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Photo by Mark Seliger

  This is actually the third time Bettye is invited to record an album for a major label.  Her first sessions for a full-length vinyl album took place while on Atlantic in 1973, but the scheduled Atco LP was withdrawn and saw the light of the day only in 2000 under the title of Souvenirs. There were high hopes for her Motown album in 1982 called Tell Me a Lie, but the results didn’t quite meet with the expectations and also sales-wise it didn’t make big waves (# 48-r&b, # 207-pop on Billboard’s charts).  Now it’ll be third time lucky, because her new Verve LP, Things Have Changed ( – due out on March 30 - is such a remarkable record it’s bound to make a big impression among the lovers of quality music.

  Norman Granz founded the Verve label in 1956 primarily as an outlet for jazz music, but since then the company has expanded also into pop, rock, classical and other genres.  Today Verve is part of Universal Music Group.  Bettye: “My good friend and the executive producer of this CD, Carol Friedman, came up with the idea last year, when we tried with Verve in Europe first.  They liked the idea, but then they closed the label (Impulse) we were going to work with.  A&R man Brian Bacchus called Verve here in the U.S. and told them to listen to the idea.  They did and they liked it.”

  The idea Bettye is referring to is to cut an album full of Bob Dylan’s songs.  No matter what your opinion about Bob’s singing voice and style or his Nobel Prize behaviour might be, you can’t help but admire his creativity in writing clever, thought-provoking lyrics, abundant with metaphors.  “I’ve done Bob Dylan tunes, but I’ve never done more than one in a row.  I wasn’t quite sure, I would be able to do them to the company’s satisfaction.”

  “I’m not just a cover artist.  Everybody that I’ve ever heard covering Bob, they covered it just like he did it... and I still didn’t like it (laughing).  I started to work on those songs in November, and by the time I met Steve Jordan and Larry Campbell I knew what I wanted to do with them.  Since I can’t play anything, I made it for Steve to interpret them for me and he understood everything I was saying.  Steve is the first black producer that I’ve had since the 70s, and I knew he wasn’t going to hear them the way Bob Dylan heard them.”

  Recorded in New York and – similarly to her recent output - Bettye deconstructs the songs and rearranges them by finding new and innovative angles.  “I could say I wanted to go in this kind of groove and this is how I’m going to sing it, so you have to put something around it.  I got with the piano and did that, and then Steve knew what else to do.”

  Steve Jordan is the producer and he also plays drums, percussion and occasional guitar on the CD.  On background vocals there’s a new duo called the Lavettes, who actually are Bettye and Steve.  “I think it was Steve’s idea.  I just found out about it the other day” (laughing).  Leon Pendarvis is on keys and Pino Palladino on bass, while Larry Campbell is the main guitarist.  Besides guitars, he plays also mandolin and pedal steel.  “I thought there was going to be a problem with Larry, because he was with Bob Dylan for 18 years and I thought he was going to try to pull me in another way, but he was so thrilled with all of the ideas and he said ‘as a musician, do you know what it means to me for the first time in all these years to play these songs differently?’. 


  The title song and the opening track was written for the movie called The Wonder Boys in 2000 and it won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.  Bob’s original take on it is a fast, poppy scorcher, whereas in her interpretation Bettye takes it in a more aggressive direction.  They chose it for the first single and it’s also one of Bettye’s favourites on the set.  “We found one beautiful song for the CD, but all the rest of them are either complaint about something or protest against something, but Bob never sings it that way.  I told the company ‘when black people and especially black women protest, we cuss.” (laughing).

  Bob’s It Ain’t Me, Babe derives from 1964, but the versions that charted the same and the following year were by Johnny Cash and the Turtles.  Bettye’s slow reading creates a melancholic cloak around the song.  “This is one of the two Bob’s songs that I had heard.  The only one I think I know is Blowin’ in the Wind.  We first recorded it in another way.  When I came into the studio next day, I said ‘Steve, what we did yesterday you can skip to it.  I have to approach this with a different kind of attitude.’  In my head I was thinking more jimmyreedish.”

  Bob’s fast beater called Political World from 1989 sounds like an angry protest song, but Bettye’s half-spoken rendition bears a remote resemblance to some of Gil Scott-Heron’s work.  “It sounds like it was just written last week.”  Keith Richards plays some rhythm and the guitar solo on this track.  “When Keith goes up by himself, he has a band of his own and Steve is the drummer.  Steve asked him would he play and he was gracious enough to do so.  We just got along famously.  We both agreed that we should have met in the 60s.  We’re of the same age, same attitude... I said ‘all you have to do is give me half of your millions and then we would be twins’” (laughing).


  You may find similarities between Bob’s 1983 recording of Don’t Fall apart on Me Tonight and his mid-60s hit, Like a Rolling Stone.  Bettye’s very slow and touching interpretation carries an almost unbearable anguish.  “Bob’s been called a poet, but he writes prose.  He seems to think of himself that way, so he sings the melody and, whatever tenderness and pleading there is to a song,  he just lets that go away.  He’s just singing the poem.  I found another way to go with the song immediately.”

