Posted February 3, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Bettye LaVette: More than worthy

Bettye LaVette photo by Carol Friedman
Bettye LaVette photo by Carol Friedman

In the wake of the release of her new album, Worthy, singer Bettye LaVette played a residency at the Café Carlyle in New York City. The residency kicks off a four-month promotional tour of North America, the UK, and Europe, including stops in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London and Amsterdam. It’s an extensive outing for a woman who turns 70 this year. And yet, LaVette, who looks and sounds better than ever, certainly seems up for the task. She’s happy with Worthy, another album that pairs her with producer Joe Henry (Aimee Mann, Billy Bragg, Bruce Cockburn), with whom she also worked on 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. She phoned us from her New Jersey home to talk about the album, which will be released on CD, vinyl and as a “Deluxe Edition” containing both the CD and a live DVD of Bettye’s June 2014 concert at the Jazz Café in London.

What made you reconnect with producer Joe Henry?
We had always said we were going to do another one. I wanted to do his tune “Stop” for ten years. But for the first recording, the record label wanted it to be all women. I thought I would do it on the next one. For the next one, they wanted me to be with a young contemporary band. The next one after that was a British thing so there was no need to include it on that one. Then, I had a young contemporary producer who didn’t want to do it. When we saw each other last year at this time we were at Carnegie Hall together. We always wanted to do this. He had just left Anti- and I had just left Anti-. I said, “Do you want to do this?” He said, “Yes.” We just hoped somebody would like it. We do know this, though. We know that every major label in America is run by someone who loves my records and bought them all in the ’60s but wouldn’t sign me. They told me that and I believe them.

The Dylan song “Unbelievable” appeared on his Under the Red Sky record. The album was largely considered a disappointment. How’d you come across the tune?
My husband hunts these songs down for me. He just likes music and hunts songs down. We’ve been married for almost 12 years, so he knows what I’m listening to and what makes a song hold up for me. If he hears something he doesn’t care for but he thinks I might like, he puts it into my folder. We have a folder of country western songs, a folder of contemporary songs, a folder of George Jones’ songs, a folder of Ray Charles’ songs and a folder of American standards, which brought on the interpretations thing. I had been working on an American standards. After Rod Stewart did his, I said, “Ok, let’s do ours.” We chose this song seven years ago but nobody wanted to do it. Everybody hears the record but they don’t hear what I want to do with it. That’s how being co-producer helps. I can’t play nothing. I ain’t never wrote nothing. I don’t even like producing and listening to stuff over and over again. The only way I can keep you from stopping me from doing what I want to do is by being co-producer. I use my co-producing rights as a weapon. I say, “No. We ain’t going to do that.” Or, “Yes, we are going to do this.” I don’t bring to the production what Joe Henry brings to it. But he helps me explain it to the musicians because I just explain it in gibberish. Joe explains it. Nobody wanted me to record it until now. I’m so tired of waiting on things like this.

How’d you come across the Savoy Brown tune “When I was a Young Girl”?That’s another one that I’ve had forever. Nobody wanted me to do it. It was the musicians’ favorite tune on this album. I didn’t think they would like it. It just seemed lazy and sleepy to me and I thought they’d think they were just going round and round.  We got to doing it and they loved it.

And Mickey Newbury’s “Bless Us All” is decades old.
My husband has these fits. Somebody will die and ad nauseam we have to listen to everything they’ve ever done for all their days on earth until he gets it all. He’s a record dealer and collector. He found these songs. About 15 of them that were just alike. I picked this one. My husband is Irish and he and I cry about everything. We all cried about Mickey and this is the one I would rather cry to.

Tell me more about “Stop.” It’s so jazzy.
It’s a tango and tangos are sexy. They wouldn’t let me record it over. I was joking with Joe outside the recording booth. I was joking with him and put on a tango voice. I don’t know how I would have really sung that song.

Talk about your connection to the theme of “Undamned.” The song goes something like, “I’m trying to get my world undamned.”
Do you know about my career? Then, what else is there to say? This is what I would have liked to written but I can’t write. That’s all I can say.

