When she saw Aretha Franklin step out of the limousine in a full-length chinchilla coat, Bettye LaVette told herself, "Maybe it'll happen for me."
The newly crowned Queen of Soul had just topped the pop charts with her legendary 1967 hit "Respect." She was in Detroit playing Cobo Hall, and LaVette, a 21-year-old struggling singer with a five-year-old hit behind her, had come to see the Rev. C.L. Franklin's daughter. LaVette watched many of the neighborhood kids - Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder - become superstars while her career foundered.
"It was hard to see that," says the leathery-voiced singer, who plays the Music Center at Strathmore on Saturday night. "All I ever wanted to do was sing. That's all I ever did. But nothing happened for a long time."
After 43 years of obscurity, LaVette, 60, finally received some r-e-s-p-e-c-t from peers and critics. Her last album, 2005's I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, was released on the independent, rock-oriented Anti label. It became one of that year's most acclaimed albums, and the momentum is just starting to slow down. LaVette has been touring behind the record for the past two years.
Musically raw and often moving, Hell to Raise features 10 songs, all written by an array of female artists, including Dolly Parton, Sinead O'Connor, Joan Armatrading and Fiona Apple.
"The label came to me with that idea," LaVette explains. "They sent me all these songs, about 100, I think. And I chose the ones I knew I could give something to. I'm not the artsy kind of artist. I choose songs I know I can interpret. I don't sing for singing's sake."
LaVette's survivor spirit informs the songs of heartache and longing. Her blues-drenched, worn-around-the-edges voice gives a new dimension to O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," which LaVette performs a cappella on the CD and in concert. Like a jagged blade, her voice cuts through Apple's "Sleep to Dream." A line from the defiant tune gives the album its title.
"I felt like I had the opportunity to show what I learned beyond rhythm and blues," says LaVette, calling from her New Jersey home. "I put in the songs all that I had learned while I was waiting for this career to happen."
During those salad years, LaVette worked in and around Detroit, singing top 40 covers in clubs for as little as $30 a night.
"I never turned down an offer of help," she says. "There was somebody always there to pay a bill, to pay to hear me sing. I knew I wasn't going to go to General Motors and work. I always knew I wanted to wear dark dresses and sing in dark rooms and be in a party atmosphere."
Unlike many of her contemporaries, LaVette (who was born Betty Haskins) wasn't nurtured in a gospel background.
"No, never came up in the church," she says. "My parents sold corn liquor, and everybody, including the church folks, came and bought liquor. We had a jukebox in the living room. I learned all my songs from the jukebox."
By the time she was 16, LaVette had a deal with Atlantic Records and her debut single, 1962's "My Man - He's a Lovin' Man," hit the Top 10 on the R&B; charts. Soon, she was touring the country with Otis Redding and James Brown. But subsequent singles released through the decade went nowhere. And in 1972 - after the label decided not to issue LaVette's debut album, Child of the Seventies - the singer was finally dropped.
"I felt that was my best work, and I was never told why they didn't put that album out," she says.
In 2000, Gilles Petard, a soul music collector from France, came across the master tapes for LaVette's album. He licensed them from Atlantic and finally released the album under the title Souvenirs. The album kick-started a resurgence, which ultimately culminated with the international critical success of Hell to Raise.
LaVette is working on a follow-up. And when she's not in the studio or on the road, she lives quietly at the West Orange, N.J., home she shares with her husband, music collector Kevin Kiley.
"It feels absolutely wonderful to get to this point, to be able to sing and tour after all these years," LaVette says. "But I don't know how to do anything else. What else am I going to do, work at Burger King? I don't think so. Can't do nothing but sing, honey."
See Bettye LaVette at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in Bethesda on Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $38. For more information, call 301 581-5100 or go to strathmore.org.
To hear clips from LaVette's album, go to baltimoresun.com/listeningpost.