. “When you cover a song, you just sing the song as you heard it. But when you interpter as song you con only re-interpret the song and I am a song interpreter not a song coverer.” Calvin comments that Bettye has a way of making a song her own and Bettye notes that’s because it’s an interpretation, not a cover.

[Calvin plays the title track from Bettye LaVette's Thankful N' Thoughtful album.]

Calvin asks Bettye LaVette how she took a stereo typical British folk music song “Drity Old Town” and by Ewan MacColl and turned it into a gritty blues song. Bettye says “That’s because [when I sing the song] I’m singing about a gritty blues town, I’m singing about Detroit and how the riots changed it. And when I sing about ‘the pretty young things.’ I’m talking about the prostitutes that used to work 12th street, which is where the riots started. And the Dodge Main was the biggest factory was the biggest factory inside the city of Detroit. Not a lot of people aspired to go to college. You either aspired to work for General Motors of Ford or Chrysler or you aspired to work in show business. That’s pretty much what you did.And the records that were coming out of Detroit at the time were being played all over the world and then a shot rang out and change it all. “

[Calvin plays "Dirty Old Town" from Bettye Lavette's Thankful N' Thoughtful album.]

Calvin asks Bettye if she can give us any sense of the process she goes through to transform a folks song like “Dirty Old Town” into a blues song. Bettye responds, “Would it help you to now who completely different I feel and sound from Ewan MacColl? I just sound and feel different than he did. I didn’t have to go anywhere to practice not being Ewan MacColl! People want to make it sound more complex than it is. What perplexes me is how some people can sing a song exactly like they hear it! How can you capture someone else’s feeling and their timing and their words? That seems so difficult as opposed to ‘this is how I feel about it.”

Calvin asks Bettye about the Dylan song on the album, “Everything Is Broken. “It’s just so fun to remember everything that’s broken. I’ve only remembered all of the lyrics twice. For the first two weeks I toured after the album came out I took the lyrics on stage with me And then after that I started making up my own things that were broken! The song is just fun to me!” She goes on to say she things she’s got all the lyrics down now, thanks to help from her husband.

[Calvin plays "Everything Is Broken from Bettye Lavette's Thankful N' Thoughtful album.]

Bettye LaVette talks about her book, A Woman Like Me, which is named after the first album that came out in the second phase of her career. Calvin asks Bettye if this was a fun project or a tough one. Bettye says it was fun at times but the process was nothing like she thought it would be. “Just before all this happened, all I had for my claim to fame was these stories. So I’ve told snippets of these stories for 35 or 40 years. One of my favorite lines from the book is ‘I know everybody in Detroit that’s black and over 50. And everybody at Motown I’ve seen them broke, drunk or naked or all three! And the person I would say that to would chuckle. But in writing the book I would say that to [co-author] David Ritz and he would say, ‘Which one? Who?’ And then he would say ‘and what were you doing when this was happening? And that would stop me. So it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be….” Bettye says that the despite all the stories about others in the book, it’s really about her. Bettye says “I had to tell about my experiences to validate the rest of the stuff in the book.”

Bettye talks about movie plans for the book. She says a movie company has bought the option for making a movie of the book. Calvin tries to get Bettye to play casting agent and pick the actress she’s like to see play the young version of Bettye LaVette, but Bettye declines saying “I have no idea because I don’t know any young people!… I haven’t seen any young people who can play me, they’re all too damn gorgeous “

Rotation 343

  • Sing To Me / The Delta Saints / Death Letter Jubilee / 3:04
  • Late Night Lover / Rachel Brooke / A Killer’s Dream / 4:09
  • Little Black Dress / Jarrod Dickenson / Lonesome Traveler / 3:49
  • He’s My Man / Rachel Harrington & The Knock Outs / Makin’ Our House a Honkytonk / 2:31
  • OXYGEN / Cabinet / LEAP / 4:45
  • Girl From Arkansas / Rod Picott / Girl From Arkansas / 3:38
  • Now Not Later / James Hand / Mighty Lonesome Man / 2:28

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The Americana Music Show is copyright 2012 by Taproot Media. The music and interviews in this episode are used with permission of the artists.

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