"I was out there with some of these young children and we had some of the same height high heels," she says the night after an 80th-birthday celebration for legendary producer and record executive Mike Stoller. "This ain't the way it's supposed to be; it's supposed to be easy walkers."
But nothing about LaVette's career has been predictable: In the '60s, she demanded to work with Stoller and Jerry Leiber, just as they parted ways with their longtime label, Atlantic Records. When Wexler told her they'd left and that Burt Bacharach would be her new producer, she demanded out of her contract. "Only thing wrong with that was that they were absolutely the only people I knew in the record industry," she said. That marked the start of the end of her career, or so she presumed.
There were a handful of singles over the years, including many that went unreleased, but a French soul aficionado recovered and reissued her previously shelved 1972 Atlantic album, Children of the Seventies (recorded with the legendary Muscle Shoals Swampers). A concert disc emerged around that time, too, allowing LaVette to launch her comeback. Producer Dennis Walker had a record contract but no artist until he met LaVette. Together, they made 2003's award-winning A Woman Like Me, and she earned a contract from ANTI- Records that's since resulted in several excellent LPs, including a 2010 batch of British Invasion covers.
Even at her age, or perhaps because of it, LaVette remains an exceptionally canny and evocative interpreter. For records, she picks and chooses from a songbook of more than 200 numbers, a process she compares to dating because she gets "intimately involved" with those she chooses. These days, LaVette is more interested in movies and politics than music, but that doesn't keep her from fully inhabiting the song she sings, whether it's Neil Young's roots-soul anthem "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" or the Black Keys' slow-burning blues "I'm Not The One." For a few minutes, each number she sings belongs to her alone. —Chris Parker