“Complicated” has great organ riff and so much swagger.
Ever since the first time I heard it, I thought it was the silliest song. There’s so much going on that’s so nonsensical. We kept it around. I kept coming back to it. I don’t know if Joe said anything one way or another. I think he thought I was silly. When I told the musicians I wanted it to be exactly as silly as it is but silly for me. I wanted it to be as silly as I get. The whole time I was laughing. They took that whole thing and went with it. I’m telling you that I was cracking up. You do the stupid dance with your fingers to your eyes, they were doing that. I also enjoyed writing the lyrics in the first person.

“Where a Life Goes” is a song connected to your sister.
Yes. My sister was 13 years older than me. She always had husbands who never went anywhere or did anything. Just as I got older and we became best friends, she died. We talked so much together. We became so close. I said this [song] would be about the things that I would ask about. I told the guys I didn’t want them to play anything sad. I wanted it to be an up thing. I didn’t want any organ or cloudy music. We did it and the first time around, everyone knew what I wanted them to do. Later, Doyle told me to go outside and when “you come back, I have a surprise for you.” I came back and he had played the solo.

“Just Between You and Me and the Wall, You’re a Fool” is a very emotional number.
That’s one I’ve had forever. When I was doing the Scene of the Crime with the Drive-By Truckers, Russell Smith of the Amazing Rhythm Aces came and said someday somebody will record it. That’s I don’t know how long ago. Two more albums came and nobody would let me do it.  I told the band that this here is organ driven but I told them I don’t like organs. White people like them but it reminds black people of funerals. I told [guitarist] Doyle [Bramhall] that one of my favorite guitar players is Wayne Bennett with Bobby Bland’s band. I told him that I wanted it to sound like “Stormy Monday” and I wanted it to sound like a $50-a -night gig. I don’t want it to sound like you made any money at all. That was the way we approached that one.

In “Step Away,” it sounds like you connect to the song’s theme.
The young lady is from here. She’s a really good guitarist and singer and songwriter. She is in the middle of her career. She thinks it’s over. I keep taking her songs and putting a little bit of old into them and a little bit of attitude into them. I tell her to stand up and sing. If I could write and play an instrument, I’d kill everybody. I did one of her tunes on my last CD, Thankful N’ Thoughtful. She was writing the songs about being tired of auditioning and sending out tapes. I was thinking about being actually old. I changed a lot of the lyrics on that one.

Talk about the title track.
With “Worthy,” it all came to me. I wanted the title to be Worthy. I wanted to do the tune. I didn’t want to be on the cover. I wanted the word small on the cover. The line in it is “worthy, worthy, what a thing to claim.” I waited 50 years to sing “I Did It My Way.” I told my manager I was too young to sing that song. I sang it in Central Park a few years ago. I’m almost 70 and I don’t have any money and people keep telling me how wonderful I am. I want to say it, “Damn it in your face.” I didn’t want a lot of instruments. I didn’t want any choir. I just wanted to make that statement. I didn’t want to go around and around at the end. I just wanted it to end. Like the kids say, “I’m just sayin’.”

Upcoming 2015 Tour Dates

Feb 3

Feb 4

Feb 5

Feb 6

Feb 7

Feb 12

Feb 14

Feb 17

Feb 19

Feb 20

Feb 21

Feb 24

Feb 25

Feb 27

Feb 28

March 4

March 5

March 6

March 7

March 17

March 18

March 20

March 22

March 30

March 31

April 2

April 16

The Carlyle – New York, NY

The Carlyle – New York, NY

The Carlyle – New York, NY

The Carlyle – New York, NY

The Carlyle – New York, NY

Music Box Supper Club – Cleveland, OH

Flato Markham Theatre – Markham, ON

Neat Cafe/Schoolhouse Stage – Burnstown, ON

Grand Theatre – Kingston, ON

Sean O’Sullivan Theatre – St. Catharines, ON

Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts – Oakville, ON

The Barns at Wolf Trap – Vienna, VA

World Cafe Live – Philadelphia, PA

Infinity Music Hall – Hartford, CT

Regattabar – Cambridge, MA

Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine University – Malibu, CA

Yoshi’s – Oakland, CA

Crest Theatre – Sacramento, CA

McNears Mystic Theatre – Petaluma, CA

Paradiso – Amsterdam, NL

De Roma – Antwerp, Belgium

Uppsala Konsert & Kongress – Uppsala, Sweden

Palladium – Malmo, Sweden

Jazz Café – London, UK

Cafe de la Danse – Paris, France

Le Plan Ris – Orangis, France

The Dakota – Minneapols, MN


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at