Bettye LaVette Re-Imagines 'The British Rock Songbook' The soul singer has performed on Broadway, been nominated for a Grammy and sung for President Obama. On her latest album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, LaVette tackles songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Pink Floyd and Elton John.
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Bettye LaVette Re-Imagines 'The British Rock Songbook'

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Bettye LaVette Re-Imagines 'The British Rock Songbook'

Bettye LaVette Re-Imagines 'The British Rock Songbook'

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(Soundbite of song)

Ms. BETTYE LAVETTE (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible)...


Bettye LaVette has had a career that's spanned nearly half of a century, and she's only getting better, and better known.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) In the beginning, I was misunderstood, but now I've got it, the word is good...

SIMON: Her voice and her way with a song has been called soulful, emotive and -can we say this over breakfast - sexy. She's sung on Broadway, she's been nominated for a Grammy, she's performed for President Obama, and on her latest album, Bettye LaVette reinterprets songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Sir Elton John. It's called "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook."

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) The word is the word they called love. It's the word, the word they call love...

SIMON: Bettye LaVette joins us in our studio. So good to have you with us.

Ms. LAVETTE: Hi, Scott. It's so good to be here with you, baby.

SIMON: Thanks very much.

Ms. LAVETTE: Especially the pants.

SIMON: Especially the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I'm wearing a pair of pinstriped pants, which will be lost on our -maybe our audience, is very discerning, can tell by my voice.

Ms. LAVETTE: (Unintelligible)

SIMON: They claim to be able to recognize all kinds of things.

I want to talk about your voice, okay? What an extraordinary instrument your voice is. Now, who, let me see - where is the quote from? Wait, the quote came from you - you're more Wilson Pickett than Dionne Warwick?

Ms. LAVETTE: No, I think that's probably true, and as I've gotten older, I'm actually am even more Wilson Pickett, because my voice has gotten stronger, fortunately. I think that when my first recording was released in 1962, being 16 years old, having a record called "My Man," people didn't know exactly what to do with me. I was cute, I was little, I was young.

SIMON: We conveniently have a copy of "My Man."

Ms. LAVETTE: Stop it.

SIMON: We do, yeah.

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, at the time I sounded like Minnie Mouse.

SIMON: Well, we'll be the judge of that, okay? Let's listen to Minnie Mouse -Bettye LaVette.


SIMON: We haven't heard it yet. Let me try it, "My Man."

(Soundbite of song, "My Man")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) My man, he's a whole lot of man. Friends try to tell me, I'm a do my own thing. He let's them know that he's a one-woman man. My man, oh, he's a loving man...

SIMON: You did not sound like Minnie Mouse.

Ms. LAVETTE: A suggestive Minnie Mouse.

SIMON: A suggestive Minnie Mouse. Minnie Mouse never sounded like that. When did you first realize that you had a voice that could fill up a place and reach people?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh no, Scott, it was not a realization. Is was a manager called Jim Lewis, whom I was fortunate enough to acquire in 1967. Jim Lewis immediately told me you're really cute, but this little stuff is not going to work. And I was like: But I have a record in the charts. He said but it's not a very good record and it's not going to sustain you for 50 years. You will either have to keep selling them or you'll have to learn to be a good entertainer. And that was what he trained me to be, a very good entertainer.

So when I record now, I don't imagine them being big records, I imagine myself singing them onstage.

SIMON: Let's play a little bit of a song from this new album. And this is your cover of the Rolling Stones' "Salt of the Earth."

(Soundbite of song, "Salt of the Earth")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) I want to drink to the hardworking people, let's drink to the lowly of birth. I wanna raise my glass to the good and the evil. Let's drink to the salt of the earth...

SIMON: This is music, as a young woman in Detroit, that you did not grow up with, right?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh no, I started in 1962, Scott, and there was black radio and white radio. And while these artists from Britain especially were aspiring to be black artists, or do - cover that music...

SIMON: They loved the music.

Ms. LAVETTE: They loved the music.

SIMON: They heard it over there and loved it.

Ms. LAVETTE: We never heard it on black radio and they never heard us on white radio. It was a completely segregated thing.

(Soundbite of song, "Salt of the Earth")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) When I look into the faceless crowd, swirling mass of grays, black and white. They don't even look real to me. In fact, they look so strange. Oh, let's...

SIMON: The Brit rock musicians were sometimes accused of stealing the music of African-Americans and, you know, making, in some cases, obviously, a lot of money with it. As you heard these songs, was there more to their imitation being the sincerest form of flattery than that? Did they bring sometimes special to these songs?

Ms. LAVETTE: That's a funny question, because if it had not been for these people, many of these songs would never have been heard. I think it's more the industry, and I've always said that. So I don't think that any of the Beatles or any of Led Zeppelin or anybody came and said, like, hey, let's steal this song. I think the industry said we'll play this by them and we won't play it by Little Richard.

SIMON: I think B.B. King - he may have even said it on our show, I think he said it a lot over the years - he's always said that, oh my God, he said I love Mick and Keith and Eric. He said I never really made any real money until they started...

Ms. LAVETTE: Absolutely. I mean, I talked to too many broke black artists that I know said, man, if this guy hadn't done my song I would never have made any money, and I hate him. I have not talked to many black artists who have said that.

SIMON: Let's play another clip from a song in this album. Richard Starkey, better known, obviously, as Ringo Starr - I think the biggest hit he ever had as a vocalist, classic British rock, "It Don't Come Easy."

(Soundbite of song, "It Don't Come Easy")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) If you wanna sing the blues, you gotta pay some dues, 'cause it ain't coming easy. You don't have to shout or thrash all about, you can take it real easy. Forget about the past and all your sorrows...

SIMON: Did you ever hear Ringo's version and say underneath all that there's a song I want to do?

Ms. LAVETTE: Well, you know what, it's not underneath all that. When you hear a song that you like, Scott, you go and buy it. When I hear a song I like, I sing it. It's the exact same reaction. It's just that you do what you can do about it and I do what I can do about liking it. And my liking it is singing it. But you hear a groove you like, you hear a melody you like, it stays in your head. And with me, since I don't write or produce or anything, when I hear a melody in my head, I really go back to the original song.

(Soundbite of song, "It Don't Come Easy")

Mr. RINGO STARR (Musician): (Singing) Got to pay your dues if you wanted to, 'cause you know it don't come easy. You don't have to shout or leap about, you can even play that easy. Forget about the past and all your sorrows...

(Soundbite of song, "It Don't Come Easy")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) The future, it won't last, it'll soon be old tomorrow. I don't ask for much, all I want is trust, but I know it don't come easy...

SIMON: Now that you've reinterpreted British rock, what's next? Tuba throat singing?

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, stop it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Okay, I'll mark that down as a no, okay? Or a maybe.

Ms. LAVETTE: You know, we've got to see what's going to happen with this interpretation thing, the British songbook. Hopefully this will be accepted. You know, I'm still fighting you guys. You're one of the good guys, but I've still got this other group I got to fight who, like, how dare you do a Led Zeppelin song?

SIMON: Well, I invite them to listen for themselves. Bettye, so nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. LAVETTE: Oh, it's so nice to talk to you, Scott. Thanks for talking to me.

(Soundbite of song, "All My Love")

Ms. LAVETTE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) got it straight, my hand is to the loom. Is this the end or just the beginning? All of my love, all of my love, all of my love to you. All of my love...

SIMON: You can hear Bettye LaVette's album streaming in its entirety, watch a video of her performing "It Don't Come Easy" in our offices at

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