Bettye LaVette’s first single in 1963 was a major hit, but for the next 40 years, the R&B singer bounced between label deals and near-destitution as her peers such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross became superstars. LaVette grew up in Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, but the label’s founder Berry Gordy Jr. never brought her onto his roster.

But LaVette is having the last laugh. At age 74, she’s now enjoyed five Grammy nominations and numerous lifetime achievement awards. LaVette’s new studio album Blackbirds is the ninth record she’s released since 2003, when she kicked off a late-career resurgence.

She brought The Who’s Pete Townshend to tears when she performed Love Rain Over Me at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. It led to her performing at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

Her talent for finding new emotion in other people’s songs is such that Justin Hayworth from the Moody Blues once told her that he’d written Nights in White Satin, but he never understood it until she sang it. Her voice, both on stage and in person, is what makes LaVette so extraordinary.

After all these years, she’s in a league of her own. Bettye LaVette is the last of the great women of R&B’s golden era.

LaVette joined us for a conversation about her long career as the underdog of American blues.