Bettye LaVette stole the thunder recently at the Kennedy Center Honors with her gut-wrenching performance of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me,” which provided one of the evening’s most spectacular moments and inspired other honorees and musicians to speak out in praise of her.
LaVette grew up in Detroit, where she was discovered by Johnnie Mae Matthews, a Detroit record producer. In 1962, aged 16, she recorded a single, "My Man - He's A Lovin' Man" with Matthews, which became a hit after Atlantic Records bought distribution rights.
She toured with Clyde McPhatter, Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn and Otis Redding, and even James Brown in her youth.
LaVette's style of jazz, country, soul, R&B, rock and gospel defied the neat categories that the labels preferred.
She spent six years on Broadway and touring with the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar opposite Cab Calloway. During the disco years, she managed a small hit "Doin' The Best That I Can". Motown then gave her shot and LaVette recorded Tell Me A Lie, with the single "Right in the Middle of Falling in Love" which was also a modest hit. Her career took her to the European festival circuit. In 1991, she completed the album Not Gonna Happen Twice for Ian Levine's Motorcity label.
A Frenchman, Gilles Petard, discovered the masters of her work on Child of the Seventies. He licensed the album from Atlantic and released it on his Art and Soul label. His interest and resurrection of her older material created a LaVette revival which included a live album and two brand new albums, including 2005's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Other notable songwriters on the album were Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Sinead O'Connor, Lucinda Williams, Joan Armatrading, and Dolly Parton. .
The Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl recently described his first encounter with Bettye's rendition of the Who song performed at the Kennedy Center honors to Air America’s Richard Greene: “We showed up for rehearsal, and one of the performers was rehearsing the song for the Who segment. It was a woman named Bettye LaVette…She is gonna steal the show. She was so phenomenal, this performance of The Who song that she did. It will bring you to tears. The room was pin-drop silent when she did this song, and it was just unbelievable."
The Who’s Pete Townshend himself agrees. In a Q&A on his blog at TheWho.com, the legendary axe-slinger said, "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."
“The Kennedy Center Honors was the most exciting thing I have every done in my life, because there were so many of my favorite politicians there,” says Bettye. “And this year has been the greatest year of my life. Who would have ever imagined both Barack and I going to the White House?”
Bettye is enjoying the fruits of her career, she is the reigning “Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year,” is once again nominated in that category for the Blues Foundation’s 2009 Blues Music Awards.
Her most recent Grammy-nominated CD The Scene of the Crime earned her praise across the board, from NPR, which asked “Is there any soul singer who brings more guts, more conviction and more emotion to her singing?” and Entertainment Weekly, which echoed, “Is there a more wrenching soul singer alive than Bettye LaVette? If so, keep it to yourself, because I’m too wrung out from Crime’s intensity to take anything more emotionally potent,” to USA Today (““This album…just rips, with some truly sublime peaks.”) and Rolling Stone (“LaVette’s nuanced singing evokes prime Tina Turner with even more command.”).
The Kennedy Center Honors – honoring The Who, George Jones, Barbra Streisand, Morgan Freeman, and Twyla Tharp – airs December 30 on CBS.