  Bettye’s driving rendition of Seeing the Real You at Last doesn’t significantly differ from Bob’s rocky original in 1985.  “We had recorded that in hope of getting a duet.  I tried to make it as poppy and familiar, so that I wouldn’t be souling out or trying to oversing anybody.  I wanted it to be straight forward.  Then we couldn’t get the person to do it and we had already done the track, so we had to go back and punch the track up a little bit.”

  Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind was actually recorded in 1964 but released only in 1991.  Besides Bob, also Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and Rod Stewart have recorded the song.  Bettye’s beautiful and simple tribute has a touch of country to it with just Larry Campbell on guitar. steel guitar and Leon Pandarvis on piano.  “Bob is talking about a woman he spent the night with.  I’m talking about my mother.  I just heard it completely different.  Here again, the way that he sang it you wouldn’t think this person had been on his mind, because he doesn’t put any tenderness in it and he won’t take any blame for anything in the relationship.  But the song just struck me immediately, and when Leon Pandarvis came and sat down at the piano with me, he made me cry.”

  Ain’t Talkin’ (2006) is a close to mid-tempo, gruel and pessimistic song that one critic aptly called “mysterious blues-noir.”  Bettye turns it around and makes it an almost classical chamber music piece.  They use the Firey String Company – Nioka Workman on cello and Charisa Dowe-Rouse, Rose Bartu and Ina Paris on violins – plus Gil Goldstein on organ, electric harpsichord and accordion.  “It sounds scary to me.  It’s like a picture of walking in the dark and not saying anything.  It just sounded like a scene out of a horror movie to me.  I said I wanted to hear these strings... and here come these young ladies with all these violins.  The young ladies did the arrangement for me like overnight, and everybody was just so pleased the way it turned out.”

Studio pic by Kevin Kiley


  A most familiar folk song from 1964, The Times They Are A-Changin’, is transformed into an almost unrecognizable swamp-rock beater.  “I said ‘you have to give me some heavy, heavy drugs so that I don’t know I’m singing this or you have to hide it from me completely.’  But we found a groove at rehearsal.  Steve played on something like a beat-box.  When we let the other musicians hear the groove, they all found the place to go in the groove.  I said ‘there we go.’  Nobody recognizes it.  Even Bob’s manager didn’t recognize it, and that’s the fun part to me.”  This is another track that belongs to the list of Bettye’s favourites on the set.

  Bob recorded an ominous slow-to-mid-tempo folk song called What Was It You Wanted in 1989, and Willie Nelson covered it four years later.  The same tempo is maintained in Bettye’s delivery, and Trombone Shorty makes a guest appearance.  “It struck me really sassy – coming from a woman.  Here again I was able to do a lot of things that Bob couldn’t do.  I was able to make it kind of sexy, whereas he just had to go straight forward with it.  I thought of it jazzy and I have no idea why I heard trombones.  I wanted it to be cool.”  Ivan Neville is on clavinet, and the track is Bettye’s third favourite on the CD.


  Soul music fans hardly remember Bob’s original recording of Emotionally Yours in 1985, but this love song came alive and amazed everybody, when the O’Jays’ released their glorious gospel-infused performance in 1991.  Bettye’s interpretation is also slow and intense, and the song keeps growing towards the end.  “I don’t want to hear anyone’s rendition before recording.  First I write the words down on the paper, then with the keyboard player I get the melody in my head, but I don’t want anybody to do it.”  On this track Larry is on mandolin and Gil on harmonium.

  Things heat up on Do Right to Me Baby (Do unto Others), which was born as a mid-tempo folk rocker in 1979.  “We were going for rock.  When it came on, my grandson said ‘I love that grandma.’  So we were going for my grandson’s ear, and we got it.  That was another one we thought to do a duet on.  I might have done both of those tunes – Seeing the Real You at Last and this – maybe different, if I knew I was going to do them by myself.”

  Going, Going, Gone is the closing song on the set, and Bob recorded it in 1974 as a slow, acoustic folk song.  Bettye’s version sounds like a country-tinged, desolate soundtrack tune in a wistful Western movie.  “I love that sound.  I love what Larry played on steel guitar.  Generally it was at least a month, before I started working on learning these words, because I listened to the tracks.  I enjoyed the tracks so much that I wasn’t even listening to the singing.”

  Bob Dylan is not a man of few words.  “I started working on the words, and now I’m panicking, because I’m thinking that I’m not able to remember them all.  After I’ve learned the melody I record off papers, because if there are too many words in my head they just don’t come out.  My sugar turns to shit.  So I’m just finalizing learning the words right now to make sure I know enough of them to make through the show.  I took a lot of words out and some verses out, and they’re still long.”

  “I am excited about this CD.  I was telling Danny Bennett (CEO of Verve) that it’s very hard to excite an old woman... still I’m excited (laughing).  When I go up on stage, I’m telling the audience ‘I am the oldest living entertainer with a brand new record contract.’  I’m just overwhelmed!”

(Interview conducted on January 20, 2018; acknowledgements to Bettye, Kevin Kiley and Jamie Krents).

© Heikki Suosalo

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