Bettye LaVette's first recording was released almost 50 years ago, when she was a teenager—but the now-revered blues and soul singer didn't begin to enjoy widespread acclaim until the late 1990s.
"I've never really taken anything for granted, because I never really had anything until recently. Now I have a little money and a little exposure, and it feels good, but I've learned it could all go away in a second," LaVette said in a recent interview.
She recorded the single "My Man—He's a Lovin' Man" when she was 16, and followed it with a couple of others during the 1960s while touring with such artists as Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn and Otis Redding. The album intended to be her commercial breakthrough in 1972 wasn't released at all until 2000, and her career really started to kick into gear with I've Got My Own Hell to Raise in 2005, and The Scene of the Crime (recorded with the roots-rock band Drive-By Truckers) in 2007.
Now LaVette's getting more attention than ever for her latest CD, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, on which she covers tunes by the likes of the Beatles, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton and The Moody Blues.
LaVette will be in Tucson to open for Robert Plant and the Band of Joy on Wednesday, July 21, at the Anselmo Valencia Tori Amphitheater at Casino del Sol. Her stint with Plant begins the night before at the Dodge Theatre in Phoenix.
LaVette said she really doesn't know how she got hooked up with the Plant tour, but she's grateful it happened.
"I had not met him or spoken with him before, and I haven't met or spoken with him since. I don't know if he called my manager or we called him, but he must've chosen me or approved me at some point."
The Plant/LaVette bill is an appropriate pairing, considering that on her new album, LaVette covers a song, "All My Love," by Plant's former band, Led Zeppelin.
She credits her husband for the album's concept, which grew out of LaVette's show-stopping performance of The Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, with Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend in attendance. That live recording is a bonus track on Interpretations, but it's also worth watching on YouTube.
However, LaVette said she didn't listen to the songs on Interpretations when she was younger, nor did they have any personal significance for her until she recorded the album.
"These aren't songs that influenced me when I was a young artist; these were the nemeses of my young career," she said.
"I don't have references to these songs in my life. When I went to record them, I didn't approach them as anthems from a generation; I didn't bring any personal memories to them. I viewed them strictly as songs. That left me a lot of freedom. I wasn't bringing any baggage to the songs in how they should be interpreted."
As a self-described "song interpreter," LaVette must find something of herself in any material she considers singing; in turn, she then brings that essence forth in her performance.
"In that, you can find my philosophy for my whole career. It's this simple: It's not the song; it's the singer. It's all there in the words and music; there's nothing else, and then you can make the music go where you want it to go. You can change the melody around if you have to; you can speed it up if you need it faster, and slow it down if you need it to be slower."
During the recording process, LaVette found it sometimes necessary to alter her approach to the material, she said.
"These songs were written by children, and sometimes, the sentiments reflect that. I had two tracks where I changed some of the lyrics to reflect who I am more."
She didn't have to work hard to find a personal connection or meaning in songs such as Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" or Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed," she said.
"On the other hand, I still don't know what 'Nights in White Satin' means, and I couldn't find anyone who really does. I mean, how does a song become a hit and sell millions of copies without anyone knowing what it means? I finally figured that it's just the connection with the audience, who can hear something in it that speaks to them. So I had to bring a lot of myself to that song to be able to relate to it."
Born Betty Haskins in Muskegon, Mich., in 1946, LaVette began singing when she was a young girl growing up in Detroit.
"My mother says that I always sang, and that I always sang the whole song, even when I was little," she recalled. "I sang songs from the beginning to the end. She said I never sang like a child, and I never spoke like a child."
She was the only member of her immediate family to have a career in show business, she said.
"My mother's brother ran off with the circus in 1920, and that's the only close relative I know of who ever did anything like I did. That's it. But we had a jukebox in our living room, and black people mostly listened to blues back then, so it had a lot of blues on it. And my mother liked country/Western, so it had a lot of that. I learned how to sing every song on that jukebox just by imitating them."