I can’t sleep and I lay and I think.
The night is hot and black as ink.
Whew, God, I need a drink
of cool, cool rain!
In 1962, when she was just 16, Bettye LaVette scored a Top 10 R&B hit for Atlantic Records called “My Man–He’s a Loving Man” [#7 R&B; #101 Pop]. Her follow-ups with New York-based Calla Records–“Let Me Down Easy” [#20 R&B; #103 Pop; 1965]–and Nashville’s Silver Fox Records–“He Made a Woman Out of Me” [#25 R&B; 1969], “Do Your Duty” [#38 R&B; 1970]–reached the R&B Top 40, but that would be it for over a decade. In 1982, she released “Right in the Middle (of Falling in Love)” [#35 R&B; 1982] with Motown Records, but after that, nothing else seemed to work. In fact, when she was introduced years later in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center Honors, she’d been all but forgotten by the mainstream.
On December 2nd, 2008, LaVette was among a group of performers recruited to help celebrate the lifetime achievements of the Who (Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey), George Jones, Barbara Streisand, Twyla Tharp, and Morgan Freeman. In particular, she was charged with singing the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” But when she took to the stage, though, she did the unthinkable: She made it her own. She gutted the tune inside out. If you find her doing it on YouTube, I dare you to stay stable. In just under six minutes, she took hold of the showbiz dream popularized in the film 42nd Street  and made it a reality: “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” At age 62, 46 years after charting a Top 10 song, her career finally took off.
Before the TV version of the event aired, people who attended the show were already abuzz. In an interview with Air America, Dave Grohl explained
[Foo Fighters] 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.
Writing on the Who’s website, Townshend himself declared
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.
What made LaVette’s triumph even more extraordinary was that she initially balked at tackling the song. She wanted to do a George Jones one instead. Aside from the Beatles, she’d long disliked British rock n’ rollers. Speaking with The New Yorker, she recalled
Me and Wilson Pickett almost starved to death when those people came over here. Nowhere would play black music after [the British Invasion].
So when the Who opportunity came about, she lamented
The biggest opportunity I’ve ever been offered in my life, and this is the song I’ve been given! I felt completely defeated.
Nonetheless, LaVette persevered, and after the show aired her lifetime of hard work was rewarded: People started calling. Robert Plant even invited her to open for him on a summer tour. But, more importantly, she allowed herself to enjoy the moment:
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. And this year has been the greatest year of my life.
The show also enabled her to cut new albums and keep on touring. As she quipped during her recent gig at Sony Hall:
I’m the oldest living person with a new contract in the record industry!
And she’s still winning fans and turning the heads of her peers. On her website, for example, there’s Sheryl Crow saying
I’ve been on the same stage with Bettye LaVette twice in the last year and have been captivated each time.
and Keith Richards too:
When you hear a voice like Bettye LaVette’s there’s a sense of transportation (NOT to a penal colony!), but a certain freedom of movement and emotion, which is rare. Especially to me and I suspect other Englishmen who were so fascinated by the music that is so natural to Bettye while we were still getting our feet wet. Put me in the fan club! How did Bettye LaVette slip thru the net for so long?
Jon Bon Jovi gave this
Some singers sing…. Then there is Bettye. She doesn’t just sing the song, she lives in each of them. I’ve heard it. I’ve stood close enough to see it in her eyes.
and, of course, Pete Townshend considered her impact a bit more:
What she is doing is pure and authentic…. Bettye LaVette’s experience, scope, and wisdom as a singer and performer have arrived in the middle of a world of darkly disturbing musical diversity and confusion like a stake in the heart of a vampire.
Lyrics from “Love, Reign O’er Me” by The Who, 1973.
Bettye LaVette first performed the song at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors for Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend.
Photos by Rick Stachura. Ms. LaVette at Sony Hall. September 21, 2018.