One of the nicest things that happened in Washington, D.C. this week is that millions of people got to hear Bettye LaVette sing.
No disrespect to Bruce, Bono, Beyonce or even Bon Jovi - well, maybe a little disrespect to Bon Jovi - but LaVette was the B that gave the truly killer performance during Sunday's We Are One concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
For the uninitiated, she's the Detroit schooled soul singer who turns 63 on Monday who has spent spent most of her 4 and 1/2 decade career as a journeywoman. She had an R & B hit with her first single - "My Man - He's a Loving Man," when she was 16, in 1962. But though she's a powerhouse vocalist who's done some great work over the years - "Let Me Down Easy," from 1965, for instance - she's spent a lot of years in the wrong place at the wrong time, like when she finally signed with Motown in 1982, years after the magic was gone.
LaVette's gained tracton in the last couple of years, working with rock dudes of a younger generation like Joe Henry on 2005's I've Got My Own Hell To Raise and the Drive-By Truckers on 2007's The Scene Of The Crime. Those records have gained LaVette her share of respect, but it's safe to say that, along with Pete Seeger's grandson and Mr. Lincoln the bald eagle, she was the least well known performer on Sunday, and the one with the daunting assignment of living up to Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," the freedom song that Cooke was inspired to write after hearing Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" and by watching the March on Washington on TV in 1963. She rose to the occasion, and though Bon Jovi was not nearly her match as a duet partner, he couldn't hold her down.
The audition for the job for LaVette, I can only assume, came when she performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in December and sang The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me," while Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey , Barbra Streisand and George Jones watched. Like the We Are One concert, that show was produced by George Stevens Jr., the son of the film director of Giant and A Place In The Sun. After that night, Townshend 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 "Love Reign," clip is below, along with a LaVette sampler playlist.