The woman on stage was nearly 65, dancing across the boards in high heels and shaking her hips to an old Beatles song called "The Word." Except that Bettye LaVette was singing it less as rollicking British Invasion pop and more like a James Brown funk tune, reinterpreting the song to fit her own needs and life experience, while accenting the lyrics with growling bursts of soul: "Say it! Say it! Say the word 'love'!"
It sounded like a teasing challenge from LaVette, still a slim size 6 in a form-fitting white top and slacks, as she faced a Sunday afternoon crowd at the Doheny Blues Festival. She called this latest, unexpected phase in a long and often frustrating career her "coming out of the crypt," and told the crowd with a laugh, "I've been so fortunate, all these things that have happened to me here in my 100th year."
The latest event in that career is the release of "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook," a collection of new recordings of songs by the Who, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and others rearranged as a setting for LaVette's vocals of pain and pride and struggle. She transforms the familiar by dialing back from the sometimes grandiose originals, reconceived as something far more raw and personal.
At the blues festival, LaVette delivered a mournful, understated take on George Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity" that had her nearly weeping across a faintly rippling bass line, raising her arms and dropping them in despair, shaking her head and singing of human suffering: "Lord, lord, lord, ain't it a pity?" And her reading of the Elton John-Bernie Taupin ballad "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" was deeply felt, hinting at a kind of tragic isolation.
In her dressing room trailer after the set, LaVette was relaxed and barefoot with a glass of champagne, explaining her careful consideration of the songs. "It's almost like choosing somebody to go to bed with, because it's such an intimate and personal thing," LaVette said. "I have to really like it."
The "Interpretations" album is one result of her appearance at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., where LaVette performed the Who's epic "Love Reign O'er Me" as a torrid, soaring ballad in tribute to the British rock act. Soon after, her husband of six years, Kevin Kiley, suggested an entire album of UK rock songs. Last year, LaVette completed the album in less than a week at a studio in Hoboken, N.J.
Her performances sound little like the originals, and take surprising musical shifts, adding a degree of pain and desperation in the delivery. And though these are some of the most familiar songs of classic rock radio, LaVette was not intimidated in the least.
"Songs don't really intimidate me," she said. "When I hear a song I like, I want to go out and sing it. That's the way I appreciate the song. They can't become standards unless everybody sings them."
Her husband and producers came up with a list of more than 300 song possibilities, which LaVette cut down to a dozen (not including a bonus track of her "Love Reign O'er Me" performance). She listened to the originals just enough to learn the lyrics and melodies.
For LaVette, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" was no longer a farewell to the fading acid casualty Syd Barrett, but a tribute to her own friends, now gone. "I said, I want to sing it for David Ruffin and Marvin Gaye. And then I started naming all the people who supported me so staunchly and how much I wish they could see something finally happening to me."
For the Moody Blues signature epic "Nights in White Satin," LaVette sang it for her adult daughter, with whom the singer has had "a tenuous relationship forever," she said. "When I put it in that vein, it was very hard to record because it kept making me cry."
However she arrived there, to the song's original author, LaVette's rendition is "absolutely superb. I had chills all over from the moment her exquisite voice sang the first word," said Moody Blues singer-guitarist Justin Hayward, reached via e-mail in Italy. "I never heard anyone do it better than us before (and there have been hundreds and hundreds of versions, a lot of them hits) but now I'm free in a strange way, because maybe it's been done at last."
This kind of recognition comes after nearly four decades of little notice and too much struggle for LaVette, despite the support of some famous friends.
She was a Detroit teenager in 1962 when she recorded her first single, "My Man — He's a Lovin' Man," reaching the R&B Top 10, but her career was frequently derailed after that. Her first manager was shot in 1964, and never fully recovered. There were periodic soul hits, but her planned debut album, "Child of the Seventies," was shelved early that same decade by Atlantic Records at the last moment.