If a single performance defines the remarkable career renaissance of Bettye LaVette, it arrived last December at the Kennedy Center Honors.
As part of a tribute to The Who, the veteran soul singer transformed the Quadrophenia anthem Love Reign O'er Me into a simmering torch song. Reserved, elegant and thoroughly majestic, LaVette delivered the song to an audience that included then-President George W. Bush; honorees Barbra Streisand and George Jones; presenter/attendees Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé; and perhaps most significantly, the two surviving members of The Who: guitarist Pete Townshend, who wrote the song, and singer Roger Daltrey, the vocalist on the tune's original 1973 recording.
To call the performance transcendent when it was presented on network television just after Christmas is not an overstatement. In LaVette's hands, the song's theme of longing and healing was conveyed with a voice that seemed to rise like steam, cracking with deep, unforced and very real drama. Townshend wrote later on his Web site, "My favorite moment was when Bettye LaVette sang a very fine version of Love Reign O'er Me at the gala and Barbra Streisand turned to ask me if I really wrote it."
Not a bad gig and not a bad review for an artist who has been singing all her life but never enjoyed anything close to mainstream success and acceptance until 2005.
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Did performing before such a court of celebrities and the creators of the song rattle the nerves?
"Not at all, baby," said LaVette, 63. "I've been waiting almost 50 years for an audience like that. If someone has asked me, 'Who would you want in your audience?' I would have said the people who became successful the whole time I was struggling. But Aretha Franklin, Beyoncé, The Who and the president of the United States? That worked for me.
"Pete came over afterward and said, 'You made me weep.' I turned around and Roger was on his knee telling me I was marvelous. They were genuine, gracious and forthcoming. They were saying the things I always wanted to hear."
When LaVette said she had been waiting for a half-century for such praise, she isn't exaggerating. Her earliest recordings date to the early '60s. She earned her first Top 10 R&B hit (My Man, He's a Lovin' Man) at age 16 and has shared studios and stages with scores of soul legends, including James Brown, Otis Redding and Ben E. King. There were occasional hits, but often severe disappointments — canceled tours, shelved recordings and, in general, missed career opportunities beyond her control.
LaVette never stopped singing, though. There were club gigs full of soul and jazz standards, several of which are revisited on a new download-only EP, Change Is Gonna Come Sessions, and extensive touring in the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar. Then Lavette's singing came to the attention of Andy Kaulkin, president of Anti- Records, a label whose roster includes such multigenerational greats as Tom Waits, Neko Case, Mavis Staples and Daniel Lanois.
Kaulkin signed LaVette to a three-album deal that began with a stunning collection of songs entirely by women. The composers included Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Aimee Mann and Joan Armatrading. But it was a verse from the Fiona Apple affirmation Sleep to Dream that gave what would become LaVette's breakthrough album its name, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise.
"Sweetie, I'm the oldest person who isn't a big star in the world who has an active record contract," LaVette said. "When I came to Anti-, I was already over 55 years old.
"I mean, I knew I could always sing because that's what I do. I knew I could always get a gig because I can sing. But to have a young, hip record company come and fall in love with my singing and help me? I never thought that would happen. Why would I think that? It hadn't happened to me in 40-something years."
But perhaps the crowning honor to LaVette's career comeback took place just over a month after the Kennedy Center Honors. There she sang for a president. In late January she sang at the inauguration of another. With a somewhat unlikely duet partner, Jon Bon Jovi, she sang the Sam Cooke civil rights meditation A Change Is Gonna Come on the day Barack Obama was sworn into office.
"This is exactly what I've cried all night for, gotten drunk all night for, begged all night for," she said. "People keep telling me to say how exciting all of this is. But it's more satisfying than anything. I feel so worthwhile. Success feels different for me than it does for, say, Kanye West. It feels completely different."