Soul survivor

Bettye LaVette at the historic Royal Peacock, on Atlanta's famed Auburn Avenue, in 1965.
Bettye LaVette at the historic Royal Peacock, on Atlanta's famed Auburn Avenue, in 1965. (From "A Woman Like Me")

R&B singer Bettye LaVette had her first hit in 1962, then struggled. This week she releases an album and a memoir, and plays World Cafe Live.

Posted: September 26, 2012

At 66, Bettye LaVette is celebrating her 50th year in the music business.

In 1962, as a Detroit teenager, she had a Top 10 R&B hit with the upbeat "My Man - He's a Lovin' Man." Three years later, when just 19, LaVette was singing a sadder song - a classic of world-weary heartache called "Let Me Down Easy" - that also made it into the Top 20.

The hits did not keep on coming. And as LaVette makes plain in her new memoir A Woman Like Me (Blue Rider Press, $26.95), the decades that followed mostly found one of America's great soul singers struggling in obscurity, victimized by bad record deals, rotten luck, and her own poor decisions. Broke, but never beaten down.

"I certainly felt that I was deserving, but I became resolute that it was never going to happen," says the singer, whose unexpurgated name-dropping book, written with David Ritz, goes on sale this week, as does a fine new album, Thankful N' Thoughtful (Anti- ***1/2), that shows off her interpretive skills on songs written by Sly & the Family Stone, Bob Dylan, and Gnarls Barkley.

"So I was quite shocked, when the world came to my door," adds LaVette, who will play the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Saturday. The singer, who lives with her husband in West Orange, N.J., spoke on the phone last week from Detroit, where she was rehearsing her band.

The world took its time in paying LaVette a visit, and did not arrive in earnest until the release of an album, also called A Woman Like Me, in 2003.

In the interim, LaVette lived a life filled with incident, to say the least. As opening sentences go, her memoir's is an attention grabber: "A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a twenty-story apartment building at Amsterdam and Seventy-eighth street."

Before the young singer escapes her Perils of Pauline predicament, LaVette, who was raised Betty Haskins in Muskegon, Mich., by parents who ran a corn-liquor and barbecue business, lets the reader know that A Woman Like Me will not be a pious book.

"My story is one in which Jesus will not be making an appearance," she writes. "My feeling then and now is that if God is fond of black people, he has shown his affection only recently. What the hell took him so long?"

LaVette admits to making more than her share of career missteps, the biggest being asking record man Jerry Wexler to release her from a contract with the Atlantic label in the early 1960s.

"I didn't become reflective until I was much older," she says on the phone. "But I realized that the next week. I regretted that more than anything I've ever done."

Although she recorded for Motown only briefly in the 1980s, LaVette nonetheless remained an insider on the Detroit music scene, even as she hustled to make a living singing in lounges and landing a Schaefer beer radio jingle in the 1970s.

"One of my standard lines was always 'I know everybody in Detroit that's black and over 50,' " she says. "Or 'I know everybody at Motown, because I've seen them all drunk, or naked, or broke, or all three.' "

Some of the boldface names are remembered tenderly, like Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and Cab Calloway, whom LaVette got to know while traveling with a touring production of the musical Bubbling Brown Sugar.

Others, like Diana Ross, don't fare so well. LaVette calls the Supremes singer "a stuck up bitch with a small voice and big ambition."

LaVette hasn't heard from anybody who might be offended yet.

"You're talking about people who haven't spoken to me in 35 years. I don't care if they continue not to speak to me," she says cheerfully. "There isn't anybody mentioned in the book that I've been able to call on, so I don't care what they think."

LaVette credits her longevity to Jim Lewis, the mentor who taught her to focus on her craft - and to whose memory she dedicates her book. The chapter in A Woman Like Me where Lewis insistently tells the hardheaded young singer to listen to horn players like Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young and singers like Billie Holiday and Anita O'Day is among the most rewarding in the book.

"I'm so lucky I had somebody like Jim Lewis to teach me," she says. "Just because you are talented, you may never be a star. But if you want to be a singer, you better learn how to sing."

Since the release of the album A Woman Like Me in 2003, LaVette's career has been steadily on the upswing. Hers is the rare comeback by a long-lost soul-music treasure that has sustained itself into a continually productive second act.

Her 2006 debut album for Anti-, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, was produced by Joe Henry and led to her performance at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors in Washington where, as is her wont, she sang the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" in a reshaped version that discovered new reservoirs of meaning and emotion. Pete Townshend said: "My favorite moment was when Bettye LaVette sang a very fine version of 'Love Reign O'er Me' at the gala and Barbra Streisand turned to ask me if I really wrote it." The success of that gig led to her duet with Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" at the Lincoln Memorial as part of President Obama's inauguration weekend in 2009.

The long years that LaVette spent scuffling have made her success all the more satisfying. The singer, still trim and fit, says, "I tell people I just came off eight years of a 'Who the hell is she?' tour, and now we're on to the 50th anniversary tour."

Her favorite line on Thankful N' Thoughtful is from Kim McLean's searing "The More I Search (The More I Die)." She sings, "In my vain humiliation I have run through shame's dark halls."

In her struggles, LaVette says, "I was completely humiliated. But I still had to have the appearance of a star. I was showing off, though I was absolutely penniless. Somebody was always picking up my tab. . . .

"I am so relieved, you wouldn't believe. I thought I was just going to die broke and unknown. Now the people will know who I am. Plus, I'm the only one who can fit into a size 6. So I'm particularly happy."


Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or deluca@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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