What I’ve Been Listening to: Bettye LaVette/Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook

One thing I love about music blogging is how much I learn about artists I didn’t know or only had heard of by name. Oftentimes, I find myself stepping through one door only to find many others I’ve yet to open. Frankly, I probably would have run out of ideas a long time ago, if it were any different! Plus, I’d get bored if I only wrote about music and artists I know.

The latest example is Bettye LaVette, a versatile vocalist who has been active since 1962. I included her in two previous posts, most recently on Saturday in a piece about artists who have covered songs by The Rolling Stones. LaVette’s great rendition of Salt of the Earth led me to take a closer look at the album that includes her version of the tune. I was quickly intrigued by what else I found on Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which was released in May 2010. Her soulful, at times somewhat fragile voice reminds me a bit of Tina Turner and is right up my alley.

Bettye LaVette - Soulful Detroit

While LaVette enjoyed some chart success early in her career, for decades, she was more of a cult figure in soul circles. At least in part that was due to bad luck with record labels. After LaVette recorded what was supposed to become her first full-length album Child of the Seventies, Atlantic Records decided not to move forward with the project, apparently without giving her any explanation. In 1982, Motown’s Lee Young, Sr. signed LaVette to the storied label, which led to the recording of her first released album Tell Me Lie. However, following a corporate shake-up, Young was removed, the label never promoted LaVette’s record, and it failed to chart.

Fast-forward to 2000 when a French collector and label owner called Gilles Petard discovered the tapes for the aforementioned Child of the Seventies album in Atlantic Records’ vaults. He liked what he heard, licensed the tracks and released them under the title Souvenirs in France on his Art & Soul label. Around the same time, Let Me Down Easy – In Concert, a live recording of LaVette in the Netherlands, appeared on the Dutch label Munich. The two near-simultaneous releases created new interest in LaVette as a recording artist and resulted in a contract with label Blues Express.

Bettye LaVette Interview - Blues Matters Magazine

In January 2003, LaVette released A Woman Like Me, only her third full-length studio album. It won the W.C. Handy Award in 2004 for Comeback Blues Album of the Year and the Living Blues critic pick as Best Female Blues Artist of 2004. LaVette’s recording career was finally going somewhere. She has since released eight other studio albums and won additional awards, including a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation (2006), Blues Music Award for Best Contemporary Female Blues Singer (2008), Distinguished Achievement Award from The Detroit Music Society (2015) and Blues Music Award for Best Soul Blues Female Artist from The Blues Foundation (2016). LaVette is also in the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame and has been nominated three times for a Grammy.

LaVette is an unusual artist. According to her website, she is no mere singer. She is not a song writer, nor is she a “cover” artist. She is an interpreter of the highest order. Bettye is one of very few of her contemporaries who were recording during the birth of soul music in the 60s and is still creating vital recordings today. This certainly becomes obvious when listening to Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which brings me back to the album. Let’s get to some intriguing interpretations!

The opener is a funky version of The Word by The Beatles. While the John LennonPaul McCartney co-write, which was included on the Rubber Soul album from December 1965, is barely recognizable, I find LaVette’s take pretty cool. It’s got a bit of a James Brown vibe, and I can almost hear his “uhs” in the background.

How about some Led Zeppelin reimagined? Here’s All My Love, a song I’ve always dug. Co-written by John Paul Jones and Robert Plant, the tune first appeared on Zep’s eighth and final studio album In Through the Out Door released in August 1979. Check this out – damn!

Let’s move on to Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. The title track of their ninth studio album from September 1975 was co-written by David Gilmour and Roger Waters. Who would have thought a Floyd track could ever sound so soulful!

Nights in White Satin is one of my favorite songs by The Moody Blues. Written by Justin Hayward, the track appeared on Days of Future Passed, one of the most beautiful concept albums of the ’60s. Here it is in Bettye LaVette style – amazing!

Let’s do two more. First up is another great funky rendition: Why Does Love Got to be So Sad by Derek and the Dominoes. Co-written by Eric Clapton and Bobby Whitlock, the tune appeared on the band’s sole studio album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs from November 1970. Groovy!

