Bettye LaVette recorded her first single in Detroit in 1962, but aside from a couple of Top 40 songs on the R&B charts in the intervening years, she achieved only sporadic fame. In the past several years, however, LaVette has come roaring back, reinterpreting rock and country songs and working with producers such as Joe Henry (Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville). LaVette’s new album, “Worthy,” includes covers of unexpected tracks by the Beatles (“Wait”), the Rolling Stones (“Complicated”) and Bob Dylan (“Unbelievable”) as well as songs by Mickey Newbury, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Mary Gauthier.
Since the early 2000s, LaVette, 69, has won the W.C. Handy Award for comeback blues album of the year, a pioneer award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and a Blues Music Award for best female contemporary blues artist and gotten two Grammy nominations. On the heels of a high-profile two-week gig at New York’s Cafe Carlyle, LaVette is returning to the Washington area this week, where she played at the old Howard Theatre in 1962, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 and President Obama’s first inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, where she sang “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She spoke to us from her home in New Jersey.
Do you remember that first show at the Howard?
Oh, my God, yes. The tour consisted of me and Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King, Barbara Lynn and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. I came to Washington, but Otis [Redding] didn’t at that point. People don’t realize that me and Otis and Wilson Pickett — we were all on those tours, but we only came so far, stopping either at the Howard or the Royal in Baltimore, because our records didn’t sell further north. They didn’t sell in New York. And me and Otis wanted to work so bad at the Apollo it was ridiculous. And then when he did get a chance to work there the first time, it was for a live album that Atlantic was doing, and they wouldn’t let me be on it! Ow!
Forty-six years later, you came back to help salute the Who at the Kennedy Center Honors just a couple of months before you sang for President Obama.
Those were the greatest things that ever, ever happened to me. They would be milestones. They helped me so, so much. And it’s so ironic that it would be those two things, because no one is interested in an old artist now unless they’re a has-been. I’m a never-was. I needed those two big things. . . . And you have to remember: I don’t know how much longer I can do this at the intensity that I’m doing now, so I needed to make up a lot of miles.
You just spent two weeks getting good reviews for a nightclub act at the Cafe Carlyle. How did that go?
It was really, really good. When we have a new CD, I was explaining to the audience, what we usually do is, after the first night or so, the first time we do it, we’ll take two or three songs, the ones that seem to work the best onstage or whatever. And I told them, “Well, you can forget that this time.” I like this CD so much, I did the whole thing from top to bottom!
You did it in order, too?
I did it exactly how it goes on the CD. And then when I was finished I said, “Now that’s what I want to hear. What do y’all want to hear now?” You really wouldn’t believe how much I like this thing. It’s ridiculous. I haven’t liked anything in a long time. A very long time.
Are you critical of your own work?
Oh, I didn’t like anything for the first 20 years. . . . I like all the songs. I chose all the songs. But I wasn’t pleased with the records. The whole while I was failing, the people I was competing with or working with, the sound of their recordings was always so much better, so much broader, so much bigger, so much better produced. So I didn’t like any of my records, save maybe two, until “A Woman Like Me.”
You toured with everybody from Otis Redding to James Brown and performed with Cab Calloway on Broadway. Who were some of the people you learned from growing up?
It’s kind of hard to know. When I was 18 months old, I lived in a household that had a jukebox in the living room. I knew every song on the jukebox. This meant I knew songs by Hank Williams, songs by Red Foley, songs by Mahalia Jackson.
The Soul Stirrers came to my house to drink. I knew songs by the burgeoning rhythm and blues stars who would come around and sing, Ruth Brown and Esther Phillips. I didn’t know those kinds of singers. I had never seen a show. I didn’t have a favorite singer. I just thought that singers were great themselves.
Will you be performing “Worthy” in its entirety at Wolf Trap as you did at the Carlyle?
You know, the Carlyle is kind of like having a bunch of people in your living room. So I have to see how it feels. Playing the whole thing in order, it seems so braggadocio. So I have to see how the audience looks and how the stage looks. But I have brilliant musicians who can change anything on the fly.
Had you played cabaret gigs like that before?
Honey, I did it for $50 a night in 50,000 places — for years!
Bettye LaVette Feb. 24 at 8 p.m. at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1645 Trap Rd., Vienna. Tickets: $45-$48. 877-965-3872. www.wolftrap.org.