Bettye LaVette Returns to the Scene

When I hear a song, I know whether it applies to what I want to sing. It's like choosing someone that you want to go to bed with. That's why no one can choose a song and give it to me. It would be like choosing someone for me to go to bed with.

-Bettye LaVette

Photo by Elizabeth Fladung

In retrospect, looking at those pictures might have been the perfect catalyst for The Scene of The Crime.

"It's so different now," LaVette says. "I was telling my husband that I don't know how I would be able to maintain the passion and the sadness of all the things that inspired all the songs that I've done over the years because my heart and my soul is in such a settled place right now. I'm just so completely satisfied with the way everything has turned out."

Bettye LaVette & Drive-By Truckers by Kevin Kiley
Recording began the next day. Longtime DBT producer David Barbe and Hood would handle the production, while a combination of Drive-By Truckers and several Muscle Shoals veterans would provide musical backing. Spooner Oldham was hired to play Wurlitzer and piano on the whole record and just like 1972, David Hood would play bass on several songs. Patterson recalls the freewheeling nature of the sessions, saying, "I had an overall list of songs and a basic time frame outline but otherwise everything was up for reinterpretation. We had learned the basic structures of the songs themselves but everything else was up for reinvention and reworking."

Hood says that as the sessions got underway "word seemed to spread across the music community about what we were up to and soon more and more of the original Muscle Shoals players began to show up to check it out or pay respects. Veteran session legends Jimmy Johnson and Roger Hawkins both came by to listen to what we were up to. Bettye hadn't seen either one of them in 35 years but soon they were catching up on old times like dear old friends. Rick Hall, who founded and still owns FAME came by almost daily, and was both encouraging and a source of great old stories. One night after a session, Bettye ended up hanging with Kelvin Holley, who plays with Little Richard and The Decoys, which also features my dad on bass. The next day he was there strapping on a guitar and playing on a song."

Beyond the great players, stories and food, the real highlight of making this record happened whenever LaVette sang.

Bettye LaVette
"David set her up with a microphone in a booth in the hopes of capturing good live takes during tracking. A safe majority of the album's vocals came from what would normally be the scratch track," Hood says. "On the final day of recording we set aside plenty of time to redo anything that needed it and she ended up knocking all of that out in about two hours. This was my favorite part of the entire project, as I wasn't busy doing anything else and could watch a master at work. She would prepare for a take the way I picture De Niro getting into character for a film. It occurred to me that Bettye was very much a method actor and her attention to every minute detail of a lyric is nothing less than astounding."

LaVette enjoys performing much more than the recording process, and downplays the experience. "It was nothing exceptional. It was recording," she comments. "For me it was no unique experience. The only unique thing was that I recorded with his father 35 years ago. Recording is not one of my favorite things to do. I try to do it as quickly as I can, and most younger people today try to make it take as long as it can possibly take."

LaVette says she bonded with Patterson Hood during the sessions. "My daughter is Patterson's age. It was kind of like being with her," she says. "He gave me just as much trouble. He probably thinks I'm a mean, mean old woman – just like she does [laughs]."

Hood adds, "The days we spent together in Muscle Shoals are a bit of a blur but the following anecdote stands out. It was Saturday afternoon and we had just recorded Ray Charles' 'Call It Love' and were about to try a take of Willie Nelson's 'Pick Up My Piece.' She and I had just disagreed about something or another and I had settled in the assistant chair next to David, who was engineering the session. The song began and a hush filled the control room as we all realized we were hearing something very incredible coming through the monitor. All of us sat there stunned, listening to the take play live [exactly what you will hear on the record]. After the jaw-dropping performance, Bettye came bounding into the control room listing all of the things that were wrong to her about the completed take. Barbe, cool as a cucumber, didn't say a word and motioned for me to do the same. He just pushed play and let the take fill the room. By the time it was over Bettye was in tears - and she wasn't alone - and everyone agreed that something magical had just occurred."

LaVette recalls, "I only do things for a few takes. I don't sing things over and over and over. I don't do that. I know how I want to sing the song, and much to my gratitude and the graciousness of the Truckers, they realized right away that I wasn't going to change anything. So, they adjusted to what I was doing and I'm so grateful to them for doing that. I think they sound totally different and I think they sounded just the way I needed them to sound for this thing and I'm just grateful to them for that because being as old as I am I don't know how far I could bend."

Continue reading for more on Bettye LaVette...

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