A few years ago, singer Bettye LaVette was backstage at a festival in Italy and found herself walking about 50 feet behind Bob Dylan. Never one to hold back an impulse, she simply shouted out, “Hey, Robert Dylan!” His response came as a surprise.
“He came over to where I was, grabbed my face in both his hands, kissed me full on the lips and walked onstage,” LaVette said. “My whole band just fainted.”
LaVette’s boldness shapes how she’s reworked 12 of Dylan’s songs for her new disc, Things Have Changed (Verve). For the soul artist—who started recording at 16 in 1962—the album represents a considerable milestone. It is her debut for Verve, a label long associated with classic jazz vocalists. While LaVette has interpreted an array of material throughout the years, this is her first album dedicated to the work of a single songwriter.
“I told [Danny Bennett, Verve Label Group president and CEO] that it’s hard to excite an old woman, but I am really excited,” LaVette said. “This is maybe one of the only times I wish I was a little younger, so I could live up to the excitement.”
Last autumn, LaVette and her husband, singer Kevin Kiley, began narrowing down selections from Dylan’s massive oeuvre. While a couple of his famous compositions appear on Things Have Changed, LaVette mostly focuses on lesser known, yet equally substantial songs, such as “Don’t Fall Apart On Me Tonight.” She began recording them in November.
“It took me weeks to put his words into my mouth,” LaVette said. “I had to change the gender an awful lot, because it wasn’t going to be a cover—where I sang straight down as he sung the songs—and it wasn’t going to be a tribute, because I don’t do tributes to anybody. But I knew I had to make them songs that I would sing. I took as many as three verses out of some of the songs.”
Drummer Steve Jordan produced the sessions, which featured a core of veterans: bassist Pino Palladino, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis and Dylan’s longtime guitarist Larry Campbell. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards plays guitar on “Political World,” and when LaVette said she wanted a solo trombonist for “What Was It You Wanted,” Jordan called in Trombone Shorty.
“I’m calling Steve ‘The Bettye Whisperer,’ because I was talking in gibberish and he was understanding everything I was saying,” LaVette recalled. “Larry Campbell was an absolute, brilliant joy. With him being with Bob Dylan, he said, ‘Thank you for letting me a part of this. I’ve wanted to play these songs differently for so long.’”
As LaVette revamped the songs, she felt especially eager to work through Dylan’s more challenging lyrics, such as “Ain’t Talkin’.”
“When I did start to understand what he meant, then I could say it the way I would say it,” LaVette said. “But it took a little while to understand what he meant, because he doesn’t speak directly. He gives you situations and you figure out what actually happened in the situation.”
Some songs that LaVette selected for Things Have Changed convey themes that remain topical, even though Dylan wrote them decades ago. She views “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Political World” as being particularly relevant.
“Those songs sound as if they were written last January 20,” LaVette said in reference to President Donald Trump’s inauguration. “That line in ‘Political World,’ about ‘Wisdom has been thrown in jail.’ Well, have you seen the president? We’ve just forsaken wisdom. Everything in those two tunes are universally specific and timely.”