Last but not least, here is the closer Love, Reign O’er Me, a highlight on the album. It captures LaVette’s unedited live performance during the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008 in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, who were among the honorees that year. Townshend wrote the tune for The Who’s sixth studio album Quadrophenia that came out in October 1973. Here’s the actual footage from the Kennedy Center. Messrs. Daltrey and Townshend almost seem to have a Led Zeppelin moment. Check this out. This is friggin’ intense!

Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which appeared on U.S. label Anti-, was co-produced by Rob Mathes, Michael Stevens and LaVette. It reached no. 1 on the U.S. Billboard’s Top Blues Albums, staying in that chart for 39 weeks. The album also enjoyed some mainstream success in the U.S., climbing to no. 56 on the Billboard 200. Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook became one of the three aforementioned Grammy nominations for LaVette.

Thanks to great images on Discogs, I was able to look at the album’s liner notes that reveal some interesting things about LaVette’s approach to interpretations. “I never think of a song as a record,” she is quoted. “I think of songs as songs. I don’t think of a Rolling Stones recording. I think of the Rolling Stones singing this song and now I’m going to sing it. That helps me tremendously…There’s no process of ‘how can I make this different.’ I hear it immediately differently. It’s very hard for another singer to satisfy me. No matter where a singer went with the vocal, if I can think of somewhere else to go, then wherever they went no longer interests me.”

In addition to the vocal approach, LaVette also took artistic freedom with the lyrics, which she changed significantly on a number of songs. “I think the most difficult thing about putting the album together was that many of the words didn’t make sense to me,” she said. “These songs belong to white fans who are now in their fifties…The biggest hang-up was I didn’t want to disrespect them because I knew that there are people who have altars built to many of these songs…When I got into them I realized there were things worth saying but I had to make them things I could sing about.”

So what do some of the artists who wrote the original songs think of LaVette’s renditions? Following are some quotes from a sticker on the CD’s jewel case. Again, I have Discogs to thank for featuring some great images. “A great record. Put me in the Bettye LaVette fan club” (Keith Richards). “Bettye is reinventing and reclaiming a soul singing tradition all at once” (Pete Townshend). “Bettye is blessed with an instantly recognizable voice full of power & emotion” (Steve Winwood). “Bettye has recorded an amazing version of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me'” (Elton John).

Sources: Wikipedia; Discogs; YouTube

It’s Only A Cover But I Like It

The Rolling Stones done by other artists

Cover versions of songs can be intriguing and sometimes even better than the originals. An example of the latter I always come back to is Joe Cocker’s incredible rendition of With a Little Help From My Friends. There are also other great covers of Beatles tunes. Fellow blogger Hanspostcard is currently dedicating an entire series to this topic, titled Under The Covers: Other Artists Covering Beatles Songs. In part, it was his great series that inspired the idea for this post. Since I already wrote about covers of Fab Four tunes, I decided to focus on another of my all time favorite bands: The Rolling Stones.

While I figured it shouldn’t be very difficult to find renditions of Stones tunes by other artists, I only knew a handful of covers and wasn’t sure what else I would find. It turned out that seven of the 10 covers I ended up selecting for this post were new to me. My picks span the Stones’ music from the ’60s and early ’70s, which is I generally feel is their best period. All tunes were written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Let’s get to it.

The Grass Roots/Tell Me

Kicking it off are The Grass Roots, an American rock band that has been around since 1965. Their debut studio album Where Were You When I Needed You from October 1966 featured a few covers including Tell Me, a tune that first appeared on The Rolling Stones’ eponymous debut album in the UK released in April 1964. The U.S. version, which had a slightly different track list, appeared six weeks later.

Mekons/Heart of Stone

In 1988, British post punk rock band Mekons released their seventh studio album So Good It Hurts. It included this nice rendition of Heart of Stone, a Stones tune that first came out in December 1964 as a U.S. single. It also was included on the U.S. and U.K. albums The Rolling Stones, Now! (February 1965) and Out of Our Heads (September 1965), respectively.

