Bettye LaVette is the epitome of perseverance. She cut her first record in 1962 at the age of 16, but it took over 40 years before she received the recognition and respect she deserved. In between, she weathered every injustice that the music business threw at her. But she never gave up, she never stopped working, she never stopped singing… in fact, she just got better. Bettye is more than just a singer; she’s an interpreter who can transform any song into something new & special. On this episode, we focus on a track from her 2007 album The Scene of the Crime, and trace the path that brought her to this album– one of my all-time favorites.
“I Still Want To Be Your Baby (Take Me As I Am)” (Eddie Hinton) Copyright Eddie Hinton Music (BMI)
So let me ask you a question: You have your favorite songs, right? What is it about those songs that you love? What makes those songs so great? Well, these are the questions that we try to answer here on the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast.
I’m your host, Brad Page, and each episode I pick one of my favorite songs and we listen to it together trying to understand what goes into creating a great song. No musical knowledge is required here, we don’t delve into music theory or technical jargon. All you need are your ears and just a little bit of curiosity.
If I had to pick just a handful of women’s voices for my desert island collection, it would have to include Aretha Franklin, of course, Mavis Staples… and Bettye LaVette.
Many people don’t know Bettye LaVette, but she’s one of the greatest vocalists I’ve ever heard. On this episode, we’ll be listening to Bettye and a song called “I Still Want to Be Your Baby.”
The story of Bettye LaVette is a story of perseverance, of determination, and survival. Bettye LaVette was born Bettye Jo Haskins in January 1946. She grew up in Detroit, and when she was 16 years old, she recorded her first single, a song called “My Man He’s A Lovin’ Man” in 1962. It made it to the top 10 on the R&B charts.
Her next couple of singles didn’t do as well, but she made it back onto the R&B charts in 1965 with “Let Me Down Easy.”
She continued to record singles for various small labels. She recorded in Memphis with the Dixie Flyers and the Memphis Horns, and reached number 25 on the R&B charts with a song called “He Made A Woman Out of Me”, despite the fact that it was banned on some stations because it was deemed a little too sexual for some folks. I love this track, though.
They were planning a full album for Bettye, but the deal fell apart due to conflicts between the producer and the label. Bettye picked herself up and managed to sign a deal with Atlantic Records in 1972. She headed down to the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama and finally got to record her first full album with the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
That album was going to be called “Child of the 70s.” It was mastered and prepared for release. There was even a publicity tour scheduled. But at the last minute, the album was shelved. The label called Bettye and said, “We’ve decided not to go forward with this project. Please return your plane tickets.”
You can imagine how devastating that must have been. To this day, nobody really knows why the record was shelved. But Bettye picked herself up again and went back to work.
A few more unsuccessful singles were released. In 1978, she recorded a disco single called “Doin the Best I Can,” which actually became a pretty big disco hit, but Bettye had signed away all of her rights to the song so she didn’t make a penny from it.
She wasn’t going to give up, though. She’d find a way to survive. In 1979, she joined the Broadway cast of “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” and she stayed in that production for four years. She kept recording records here and there all through the 80s and 90s, but none of them got much attention.
Then, a record collector in France had been searching for the master tapes of that 1972 album, “Child of the 70s.” In 1999, he found them. He licensed the recordings from Atlantic and released the album himself. 28 years after it was recorded, Bettye’s first album was finally released. And then people started to pay attention.
Between 2000 and 2006, the crowds grew bigger at Bettye’s shows, the records sold more copies, and the critics raved. Then, in 2007, she returned to the Muscle Shull Studio, now 35 years after her last sessions there to record her next album, and it’s a masterpiece.
Her record label reached out to Patterson Hood and asked him if he was interested in producing Bettye’s album. Patterson is a member of the Drive-by-Truckers, and he’s also the son of David Hood, the bass player from that legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Patterson jumped at the chance to work with Bettye, and he set up the sessions at Muscle Shoals’ Fame Studios.
Patterson lined up a stellar group of musicians, including the rest of the Drive-by-Truckers, along with some of the original Muscle Shoals players. He even got his dad to come in and play on a few tracks.
