The Hungry Voice
J. D. Buhl

Bettye LaVette knows what she’s up against. Recording new, and possibly definitive, versions of a song closely associated with another artist is no easy task. “It took me twenty years to separate ‘Lush Life’ from Johnny Hartman,” she admits. It may take Classic Rock fans just as long to separate “Wish You Were Here” or “All My Love” from Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in order to give Ms. LaVette’s renditions a chance.


LaVette’s 2010 release Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook is a long way from Pat Boone’s In a Metal Mood or Paul Anka’s Rock Swings. Those projects were attempts to recast the singer as an artist with something to say about their chosen material; the original versions were never threatened by such shenanigans. LaVette’s recording, however, is an opportunity to discover whether these songs have something to say to this artist. The work of a well-respected soul and rhythm and blues veteran, Interpretations is a stunning collection of thirteen warhorses, stripped of their armor and bright bunting and laid bare as the flesh-and-blood beasts they are: battered, bruised, bleeding, but somehow up for the fight.

This is an album both market-specific and time-and-placeless, at once respectful and irreverent. “Songs don’t really intimidate me,” she told the Los Angeles Times. She listened to the three hundred her husband Kevin Kiley presented to her—many of which she’d never heard before—with an artist’s ear. “I’m arrogant,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “When I can hear me singing it, that’s when I like a song.” So unlike many attempts at interpretation, she doesn’t come to these numbers as records or as Moments of Greatness to be recreated (think Great White’s “Once Bitten Twice Shy” or Quiet Riot doing Slade); she doesn’t even approach them as a fan of the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. But she does come at them as a black American artist well aware of the debt this music owes to black American artists.

As usual, Pete Townshend says it best. In his foreword to photographer Tom Wright’s Roadwork (2007), The Who guitarist writes:

It is clear now that R&B was vital to the shift in function of postwar pop. From dance music designed as a romantic salve for the walking wounded of various wars, we moved to the irritant teenaged codes of 1960s pop. This new music was partly aimed at that same scarred older generation and suggested that their postwar trauma, horror, and shame—hitherto denied and untreated—had somehow echoed down to us. R&B, mainly performed by American black musicians and including some powerfully rhythmic jazz and the most edgy folk music of the time, was what underpinned British pop music of the 1960s new wave. The combination of complaint, confrontation, and self-healing that was wrapped up in the average R&B song—usually sung by a disgruntled but sanguine older black American—was the right model for my white middle- and working-class British generation too. It changed for the next forty years the purpose and function of pop music itself.

In fact, a disgruntled but sanguine older black American brought Townshend to tears performing Quadrophenia’s “Love Reign O’er Me” as a combination of complaint, confrontation, and self-healing some forty-five years after Townshend’s own appropriation of R&B began, and this was the inspiration for Interpretations. LaVette’s televised performance at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors became the model for other radical reconstructions of tired songs by Classic Rock titans Elton John, Derek & the Dominos, and a few solo Beatles.

It also secured LaVette the sort of critical and commercial acceptance she deserved but that—as she makes achingly clear with Ringo’s first Top Ten hit—don’t come easy. The Muskegon, Michigan-born singer cut her first side as a teenager (“My Man—He’s a Lovin’ Man,” 1962) and went on to make singles for Lupine, Calla, Big Wheel, Karen, Silver Fox, SSS International, TCA, Atco, Epic and West End. After she returned to Atlantic (which had released “Lovin’ Man”), her first album was recorded in the 1970s but never released. She persevered, receiving four stars in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (1983) for Tell Me a Lie on Motown, which Dave Marsh called “the best album of this journeywoman soul singer’s career.” After a successful live-in-Europe CD at the beginning of this decade, she released A Woman Like Me on Blues Express (which garnered a W. C. Handy award) and I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise on Anti-, her current label. It was this Joe Henry-produced album of songs by Fiona Apple, Joan Armatrading, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton, and Lucinda Williams, among others, that set the comeback carpets unrolling and led her to the Kennedy Center stage.

