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At 72, ‘Things Have Changed’ marvelously for R&B legend Bettye LaVette

Bettye LaVette | Mark Seliger / Verve Records

“I’m proud to be the oldest person in show business with a new record contract right now,” says Bettye LaVette. At 72 years young, the iconic smoky-lipped rhythm and blues singer has been in the midst of a career rebirth the past 15 years, at a time when many other contemporaries are releasing near-daily announcements about their retirements.

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Her latest, “Things Have Changed,” marks LaVette’s debut for Verve/Universal Records — her first major label deal in 36 years — and has the singer’s stamp on new interpretations of Bob Dylan’s songbook, starting with a brooding blues version of the title track and cascading through a soulful confessional on “It Ain’t Me Babe” and the rhythmic exploration of “The Times They Are A-Chagin’” all bound together by LaVette’s raspy, emotional bellow that has so much life behind it, you’d think it has a heartbeat of its own.

“I actually worked harder on this [album] than anything I have ever done. I had to change genders and change so many words, and then take what was left and make it fit naturally into my mouth,” LaVette admits. She’s on the phone in a Detroit hotel room, getting ready for her new tour. It’s the city she still refers to “as the scene of the crime” where, as her great 2012 biography A Woman Like Me explains, a young Betty Jo Haskins was born, growing up with a jukebox in her living room and regular visits from The Soul Stirrers, Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and other traveling gospel groups.

LaVette remembers being kicked out of her school’s talent show in the fifth grade for wanting to do songs her own way, and by 16 she recorded her first single with Detroit producer Johnnie Mae Matthews. “My Man – He’s a Loving Man” was distributed by Atlantic in 1962 and became a Top 10 hit leading to tours with Otis Redding and, later, The James Brown Revue. But success wouldn’t come easy for LaVette. Though she continued to record the next 20 years, including at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and with her hometown label Motown Records, most works failed to chart and contracts and tours were canceled. By the ‘90s she was playing local gigs around Detroit. “I remember one time I was working in a Chinese restaurant,” LaVette recalls. “And this woman says, ‘Aren’t you Bettye LaVette?’ and I replied, ‘I used to be.’”

“I actually worked harder on this [album] than anything I have ever done. I had to change genders and change so many words, and then take what was left and make it fit naturally into my mouth,” says Bettye LaVette, about reinterpreting the Bob Dylan songbook for “Things Have Changed.” | Mark Seliger / Verve Records

LaVette never gave up though. “My manager told me early on if I learned a lot of songs and sing them real good I could work for the rest of my life, and I have. You have to look at it as a life’s work. So when they did decide to call I was completely ready. Completely old, but completely ready.”

Her “comeback” — she hates that word — is a culmination of several factors including a series of reissues at the turn of the 21st Century on Dutch and French labels after record collectors “discovered I wasn’t dead yet,” jokes LaVette, as well as a growing soul revival that made her the topic of much conversation within online communities. While LaVette has recorded great, Grammy nominated works in the past 15 years like 2015’s Worthy and has received awards from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, many critics have taken most fondly to “Things Have Changed,” calling it her most raw and personal yet.

“The thing about Bob [Dylan] is that he has all these arguments and he goes right up to the ledge, but I want to push you right off. I have been telling people I’ve been finishing his arguments on these songs,” says LaVette who worked with her husband Kevin Kiley, a record and antiques dealer, tasking him with choosing 50 of Dylan’s best songs, which LaVette meticulously went through to find the 12 that ended up on this album, choosing to steer clear of his protest works even though she says she loves politics more than music. “I feel I know so much more about him now. For example I don’t know why people call him a poet – he speaks in prose. It’s so matter of fact.”

LaVette only had one chance to meet Dylan at a blues and jazz festival in Italy years ago where they were both on the bill. “I opened the door to my dressing room and security was standing there and they said no one can come out yet because Mr. Dylan is going on the stage. But you can’t tell me that, and I went out anyway and screamed ‘Hey, Robert Dylan’ and he looked up, came over, took my face in both of his hands and kissed me square in the mouth and walked on stage. I thought either he does that to every woman or he likes something of mine he’s heard.”

Though she still hopes to work or tour with Dylan someday, LaVette had the great tutelage of Dylan’s guitarist Larry Campbell in the studio for “Things Have Changed” as well as producer Steve Jordan (who she calls “the bonafide Bettye whisperer”). The album also features guest stars Trombone Shorty and Keith Richards.

“Keith and I agreed that if we had known each other 30 years ago we would have gotten into some serious trouble,” she says, laughing. “But I’m so grateful to him and of being able to meet my contemporaries and having the opportunities I have now.”

LaVette recalls recently walking into Verve Records — the long-time home of incredible jazz artists — and seeing her face on a large billboard in the offices right next to Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong.

“You should have heard me screaming in the lobby,” she says. “To know that Verve is looking at me as legendary instead of just some old soul singer. I’m in a real good place now.”

Selena Fragassi is a Chicago-based freelance writer.