They called the album “The Scene of the Crime”, acknowledging that she was returning to the place where her ill-fated child of the 70s album was recorded.
The album opens with this song, “I Still Want to Be Your Baby”. And right off the bat, Bettyee establishes who she is with this track. She’s tough, she is who she is, she’ll love you and stick with you through the good times in the bad– but don’t try to change her.
What makes her version all the more interesting is that this song was written by a man, from a man’s perspective. Eddie Hinton wrote this song. He was another one of the legendary players at Fame Studios; he was their go-to lead guitarist. He was also a songwriter.
Eddie Hinton died in 1995 before this album was recorded, so he wasn’t around to play on the record. Otherwise, I bet he would have been there and would have approved wholeheartedly of Bettyee’s interpretation.
The song opens with two guitars, one in the left channel playing a simple riff, the other is in the middle only playing half of the riff an octave lower.
Both guitars are slathered in reverb. This is not fancy digital studio reverb. This is the sound of a real tube-driven guitar amp with its built-in spring reverb. You can really hear that distinctive spring reverb sound on these guitars. And the guitar in the middle also has some tremolo effect on it, set at a relatively fast speed. Let’s listen.
After that four-bar intro, the rest of the band jumps in. There’s a third guitar in the mix, panned a little to the right. There are three guitar players on this album, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and John Neff, all members of the Drive by Truckers. And I’m not sure who’s playing which parts, but just keep in mind that there are three distinct guitar parts on this song.
The rest of the band includes Shana Tucker on bass and Brad Morgan on drums, also from the Drive by Truckers. So you’ve got the whole Drive by Truckers band backing Bettye on this track. Also on keyboards is none other than Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham.
Let’s pick it back up from the intro.
Bettye LaVette was 61 when she made this record. And I think she’s never sung better. This is not the voice of a young diva. This is the voice of a woman, a woman who’s lived, who’s loved, been hurt, and who’s learned.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be interested in hearing a 20-year-old singing this song. “I’ve been this way too long to change now.” That would just sound ridiculous coming out of the mouth of someone that young. Here, Bettye’s singing, it’s pitch perfect, but the ragged edges of her voice adds gravitas. It rings true. Feels real.
Whatever abilities may diminish with age, the experience that comes with growing older can more than make up for it. As great as Bettyee’s performances from the 60s and 70s were, I think she’s an even better singer now. Here’s the first verse.
The guitars are playing behind the verses actually pretty atmospheric. Let’s listen to a little bit of that.
And that takes us into the next chorus.
I love her phrasing on that last line:
Here’s the second verse, and this is where Spooner Oldham joins in on the electric piano. Listen for that.
This is the closest thing we get to a guitar solo in this song, and I like the interplay between the rhythm guitars here.
Let’s bring Bettye’s vocals up in the mix for this last verse.
That guitar refrain returns, and Bettye does some improvising.
All three guitars begin to play off and around each other:
You can really hear that tremolo on the guitar here at the end.
Bettyee LaVette – “I Still Want To Be Your Baby”
Bettyee doesn’t play an instrument, and she doesn’t write songs. Bettyee does one thing, and she does it better than almost anyone else: she interprets songs. In 2008, she appeared at the Kennedy Center Honors for The Who, and sang a version of “Love, Reign O’er Me” that brought the house down. It was a show-stopping moment.
Bettyee’s continued to make records, including “Blackbirds” in 2020, where she recorded her version of songs by the great black women artists that inspired her. And just last month, September 2023, she released her latest album, Simply Called “LaVette”, that’s a return to the rootsy, bluesy and Americana sounds of this track. It’s probably my favorite album of the year.
Bettyew is 77 years old, a living legend, and still going strong, doing some of her best work today.
Thanks for checking out this episode of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. If you’d like to know more, or share your thoughts, find us on Facebook or on Podchaser, where you can leave a review, rate us, and tell us what you think. And don’t forget to follow the show so that you never miss an episode.
We are part of the Pantheon podcast family– lots of great music-related shows to be found there, so check them out.
We’ll be back in two weeks with another new episode. Until then, go support Bettye LaVette by buying a few of her albums. You will not regret it.