This recent set does not then lift LaVette from the category of “Fairly Obscure R&B Artists” and drop her into that of “Soon-to-be Household Names.” It raises her from merely a great singer to the level of a Susannah McCorkle: that of a great interpreter. McCorkle, the American jazz and pop vocalist who “never recorded a weak album” from the late 1970s to her death in 2001, was critically regarded as the music’s foremost interpreter. She did not improvise on melodies, did not use a song to draw attention to her superfluous voice or complex personality. Instead, as Scott Yanow put it, “she [brought] the proper emotional intensity to the words she [sang]; a lyricist’s dream!” And yet, melodies are enhanced by previously undiscovered subtleties and harmonies; tempos are played with; attention is brought to bear upon the singer as well as the song. At her best (which she often was ranging through her 3,000-song repertoire), McCorkle knew that there is room for the interpreter’s experience, for finding her own reason to sing the piece. But the way is narrow. Finding that space in the then and filling it with just enough now is the interpreter’s art.

Bettye LaVette has become such a dream artist, bringing the proper emotional intensity to the lyrics of songs you know so well, you may not imagine they hold any more emotional possibilities within them.

A healthy auditory imagination is the first freedom compromised by a limited Classic Rock playlist. According to an article in Spin magazine, “If respondents to a phone survey don’t recognize and like a song in seven seconds, it’s not ‘classic,’ and you’ll almost never hear it on [a Classic Rock station].” When LaVette begins singing, it will take you longer than seven seconds to recognize and like some of these songs, because you’ve never heard the lyrics delivered with such intentionality before. It can be liberating to hear a new now within your own then, and artists get this. The Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward told the Los Angeles Times that of the several hundred covers of “Nights in White Satin,” he’d never heard anyone do it better than the original. “But now I’m free in a strange way, because maybe it’s been done at last.”

“No one could tell me what ‘Nights in White Satin’ means,” LaVette explained to The Wall Street Journal; so she found her own reason to sing the piece. Thinking of the difficult relationship between her and her adult daughter, she rose above the song’s vagueness and invested her version with some exact emotions—not Hayward’s, and  not yours perhaps. But LaVette’s experience fills that space, and the song becomes impressive again, full of potential meanings. It all comes down to that repeated “I love you.”

No one could tell me what “Nights in White Satin” means, either. A second freedom quashed by Classic Rock hegemony is historical context. Despite the “classic” status now bestowed upon them, who remembers that the Moodies—once a fine little R&B band themselves—have never received more than three stars from Rolling Stone for any of their albums and that most of their “pretentiousness” has been given two or fewer? Who remembers that in 1975 Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here was considered a dull, annoyingly competent piece of product in light of Dark Side of the Moon, and that reviewer Ben Edmonds could describe its title piece as “the most successful song on the album until the full band makes its grandly faceless entrance, at which point the number immediately nosedives to ho-hum level”?

Hail LaVette the Liberator, whose impassioned delivery of even Roger Waters’s weak lyrics removes another brick from the wall of monolithic nonsense.

One thing true of great interpreters (Rod Stewart and Jacqui Naylor are interesting exceptions) is that they are often not songwriters themselves; they depend upon the words of others for their self-expression. Though a published writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a translator of poetry and song lyrics in several languages, Susannah McCorkle was not a songwriter. She spent her career not only bringing out the subtleties in well-known compositions but searching through the catalog of the songwriters themselves, looking for that under-recorded gem that would allow her the chance to express something from deep within herself. Bettye LaVette has that same hungry voice, but with a more feral, less sophisticated essence; she shares that restlessness that keeps her gleaning the margins of the pop field hoping to find songs that provide lyrical imagery for the pictures only she sees. This time around, Traffic’s “No Time to Live” provides such an opportunity.

Such is the interpreter’s art that LaVette’s seeing and hearing new possibilities in the songs on Interpretations allows listeners to do the same. But such is the complacency of the Classic Rock audience, that it may take some hard looking and listening before these possibilities become real.


If you know what “Nights in White Satin” means, send your cogent argument to jdbuhl@gmail.com.

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