Bettye LaVette has one of the greatest voices in R&B history, but we came very close to never hearing her sing. At sixteen she recorded her first song, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962, and that early success allowed her to tour the country with folks like Otis Redding and offered the promise of R&B stardom. Fate, however, wasn’t kind, and a string of bad luck and broken promises kept her from truly making it big. But with a dedicated circle of friends and fans, LaVette continued to perform, and in the early years of the new millennium she found success with albums released by indie label ANTI-, through which she recorded an album of songs by singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Lucinda Williams, as well as a collaboration with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.
It was her performance of The Who’s classic “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors that delivered her much-deserved national spotlight, which led to her chance to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Now, the singer has a new album as well as a memoir, A Woman Like Me. The book is a no-holds-barred account of the roller coaster ride that was her career, featuring cameos by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom LaVette remembers at times fondly and, at times, with aversion.
I was excited to talk to the singer, who eagerly shared her excitement about writing a book, how she's happy to share the stories from her life, and how the music industry has drastically changed in the last forty years.
What I really liked about your book was that it wasn’t the typical rock ’n’ roll memoir where you make it really big and than you have this giant tragedy. You kind of see that a lot in movies and books about people in the music industry. Did you have this idea of wanting to set the record straight about things that happened in your career?
No, not at all. These were stories that I’ve told over the years. You have to remember, just a little while ago all I had was these memories, that was absolutely all I had. Someone would always say, “You need to write a book,” and I would say, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna write one, either my daughter or my best friend—the people who have heard these stories a million times or whatever—but I thought it would happen after my death because I didn’t think that I would be around long enough to have somebody write about me and a whole bunch of tawdry stories. So no, it wasn’t conceived in the way that most books are, and I didn’t know it’d be different from what I’m doing now: sharing my stories.
It comes across that way. It’s written with a more personal style, as if I were sitting and listening to you telling me tales. It jumps around a bit; you’ll end one story and pick it up later, and characters come back just as you’re giving your memories of how you remember them. That’s what I liked about it; it wasn’t the standard kind of memoir in that way.
And I want people to know, too, that these stories are about who these people were. They’re not about who you know them to be. People sort of have problems with that because they know Marvin Gaye as a star. But I know Marvin Gaye as a man trying to be a star. So that’s completely different.
You’re pretty brutally honest about a lot people and give a lot of surprising opinions. You mention Ike Turner at one point and talk about the Ike Turner that you knew being different from the person portrayed on film and thought of in the popular culture. Were you at all worried about how people would react to how you were describing the people you were around at the time?
I have the advantage now of almost being 70, so I don’t care what you think! I do not care what you think. You know, the thing of it is: there’s no reason to lie, and there’s nothing to lie about. The only people I would have been worried about were my grandchildren, and they are now 21 and 27, so at least I can explain myself thoroughly to them now. The people I spoke about in the book haven’t spoken to me at all this time. I wouldn’t be losing anything if they decided not to speak to me now.
It’s kind of surprising, I guess, when you think about your family reading it. I’ve seen so many movies and read stories about this era and of people in rock ’n’ roll, and it’s not super surprising—
But Tyler, if you’re just twenty-something, you haven’t seen too many!
Well, I mean, there’s probably more of an expectation that I would get out of reading a book by a musician than maybe a that person's grandchildren would have.
Well, I can’t imagine my grandparents writing about sex and drugs.
Ha, I love it!
But that’s interesting! It didn’t even cross my mind—thinking about how your family would react to it. I was thinking, “What if Diana Ross read this book, and what would she think about it?”
I don’t know if I would have even written it had my mother still been alive. You were just saying about your grandparents—I know how much of it my mother would have understood, and it wouldn’t have been enough. If I were trying to explain it to a young kid, what they would understand would not be enough. Those are the only people I was concerned about.
I saw you perform at the Robert Johnson tribute show back in March, and I remember you saying it was the first time you had been at the Apollo since like some time in the mid-’60s and how it seemed a lot bigger to you when you were there the first time.
It seemed like a little community theater!
It was the first time I had been there, too, and I was surprised because I had expected it to be much bigger. It’s such an iconic place, especially for R&B and African American artists. Was that a place you always strived to get to?
Oh, absolutely. You certainly wanted to work at the Apollo—that was absolutely it. I remember touring Otis Redding and The Shirelles. When we got to Philadelphia, Otis and I headed back down south and The Shirelles would go on up to the Apollo. Then everything happened so fast, and it wasn’t a long time before Otis was at the Apollo—it was maybe like six months later.
I didn’t know much about the industry at the time, but these days it seems artists are getting a lot buzz before they’ve come out with a proper album and can tour on that early successful buzz. That’s what I thought of when I was reading your story; you had a lot of singles that were getting some pick-up, and you would get the chance to record an album and then that opportunity fell through. It seems like before there was the major crossover for African American artists the industry was much more competitive. Looking at how the industry works now, have things changed that much for new artists?
I think the record industry today is virtually unrecognizable to anyone my age unless they’re, like, Clive Davis. My manager once introduced me to Billy Eckstine, who had a record on the charts for the first time in his twenty-year career. Whereas today you can sing for thirteen weeks and be on the cover of Vogue. The children have taken over! It’s just like the children running the house.
People are becoming successful based on nothing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a long shelf life for them.
Oh, no, they’re almost disposable. And I think that the thing that keeps me from being terrified of them; I know that they are disposable, and that none of them are going to run up against me way late at night in a little small joint where there’s nothing but a baby grand piano. So those two things keep me sane.
What you are doing even now is a little more classical in a way—you’re singing songs and interpreting them in your own way, and you can continue to find an audience. I first discovered you from hearing your covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different.” I’m a big fan of Marianne Faithfull, and she recently did an album where she covered a lot of contemporary indie-rock songs and recorded them in her own style, and that something she’s been doing for decades. Was that approach introduced to you and did someone suggest you record those covers?
The songs, first of all, are just songs to me. Some people have small churches they have built dedicated to some of those tunes, and I don’t. They’re just songs to me. And I have always sung all kinds of songs because I’ve always heard all kinds of songs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of song it is. If I sing, it’s gonna be rhythm and blues. None of them frighten me. I don’t think of them in categories or anything, because I know that if I did a song by Roy Rogers, it won’t sound like a Roy Rogers song when I sing it. It’ll sound like me.
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