Don't call it a comeback — she's been here for years. True, Bettye LaVette's performance at Barack Obama's inaugural celebration and her subsequent duet with Paul McCartney at Radio City Music Hall are both a far cry from the $50-a-night gigs that sustained her for decades. But it's really all of us who have come late to the party.
As LaVette points out with a laugh, "You have discovered me, I didn't!"
In the years since the Detroit native recorded her first Top 10 R&B single (1962's "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man") at age 16, LaVette says she "wasn't in church or working in a factory." Instead she was onstage, often playing three shows a night.
"I didn't expect any of the things that have happened, especially in the last two years. But the reason that I continued to do this and keep my voice strong and stay fitting into a size 6 is that I wanted it to happen. And I was constantly putting myself in positions to make it happen. It just wasn't working."
It is now. The woman who once shared bills with Otis Redding — "He broke out and became the star," she says, "and I went back to become a local singer in the first of many cities" — has now performed with both surviving members of the Fab Four. So what's it like being the third Beatle?
"Ahhh, I love it," LaVette all but howls at the idea. "You know, over the years I've probably done more Beatles tunes than any other black rhythm and blues artists ever."
LaVette likens John Lennon and McCartney — along with Smokey Robinson and maybe Elton John — to the Irving Berlins of our time: "They're such great writers," she says of the Beatles. "Now I never liked the way they sounded, but as I've gotten older, I've come to realize how difficult it is for musicians to play what they played."
Yes, she can
It was back in 1963 that Sam Cooke — in a song he wrote after his band got turned away from a whites-only hotel — sang one of the most achingly inspirational lyrics of all time:
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come.
LaVette covers the song to open her appropriately titled A Change Is Gonna Come Sessions EP, which was released last month on the Anti- Records label. But in LaVette's version, when the second chorus comes around, she shifts the lyric to the past tense:
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I knew a change was gonna come.
Maybe so, but like most people of her generation, LaVette didn't realize just how big that change would be.
"If you were born in segregation the way I was — if you ever experienced that physically, as opposed to just reading about it — you would have no reason for thinking that we would be seeing a black president this soon," she says. "Maybe not ever, but certainly not in my lifetime."
In fact, LaVette jokes, she expected to be a huge star before we'd ever have a black president. As it turned out, the race was a close one: In 2005, the singer was signed by the eclectic Anti- Records to a three-record deal, which paid off two years later when The Scene of the Crime, her second album for the label, earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album. (This being the Grammys, the award ended up going to Eric Clapton.)
Recorded at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., with the Drive-By Truckers as her backing band, the album finds LaVette taking songs that were written and recorded by Frankie Miller, Willie Nelson and even Don Henley, and making them very much her own. She does the same on her new EP, from the darkly moving, string-laden version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" to a cover of Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" that strips the song down to vocals and percussion.
The six tracks are clearly a labor of love, but also a stop-gap measure: "These were the tunes we were playing when I was doing those $50-a-night gigs," says LaVette, who credits label president Andy Kaulkin with the idea for the collection. "After all this publicity and notoriety from all these things earlier in the year, we've still gotta try to put the new CD together. So he said, 'Why don't you record some of those songs you're always bragging about.' He's just had such enormous belief in me, and that has never happened to me before. And he's my daughter's age! It's just a complete gift."
Power and restraint
Part of what makes LaVette's 47-year overnight success so gratifying is that it comes as a much-needed corrective to an embarrassing legacy of over-the-top melismatic singing that's endured since the dawn of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. In a world where American Idol contestants compete to see who can sing the most elongated, hyper-acrobatic and utterly pointless vocal contortions this side of a dying alley cat, LaVette understands the power of holding back, of knowing when less is more.
But she also knows when more is more, as proven by her devastating performance of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the Kennedy Center last December — during which Pete Townshend says Barbra Streisand turned to him and asked if he'd really written that.
Ironically, LaVette says she'd never heard the song before, either: "It's far from something that I believe I would have been attracted to," she explains in a matter-of-fact manner that, much like her earlier Beatles critique, comes across as honest rather than arrogant.
Nor did she rely on the Who's original when it came to learning the song.
"I don't ever listen to anybody's version of anything much — I learn the melody, and my husband, thank God, prints out the words for me."
LaVette's husband Kevin Kiley is himself an R&B singer, as well as a record collector whose MySpace page, under the category of Who I'd Like to Meet, lists "the motherfucker who invented eBay and ruined my chosen profession of dealing in antique glassware and used records."
"Music collectors, especially '60s aficionados, all know him," says LaVette, "and that's how I met him. He absolutely adores music. And I'm really not that much of a music enthusiast — I like performing, but I don't like to rehearse, and I don't like to record because it's always so repetitive. I probably have the attention span of a child. But liking and loving music the way he does is just a very weird thing. I don't believe there have been any songs recorded by anyone, black or white, in this country or in Europe, that he hasn't heard."
Elsewhere on his Web site, Kiley provides a list of his 50 favorite musicians. Not surprisingly, his wife is at the top.
"When he married me," says LaVette, "they called him the ultimate collector."