In the fraternity of artists who got bum deals in their initial music industry go-rounds only to burn bright in maturity, Bettye LaVette stands as a queen. The dreamy achievements of her early years—charting R&B singles when her contemporaries were learning to drive, touring alongside legends named Otis and James—too often got overshadowed by the slights handed down by the gods of record companies and timing. She is the type of singer who recorded a debut album in the early 1970s, only to see it shelved until the early 2000s. Were LaVette to tumble into the plot of a Nick Hornby novel, she would feel right at home.
During the singer's fruitful 21st-century renaissance, she has been in full-on revisionist mode. Her albums include I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, featuring material composed entirely by female songwriters, and The Scene of the Crime, which returned LaVette to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she recorded the fateful LP that had been scrapped decades earlier. On Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, she performed standards of the British Invasion—well-trodden material that, one would assume, needed no further airing. Yet LaVette does not cover songs; she disembowels them, carefully twisting perspective and emphasis until they belong to her outright. These are fresh creations with familiar words and melodies. Witness her recording of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" from her 2012 album Thankful N' Thoughtful: LaVette strips a pop hit of recent omnipresence of any contemporary archness or sheen, rendering it desperate and weathered.
Why have this singer's fortunes so improved with the years? Perhaps LaVette makes the most sense as a veteran artist and a perennial underdog. Her voice is certainly not that of some young angel—this music is gritty, knowing, blue collar. She has a work ethic unique to those who have been gifted second acts. People who attend cultural events around New York City are likely to stumble upon her. I have seen LaVette sing as part of a starry charity event, in a tribute show devoted to another musician, and at a studio taping of Late Show with David Letterman. She has a way of popping up. But the performance that hit me in the gut was the singer's headlining concert in Madison Square Park. It was a free show, with an audience that not only included fans, but also people on their way home from work, young children of the Flatiron District, and curious passersby. The musician voiced songs both familiar and obscure, then introduced what was perhaps her set's most known quantity: "Blackbird," from The White Album. "Who needs to hear this old number again?" I thought. In a flash, she proved me wrong. LaVette dragged the tempo down and seemed to crawl inside the song, acting as both singer and subject. Everybody—kids, tourists, office workers—seemed to stop in their tracks to stare down the source of sound. And for a brief moment, a bustling New York City park stood perfectly still.
—Jay Ruttenberg is the editor of the comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader and of its book The Lowbrow Reader Reader (Drag City). He has written for The New York Times, Fashion Projects, and Mad magazine.