"Bettye LaVette, the consensus of the club owners on Bourbon Street is that you are an uppity n*****."
"Tell those muthafuckers they are absolutely right. I'm glad that you see who I am..."
That exchange deep in Bettye LaVette's memoir, A Woman Like Me (Blue Rider Press), is just an appetizer for those who don't know who she is, what she is or what her story isor why, at 66, she seems to have come out of nowhere with a celebrated voice that rivals the likes of Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner with only four albums released in little more than a decade.
Heralded as a voice for the ages by critical consensus (this music critic included), nominated for Grammys, and performing for two sitting presidents while leaving a trail of awed demigods in her wake (Beyonce, Pete Townshend, Streisand, Bon Jovi), LaVette can only be described as "larger than life."
She has also written one of the best books ever on rock and soul music, pop culture, and race and the music business. A Woman Like Me is as grand and thrilling as anything that LaVette has ever sung but it is a whole lot more. It is also an epic saga of blown chances, shitty luck, underhanded politics and bold-faced cruelty. LaVette's story is every bit as rough, unpredictable, stupendous and blunt as the woman seems herself.
Born and raised in late-1940s Detroit, LaVette was surrounded by the polished music scenes of Motown and Atlantic Records. Whereas those two labels struggled to present a buffed and sophisticated image for "race music" to the world, the reality was that the city was packed with hard-living Southerners who had migrated north to create their own universe (musically, socially and sexually).
(Motown's Berry Gordy and Atlantic's Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler shrewdly produced hard-edged R&B with the intent of conquering the white rock/pop market while making the music a powerful influence in the '60s civil-rights movement. It's no accident that Franklin's reworking of Otis Redding's "Respect" was aimed not only at Blacks but white women as well, or that the Motown girl groups were draped in slightly clingy elegant gowns and complicated bouffants which made it easy for white men to lust after them without embarrassment.)
LaVette was, by her own admission, a sassy girl who wouldn't listen to anyone and couldn't wait to get into sex. (She had a daughter at 15.) What she also had was a phenomenal voice and an undeveloped talent for musical interpretation. Cutting a one-off single at 16, the song"My Man (He's a Loving Man)"hit and gave her limited success. Then she got to watch everything go "tits up."
Running to New York into a presumably cushy contract with Ertegun and Wexler (who had by then cranked Franklin's hit machine into overdrive), LaVette watched her first album get shelved. Then there was the deal with Kenny Rogers (of all people) where she cut an album that never saw the light of day. Then ther was another deal, this time with Motown, where she recorded what she described as "brilliant work" that never got heard or released. Then ... again and again and again the story seems to fall into a time loop. When Tina Turner went through a similar phase in the '70s the public could at least say that they knew who she was. Outside of Detroit no one had ever heard the name or voice of Bettye LaVette.
In all that time LaVette stuck to her dream while trying to keep a roof over her head in often demeaning ways. (The first section of the book has her being dangled by the ankle from a high rooftop by a pimp.) And whole chapters of the book recount her watching friends, family and mentors dying around her while her situation never seems to change. More stinging was to watch her contemporaries and friendsthe hit making crew from Motown, in particularreach unheard of heights while politely snubbing her.
But before the oddball twist to her story kicks in, there is a great wealth of rich musical history (and, well, trash talk) that makes A Woman Like Me something more than just a memoir. (By the way, a French label that specializes in rarities eventually released that Atlantic album released 45 years later. The sudden interest landed LaVette on the indie Anti-Records and the rest is history.) The book captures a part and era that few others have seen from the inside out, and there are a lot of reminders in the book that African-American historians would probably not like to see. There are also many vignettes that many celebrities, living as well as dead, would be embarrassed to have out in the open. (My favorite is the catfight between Motown composer/producer Brian Holland's wife and the philandering Diana Ross.)
A Woman Like Me is ultimately a ribald story about holding onto a dream, fighting for that dream and being uncompromisingly true to that dream at all costs. But the book is really a thriller. For all her sass and foul language (granted, I did find her talent for vulgarity highly entertaining), LaVette becomes a hero you have to root for while she tells her story. Her personality is undeniable, her charisma is unyielding, and her choices are unwise and born in the heat of passion and desire. (Also, for the faint of heart, she may appear rude and crass.) But you have to love a woman who won't apologize for who she is and takes ownership of all the good as well as the bad in her life.
Heads up: If you haven't had the chance to witness LaVette live onstage, she will be playing the City Winery Oct. 28-29.
For those who are looking for something a little less traditional than straight-up soul and rock and prefer divas of a different flavor, Mykki Blanco will play the Empty Bottle Sept. 8.