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In most families there is at least one lady who is a larger-than-life pip. She lives life a little too hard, over shares the details of her dubiously acquired knowledge with a wry laugh, and a generously filled rock glass. She’s the life of every party and one is never quite sure how she comes by her income. Presenting herself never less than expensive, never less than fly, she always keeps some moneyed or easy-on-the eyes lovin’ in her life (sometimes both). If you aren’t lucky enough to have an aunt, sister, or even a grandmother in your life like that, you can borrow singer Bettye LaVette for a while and get an experience. But, buckle your seat-belt.
Consider her the Auntie Mame for the urban set. The Muskegon, Michigan born, Detroit-bred, ‘60s starlet turned 60-something phenom, has been living off the banquet of life by the seat of her pants since landing her first recording contract, and subsequent Top Ten hit (“My Man-He’s A Lovin’ Man”), with the famed Atlantic Records, when she was just 16. Burning too fast and furious after her 1965 hit “Let Me Down Easy”, and touring with the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown, the quickly fizzled out hit-maker spent the next few years wondering if she’d end up just another ‘60s one-hit wonder (despite having a voice and figure that rivaled the biggest and brightest stars of her era, most of whom she was peers with and knew personally). None of the starlit names manage to escape her humorous and sometimes acidic tongue in this tell-all.
Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Esther Phillips, all make appearances in LaVette’s highly opinionated memories, as do many from the Motown roster, from Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder. Since LaVette’s journey takes her from Detroit, New York, Miami and back again, plenty of Stax, and other non-Motown stars, show up in LaVette’s tales and bed (particularly delightful is a deadpan quip about how one beds the rotund soul legend, Solomon Burke). More involved with the behind the scenes players, like hit-making writer Clarence Paul, and well-paid hustlers on the scene, LaVette nonetheless slept with and married more than her fair share of players. She has no problems dishing the dirt, hers and theirs.
As juicy as the details are about the stars, most brought down a peg or two, if not just humanized, from their iconic status by LaVette’s wit, the heart of the book lies in LaVette’s candor and steely-eyed look at herself and her marriages. In unsentimental plain speak, she pulls no punches in describing her failings as a wife, the mother of a single child, and some her near-fatal decision-making, including a brief stint as a prostitute for one mean pimp. Again and again, the music industry (and the unsavory characters that can always be found around its periphery) kicks LaVette in her guts after repeatedly raising her hopes about a new record deal, a new single, a new album. There is always a dangling carrot from a label or producer, or a nobody trying to be a somebody, that promised that this time would be the time she’d win. LaVette rightly attributes her indisputable talent and a small, but indefatigable, circle of family and friends who believed in LaVette (sometimes despite herself) for carrying her through decades of close-but-no-cigar stardom.
While men show up as often the heroes as they do the villains in LaVette’s life, three women also are granted favor and presented as saviors at crucial junctures in the artist’s life. One is LaVette’s mother, who kept a light on, a door open, and a shingle out for LaVette throughout her gypsy life, all while largely raising LaVette’s apparently well-adjusted daughter. The city of Detroit herself is a second character, which readers watch decline from a vibrant, artistic city to one struggling for relevancy and better notices in much the way LaVette long had. Still, it kept LaVette afloat when New York and other cities wouldn’t. Not one for labels, LaVette also reveals an on and off-again romantic love with her best friend, and sometimes lover, Marrie Early, who, by all accounts, was the chased after bisexual knockout of her day. Her untimely and tragic end touches both LaVette and, at least this reader, deeply.
Almost as emotionally devastating are the maddening musical chairs LaVette experienced with various labels, including no less than three runs with Atlantic Records. Each stint producing the Northern Soul material (making LaVette an underground icon in UK circles), from her two Top 40 R&B hits, “He Made A Woman Out of Me” and “Do Your Duty”, to her brief disco run in the late 1970s with “Doin’ The Best That I Can.” Her mysteriously shelved Muscle Shoals album for Atco, Child of the Seventies, and her Motown project, Tell Me A Lie, got no backing despite yielding a Top 40 R&B hit, “Right in the Middle (Of Falling In Love).” It all, heart-breakingly, gets unpacked in these pages, as do the unexpected breaks–Broadway provided a welcome respite for LaVette in the 1980s with an awe-inspiring run with the hit show, Bubbling Brown Sugar, starring Cab Calloway.
She would be nearly 60 when life finally turned the corner for Bettye LaVette. Permanently side-stepping the “unsung” label, a series of fortunate events unfolded at the hands of white male fans who had grown up on LaVette’s material or had later seen her perform (much attention is paid to how her celebrated vocal style evolved as her voice matured partially in thanks to voice mentor Jim Lewis). These fans unearth masters and released vault material–they signed her to the independent ANTI- label that understood both what to do with her and how to market the still very fit beauty, to a new generation of hipsters, as well as the Baby Boomers. The ANTI- series of new unconventional cover albums that have become critically-acclaimed classics, from 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, to last year’s Thankful N’ Thoughtful, whose success is at least part of the reason why LaVette gets to collaborate with famed celebrity biographer David Ritz (e.g., Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, etc.) and why we get to read her story. Inspirational is the story of how LaVette went from being a 50-something local legend singing in dives and country club events throughout her beloved Detroit to becoming a critical darling with Grammy nominated albums and singing at presidential inaugurations and the Kennedy Center Honors. It is an ending every bit deserved for one who stuck it out through the long haul to get her just rewards in both love and career. Who’d have thought our black Auntie Mame would get that ever-elusive Hollywood ending after all?
A Woman Like Me
By Betty LaVette (with David Ritz)
Blue Rider Press
Hardcover,9780399159381, 272 pp.