Sounds like: A throwback—the good kind—to the chitlin’ circuit, armed with a savvy, personalized rock repertoire.
For fans of: Tina Turner, crossover R&B, paying dues.
Latest release: 2010’s Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook.
Why you care: Bettye LaVette’s emergence before a broad audience is one of the happiest music stories of the past decade. Her 2005 breakthrough, I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, was a canny tribute to contemporary female songwriters such as Lucinda Williams and Aimee Mann. LaVette—whose sinuous, gritty voice made its mark with 1965 northern soul classic “Let Me Down Easy”—first proved her crossover chops with a funky 1972 cover of “Heart of Gold,” though ATCO Records declined to release her contemporaneous, would-be debut album. A 1978 disco hit, “Doin’ the Best That I Can”—its dub-style remix considered an apex of the form—and a Broadway stint opposite Cab Calloway marked time until her reappearance on the R&B circuit and, ultimately, her recent triumphs. Her first original song, 2007’s “Before the Money Came (The Ballad of Bettye LaVette),” co-written with Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, recaps her story in seamy detail—as, surely, will her forthcoming memoir, A Woman Like Me. LaVette’s pinnacle: a delicate, majestic rendering of the Who’s “Love, Reign o’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, which left honorees Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and Barbra Streisand slack-jawed.