While it was a hit on R&B stations, try as she might she was never able to “crossover” to Top 40 and become a big name like other Atlantic stars. As a result she struggled a good four decades more in the music business trying to earn a living. As late as 2003, she found herself recording a song she greatly disliked — “Real Real Gone” — for a low-profile, multi-artist Blues tribute to Van Morrison because she was broke and needed the $2,000 fee.
So the turnabout since then has been, in her own words, “absolutely stunning.” Since signing in 2005 with Anti- Records, home to Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Booker T and other mature artists who like new challenges, she has released three high-profile, well-promoted albums with hip cachet and striking material, and received two Grammy nominations.
LaVette performed Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (with Jon Bon Jovi) at President Obama’s Inauguration concert and she brought Pete Townshend to tears by singing the show-stopping “Love Reign O’er Me” at a televised 2008 Kennedy Center concert honoring The Who.
That was so well received it inspired last year’s Grammy-nominated Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, a best-seller that mined such material as “Salt of the Earth,” “Nights in White Satin” and “Isn’t It a Pity” for emotionally revelatory, modern insight. For Boomers who associated the songs with their youth, this was new.
LaVette’s on a roll. Her career’s going great. But don’t call it a comeback.
“There have been really strange things happen to really young people, or to strange people like Susan Boyle and Tiny Tim, but this kind of thing has never happened to anyone who wasn’t at some point big before,” she says during a spirited telephone interview from her New Jersey home.
Since signing with Anti-, LaVette has earned a reputation for being a principled singer/interpreter, knowing her R&B strengths and being true to them while also being willing to experiment with all sorts of contemporary Rock/Roots material.
“I pick songs I like and that I think I can sing well, and I usually am attracted to the melody first,” she says. “And then I pray the lyric will live up to the melody.”
LaVette’s most dramatic break came at the Kennedy Center concert. You can hear it on the British Rock Songbook album — the applause when she is introduced is polite; when she is finished with her imploringly soulful and majestic version, it is enthusiastic. She got the gig because her husband — a music enthusiast/historian and record collector — first suggested she sing during the tribute to Country singer George Jones, also being honored that night.
But all of Nashville wanted to pay tribute to Jones, so LaVette’s husband sent Kennedy Center show producer Michael Stevens a video clip to see if anything else might be available. Stevens suggested “Love Reign O’er Me.” LaVette had never heard of it.
“I said I had no idea what that means,” she says. “My husband told me it was a Who tune and that for people who love The Who, it was one of their very favorites. Then I heard it and wondered why.”
Asked what she means, she explains, “Because it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Those lyrics are very youthful.”
LaVette says she told the program’s music director, Rob Mathes, that she needed support to let her sing the song her way, and make it her own.
“And he came up with this beautiful, simple, spacious arrangement that left me room to stylize,” she says. “Pete Townshend was in tears. He came over and told me I made him cry.”
Barbra Streisand, another honoree that night, also was moved.
“She turned to him and asked, ‘Did you really write that song?’ because their music to her probably sounds like youth music, too,” LaVette says. “So to hear it sung by an adult in a different fashion, it even appealed to her.”
As a result of that success, LaVette teamed with producers Stevens and Mathes, with her husband as an adviser, on Songbook. They sent her suggestions for material, much of it songs she didn’t know because she was not a Rock fan. As a result, it was unimportant to her that, say, Pink Floyd did “Wish You Were Here,” or Led Zeppelin wrote “All My Love.”
“I don’t connect any of the songs with any of the people,” she says. “When I hear a song and want to sing it, that’s who I hear singing it. I don’t hear them singing.” ©
Bettye LaVette performs 7:30 p.m. Saturday at McAuley Performing Arts Center in College Hill with guest Jackie Bristow. Tickets are available at www.gcparts.org.