In the wake of the release of her new album, Worthy (Cherry Red), singer Bettye LaVette played a residency at the Café Carlyle in New York City, kicking off a four-month promotional tour, with stops in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, and Amsterdam. That's an extensive outing for a woman who turns 70 this year. And yet, the Detroit native, who sounds better than ever, certainly seems up for the task. On Worthy, she again works with ace 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 (Anti-).
"We had always said we were going to do another [record]," she says when asked about what made her want to record again with Henry. "I wanted to do his tune 'Stop' for 10 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 LaVette and Henry saw each other last year at Carnegie Hall, they discussed doing an album together.
"He had just left Anti- records, and I had just left Anti-," says LaVette, who also co-produced the album. "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."
Here is LaVette's track-by-track take on the album, which is out on CD, vinyl, and as a "Deluxe Edition" containing both the CD and a live DVD of her June 2014 concert at the Jazz Café in London.
My husband 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 album. 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."
"When I was a Young Girl"
That's another one that I've had forever. I didn't think [the musicians] 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.
"Bless Us All"
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 [the song's writer] Mickey [Newbury] and this is the one I would rather cry to.
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.
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.
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. I don't know if Joe said anything one way or another. I think he thought I was silly. 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"
Yes. My sister was 13 years older than me. Just as I got older and we became best friends, she died. 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, [the band's guitarist] Doyle [Bramhall] 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"
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 Doyle 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. That was the way we approached that one.
The young lady [who wrote the song] is from here. She's a really good guitarist and singer and songwriter. 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 (Anti-, 2012). She was writing songs about being tired of auditioning. I was thinking about being actually old. I changed a lot of the lyrics on that one.
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, "Dammit 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'."