The Who/The Last Time

After Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had been busted and imprisoned on drug charges in 1967, their friends The Who went to the studio to record a single intended to help them make bail: The Last Time, backed by Under My Thumb. Even though everything was done in a great rush, by the time the single hit the stores, the Glimmer Twins already had been released. Since John Entwistle was away on his honeymoon, he gave his okay to proceed without him. Pete Townshend ended up overdubbing the bass parts. Initially, The Last Time was the first original The Rolling Stones song released as a single in the UK in February 1965, yielding their third no. 1 hit on the Singles Chart. It came out in the U.S. two weeks later, reaching no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Alexis Korner/Get Off Of My Cloud

Alexis Korner, who has rightfully been called “a founding father of British blues,” had a major influence on the British music scene in the 1960s. His band Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated was a breeding ground for UK musicians who at various times included artists like Jack Bruce, Graham Bond, Ginger Baker, Cyril Davies, as well as then-future Rolling Stones members Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts. Get Off Of My Cloud became the title track of Korner’s 1975 studio album. Originally, the Stones released the song as the follow-on single to (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in September 1965, matching that tune’s previous chart-topping success in the U.S., UK and Germany. Get Off Of My Cloud was also included on the Stones’ fifth U.S. album December’s Children (And Everybody’s) released in December that year.

Melanie/Ruby Tuesday

Ruby Tuesday has been among my favorite Stones tunes for a long time. I also think the cover by American singer-songwriter Melanie is among the most compelling renditions of Stones songs. Melanie’s great version first appeared on her third studio album Candles in the Rain from April 1970 and was also released as a single in December of the same year. The Stones recorded the original for their 1967 studio album Between the Buttons that appeared in January and February that year in the UK and U.S., respectively. The song also became the album’s lead single and another no. 1 hit in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. In the UK, it climbed to no. 3 on the Singles Chart.

Molly Tuttle/She’s a Rainbow

While I’ve featured Molly Tuttle’s version of She’s a Rainbow before, I simply couldn’t resist including it in this post as well. Similar to Ruby Tuesday and Melanie, the tune represents both one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs and one of the greatest renditions I know. Tuttle, an incredibly talented acoustic guitarist, included it on her most recent album …but i’d rather be with you, which came out in August 2020. She’s a Rainbow first appeared on Their Satanic Majesties Request, a studio album the Stones put out in December 1967. Two weeks after its release, it also became the record’s second single.

Bettye LaVette/Salt of the Earth

Here’s another really cool cover: Salt of the Earth by American vocalist Bettye LaVette, who has touched many genres, including soul, blues, rock & roll, funk, gospel and country. She recorded Salt of the Earth for an album titled Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook and released in May 2010. The soul and gospel vibe is perfect for this tune, which the Stones included on their Beggars Banquet album from December 1968.

Larry McCray/Midnight Rambler

Larry McCray is an American blues guitarist and singer, who has been active since the ’80s and released his debut album Ambition in 1990. I had not heard of him before. His cover of Midnight Rambler is included on a Stones tribute album from August 2002, which is called All Blues’d Up: Songs of The Rolling Stones. I haven’t listened to the rest of the album yet, but based on the track list and other participating artists, it surely looks intriguing. The Stones recorded Midnight Rambler for their studio album Let It Bleed that came out in December 1969. According to Wikipedia, Keith Richards has called it “the quintessential Jagger-Richards song.”

Santana/Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (feat. Scott Weiland)

Now we’ve come to Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, a gem from what I consider to be the best Stones album: Sticky Fingers released in April 1971. Carlos Santana covered the tune on his 21st studio album Guitar Heaven from September 2010, a compilation of classic rock covers featuring many guest vocalists: In this case, Scott Weiland, former lead vocalist of Stone Temple Pilots. Weiland who had struggled with addiction and other health issues for many years died in December 2015 from a drug overdose.

The Pointer Sisters/Happy

I’d like to wrap up this post on a happy note, literally, with a great rendition of Happy by The Pointer Sisters. It was included on their sixth studio album Priority, which came out in September 1979 and was their second foray into rock. Their first was predecessor Energy from November 1978, which among others featured one of their biggest hits: Fire, the Bruce Springsteen tune. Originally, Happy appeared on what many Stones fans consider the band’s best album: Exile on Main St. from May 1972. Happy, backed by All Down the Line, also became the record’s second single in July 1972.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

Ladies Singing The Blues And Killing It

A playlist of five outstanding female artists who may not be top of mind when you think of the blues

If somebody asked you who comes to mind when thinking of the blues, you might mention artists like B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton – all terrific choices! What else do they have in common? They are all men! Sure, if you dig the genre, you’ve probably also listened to Etta James, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, and perhaps even to early trailblazers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton. But I bet you likely wouldn’t have included them in your answer to the above question. At least I can safely say that for myself!

