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'My Fifth Career': Bettye LaVette Reinvents Bob Dylan For Herself

Bettye LaVette's <em>Things Have Changed </em>is out now on Verve Records.
Mark Seliger
Courtesy of the artist
Bettye LaVette's Things Have Changed is out now on Verve Records.

There's been no shortage of musicians who've covered Bob Dylan songs over the years. On Things Have Changed, however, soul powerhouse Bettye LaVette reinvents the timeless music and lyrics of the folk singer into an intimate career retrospective all her own.

LaVette says she didn't have a relationship with these songs before the project, which she counts as a stroke of luck that allowed her to reshape otherwise well-known music. In songs like "Emotionally Yours," she was able to mine new depths from a songwriter she always saw as plainspoken and practical. "He just says, 'These are my words and I am very hurt,' but he never sounds that way," she notes. "And you know how I am, I sound hurt all the time, on 'Happy Birthday' or whatever."

LaVette admits to feeling daunted by the task of impressing skeptical Dylanites she sought to reach with this album. "I never thought you guys would even let me in the front door," she says of Dylan fans, though this statement could apply to much of her relationship with the music industry over the years. (She sometimes struggled with finances or with maintaining consistent label support.) Now, Things Have Changed is LaVette's first release on a major label in 30 years.

"It's so funny; I walk on the stage, and I can tell who you are, because you're kind of with your arms folded and looking especially as if you've never heard the CD or you've never heard of me," she says. "I thought people would think, 'Who does she think she is, for real?'"

But once she opens her mouth to sing, however, she says she receives as many as three or four standing ovations, usually in the middle of the first song.

LaVette talked to NPR's Don Gonyea — one such obsessed Dylanite — about her changing relationship with Dylan's music and reflects on a lifetime of defying an industry that has tried to box her in.

Interview Highlights

On her first and only time "meeting" Bob Dylan

I was in Italy on the same festival that he was on and coming out of my dressing room. Security would not let anyone out of the dressing room, and I said, "Well, why?" And they said, "Because Mr. Dylan is going onstage," and I'm like, "Well, I don't care! Let me out of my dressing room!" So I come out of my dressing room and I'm angry because he's got my band and me and everybody trapped while he takes 50 steps to the stage. So I'm walking along the same path that he is, but on the other side of the room, and I said, "Hey, Robert Dylan!" And he was walking with his bass player and his bass player mouthed to him: "That's Bettye LaVette!" He walked over to me, took my face in both his hands, kissed me dead on the mouth and walked on the stage. So that's what we've done thus far [Laughs].

On devoting Dylan's "Mama, You Been On My Mind" to her mother

All those lyrics seem to apply to my younger life: how my mother literally did not know where I'd be waking up tomorrow and how she'd stay up all night worrying about me. I was either in another state or certainly in another city.

On how the music industry pigeonholed her in the 1960s

They started off by trying to make me sound like a girl, which really played me out of position. I really thought at one point I could sound like Doris Day, and it took me a long time to accept the fact that I sound more like James Brown. And now I'm trying to convince everybody it's OK for me to sound like James Brown. They all sounded either like they came from church or like girls. And I didn't come from church, and I really don't sound like girls as we know girls to sound.

On beginning her "fifth career" after her career got off-track

Every time one of those records charted and I was zoomed around the world and brought back, I thought I was done each time. I've had no big problems with life or living; someone has always liked me and someone is always willing to help me try and be the best or biggest Bettye LaVette I could be. So I've been very fortunate on the friend side and the health side. It's just the industry that has had a difficult time putting me wherever they wanted me to be. They never seem to know. They won't accept the fact that I'm a singer; they want me to be a kind of singer, so we've been at odds with that. But slowly, certainly in these last 10 years in this fifth career, I've been accepted on many different fronts. It's always been my dream to be to have what I call a Ray Charles audience: young, old, black, white, American, foreign, whatever.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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