Bettye LaVette Returns to the Scene

 
In 22 years of playing in bands and a lifetime of being obsessed with music and art, I've never heard anything like it. Witnessing it's recording - stripped bare to just piano, bass and a slight hint of pedal steel and that voice, that terrifying and magnificent voice - shook all of us to our cores and continues to every time I hear it played. I may be prouder of those four and a half minutes than anything I've ever been involved with.

-Patterson Hood on "Talking Old Soldiers" off Scene of the Crime

 
Photo of LaVette and Hood by Kevin Kiley

Hood was determined to write one song with LaVette, but she would have none of it, saying, "Patterson, everybody can't write. Maybe you can write, but everybody can't write." Hood is not one to give up easily. "I set out to co-write at least one song with Bettye and from the first day began writing down little things I would hear her say in the studio," explains Hood. "Bettye is a walking encyclopedia of amazing stories and great sayings and soon I was attempting to capture that defiant voice in a song that would somehow sum up her story. Finally, after a particularly good day of recording, I played her the song I had written and was shocked and amazed when she agreed to record it. She then took my finished song and completely reworked it - don't tell me you're not a writer! - and the result is 'The Battle of Bettye LaVette,' which we recorded shortly before finishing the album."

Bettye LaVette
LaVette's version of this varies slightly. "He brought me the song, and I didn't like it," she says, laughing. "He took the one line that I told him that my mother said – 'Close shooting don't kill no birds' - and he said, 'Just the things you been saying to me this week, just write some of those down.' He was so mad at me [laughs]. He said, 'Well, write the damn song yourself.' He was sitting up in the control room. I was sitting on the floor. I was just determined to write the song. Since I was writing about something I knew, all I really had to do was connect it together. I knew what happened; I knew what I wanted to say and most of the things that he wrote I had said in conversation. He was talking about David Ruffin being one of the voices that he really liked from that whole era and I said, 'Shit, I knew David Ruffin when he was sober.' It wasn't really writing. I just had to connect the dots. Patterson told me, 'You can't write, but you can connect.'"

Whatever the process, Hood got his desired result - an instant classic. While the song is the most up-tempo on the album, LaVette and Hood agree that the album's tour-de-force and true gravitational center is the old Elton John song "Talking Old Soldiers."

"The song, a strange oddity of a track in it's original form, is transformed by Bettye into both a defiant statement of her survival and an exorcism of the demons brought on by years of mistreatment and indifference from a musical industry that prefers cookie-cutter formulas to artistic genius," observes Hood. "To call it one of the most profound performances in the history of soul music is an understatement. In 22 years of playing in bands and a lifetime of being obsessed with music and art, I've never heard anything like it. Witnessing it's recording - stripped bare to just piano, bass and a slight hint of pedal steel and that voice, that terrifying and magnificent voice - shook all of us to our cores and continues to every time I hear it played. I may be prouder of those four and a half minutes than anything I've ever been involved with."

LaVette is able to identify with the song because, in many ways, it's her story. "I was in Detroit last week at this bar that I'm modeling the 'Old Soldiers' song after. It's called the Locker Room. Just to be able to go there and buy everyone a drink for the first time - and I've hung there for 15 or 16 years - is wonderful," says LaVette. "Everybody knew me there. Sometimes a stranger would come in and say, 'Didn't you used to sing?' Or they would ask me sometimes, 'Didn't you used to be Bettye LaVette?' I'd say, 'I'm still singing. I just don't have a job!'"

I asked Bettye about the memories conjured to the surface by this song, and for the first time in our conversation she was at a loss for words, simply saying, "'Talking Old Soldiers' says it all."

These days there's so much going on
I don't think nobody really wants to know
I may be just an old has-been to some
But I know how it feels to grow old

The Sweet Sound of Success

Bettye LaVette by Elizabeth Fladung
LaVette doesn't think of her recent success as revenge on a music industry that did her wrong. She's just happy to be able to give back to the people that have helped her along the way.

"I've been singing 46 years, and I haven't been able to do anything for my friends and family," laments LaVette. "I certainly hope I'll finally be able to make some money, but if I don't make any more than I'm making right now I will have finally at last had my picture on the cover of the hometown newspaper, been able to send my grandchildren an allowance and that will be good."

"I can stand on heels as high as Beyonce's and fit into a size six and sing harder than most of all my contemporaries and many of the youth. This is very, very good for me. If I do it but another week, it's very good."

By not only surviving but thriving and staying true to herself and the mojo of soul music, Bettye LaVette sounds just as good in 2007 as any singer out there. Scene of The Crime is a remarkable album from a special lady.

"It's been so long now. So many people who have been with me for so many years now have a little power now of their own and they can do things, and it's making it more viable and more feasible for them to do it, because they know whatever they do has a better chance of selling," she comments. "So, everybody is doing everything to try and bring me to the people, and I'm so grateful. I am just so grateful."

Patterson Hood, the newest member of LaVette's entourage reflects on the new album and the importance of making it.

"It's 35 years after Bettye first came to Muscle Shoals to make the record that somehow did define her career, and she has returned to the scene of the crime to take it to another level. We all learned some things about ourselves and made an album that transcends any genre. I am eternally proud and thankful that I was able to be there as a witness and participant. Next time I visit home, I plan to take a photo of Bettye for Swampers to hang on their wall."

JamBase | Alabama
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http://www.bettyelavette.com/

[Published on: 10/9/07]

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Comments

HoodooVoodoo Tue 10/9/2007 09:25PM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

HoodooVoodoo

Was this the lasy on that sitcom called "227" back in the day?

debora starstarstarstarstar Tue 10/9/2007 10:13PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Perseverance pays off... great to be reminded of this truth. Congrats to Bettye and to those who believed in her talents. Thanks for the thorough story... she deserves the recognition....

onearmguitarist starstarstarstarstar Wed 10/10/2007 09:31AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

onearmguitarist

This is a great story! The last two albums have been nothing short of great. I saw her this summer on a double bill with Mavis staples in a botanical Garden, I did not expect that much and left absolutely blown away! Buy her records and if she comes to your town go see her show. You wont be diddapointed. Rock on Bettye!

O.P. starstarstarstarstar Wed 10/10/2007 12:32PM
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What can one say about Bettye LaVette? During the '70s, at every party, I'd make tapes for dancing -- LaVette was always on those tapes. Not a party went by without someone asking, "who's that singing?" I'd say "Bettye LaVette." "Where can I get her records?" I kept checking the record stores -- nothing. Suddenly, she was back! Welcome home, Bettye and I know that you are enjoying this sweet to win.

mhc10 Thu 10/11/2007 03:19AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

This is a killer album, however I watched an interview with her on the Drive By Truckers website and she seem to be an ego maniac Diva, who is finally given her day. It really turned me off about her.

canoftunapudding Thu 10/11/2007 10:09AM
-1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

she is way too old to be naked