Just like in so many other professions, music is yet another field where women oftentimes don’t get the credit they deserve. And it seems to me this is even more so the case for the blues compared to some other genres like jazz where you’d probably name Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone, or soul where you’d likely include Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner when asked the above question.

The idea behind this playlist is fairly simple: Celebrate five female artists who shine at singing the blues. And to make this more interesting, I’m excluding some of the obvious choices like Etta James or Janis Joplin. All of the songs appear on the artists’ most recent albums from this year.

I’d like to give credit where credit is due. All of the artists highlighted in this post were included in an Apple Music blues playlist that was served up to me as a listening suggestion. When some of their names rang a bill, I decided to check the site of blues aficionado and fellow music blogger Music Enthusiast – BTW, a blog I can recommend to any music fan and guitarist! And, yep, he previously included four of the five artists on his blog. So kudos to Apple Music and Music Enthusiast!

I still think this doesn’t change the premise of this post, which is that female blues artists oftentimes don’t get the recognition they deserve. And while I’m under no illusion that this post isn’t coming anywhere close to making up for this unfortunate state of affairs, I guess it’s one post at a time. So with that, let’s finally get to it, shall we?

Kicking off the list is Lindsay Beaver with Too Cold To Cry. She doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry. Maybe somebody should change that. Luckily, she has a website, and according to the bio there, Beaver is a drummer, songwriter and bandleader from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. To date, she has self-released five albums with her band The 24th Street Wailers, of which she produced three. BTW, how many female record producers can you name? Just saying. This could be a good topic for another post. Written by Beaver, Too Cold To Cry appears on her new album Tough As Love, which was only released two weeks ago. As this clip suggests, Beaver seems to be one hell of a firecracker!

Next up: Shemekia Copeland and Ain’t Got Time For Hate. This blues vocalist, who was born in Harlem, New York is the daughter of Texas blues guitarist and singer Johnny Copeland. The tune is from an album called America’s Child, which came out in August. In addition to Copeland’s powerful voice, I dig the timely lyrics: Black and white/Gran or ten/Every woman/Child and man/Rich or poor/Gay or straight/We ain’t got time for hate… Well said!

Another gem is Shine Bright by Marcia Ball. This blues singer and kickass pianist from Vinton, La. has been around for a very long time. How long? How about 1970! Since 1972 she’s released 18 records. Shine Bright is the title track of her most recent album, which appeared in April. Check out this clip, which is actually a stripped back live take of the studio version. I can highly recommend the latter as well. I know this may sound a bit silly, but if you’d meet this lady in the street, unless you knew her, would you ever guess what a smoking hot artist she is – damn!

Danielle Nicole is a blues and soul musician from Kansas City, Mo. Prior to releasing her solo debut Wolf Den in 2015, Nicole co-founded Kansas City soul and blues rock band Trampled Under Foot in 2000 (a nod to Led Zeppelin?) and was their lead vocalist. The band recorded five albums before it dissolved in 2015. Here’s Crawl, a nice blues rocker from Nicole’s third solo record Cry No More from February.

The last outstanding artist I’d like to highlight in this post is Bettye LaVette. This singer-songwriter from Muskegon, Mich. also has been around for a long time. In fact, she recorded her first single My Man – He’s A Lovin’ Man as a 16-year-old in 1962. Things Have Changed is the title track of LaVette’s last studio album from January – a collection of tunes written and originally sung by Bob Dylan. In this case, Dylan first released the song as a single in May 2000. It was part of a soundtrack from a motion picture called Wonder Boys.

Admittedly, I still don’t know much about the above artists. But based on the songs in this post and a few other tunes I’ve sampled from the corresponding albums, it’s obvious to me how top-notch each of them is. You can bet I’m going to further explore them.

Sources: Wikipedia, Lindsay Beaver website, YouTube