Editors' pick

Betty LaVette

Rhythm and Blues
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Betty LaVette photo
Marina Chavez
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Editorial Review

Still plenty of stories to share
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, October 26, 2012

A key track on Bettye LaVette’s new album, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” is the veteran soul singer’s version of “I’m Not the One.” As she so often does, LaVette rewrote the arrangement and lyrics to fit her own approach. The funk-rock original transforms into a sophisticated kind of adult R&B, and she became the woman who has jumped to her lover’s orders but now declares she will jump no more.

LaVette adds a new dimension to the song by telling the man that he got the wrong idea about women by seeing his mother accept domination by her husband. In that distinctive voice of hers, taut as a high-tension wire with desire and resistance, she adds, “And you know, and your daddy knows; your mama knows, and I know that’s wrong.” How does she know? Because LaVette, 66, has lived the life of both the woman who would jump to orders and the one who wouldn’t.

Her new autobiography, “A Wo­man Like Me,” opens with this: “A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a 20-story apartment building.”

LaVette was only 19 but already had scored two top-20 R&B singles: 1962’s “My Man -- He’s a Lovin’ Man” and 1965’s “He Made a Woman Out of Me.” Yet she was so susceptible to a man’s charm that she was willing to turn tricks on the streets of New York. Until she wasn’t.

In her memoir, LaVette refers to the pimp as “J,” but she provides the names of most of the other men who took her to bed but never made her their No. 1: soul legend Solomon Burke, R&B legend Jackie Wilson, jazz star Grover Washington Jr., Motown executive Clarence Paul and many more. Written with David Ritz (who collaborated on similar books with Franklin and Ray Charles), this is the rare tell-all that actually tells all.

“It’s not like I’m confronting people on the damn subway about my life,” LaVette says. “I’ve written a book about my life to sell to people who are interested enough to buy it. The publisher didn’t pay me because I am young and popular like Justin Bieber; they paid me to tell the story I lived over 50 years.

“Maybe if I were young and famous, I could write about traveling around the world and all my successes. But I didn’t have that option. All I had were all the things that happened to me. So that was the story I told.”

As frank as LaVette is about her experiences with sex and drugs, she’s just as frank about what she calls her “buzzard luck” in the music industry. Her early singles are treasured by record collectors, but her handful of hits never led to an album and her could-have-been hits were undermined by record companies that either folded or changed decision-makers at the worst possible time.

LaVette’s career finally stabilized in 2005, when she was 59. She signed with indie-rock label Anti-/Epitaph and released “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” her interpretations of 10 songs all written by women, including Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash. That was followed by a collaboration with the Drive-By Truckers for 2007’s “The Scene of the Crime,” 2010’s “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook” and this year’s “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.” Along the way, she sang at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert and at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors.

“I’m very, very stunned by everything that’s happened to me,” LaVette says. “I feel like I fell down a deep well and someone threw me a rope, like I was one of those miners trapped underground. I’m lucky it happened when I was still viable, when I could still sing. A lot of people my age can barely sing anymore. I’m glad I can still look good for an audience. You know when I go onstage, I’m going to wear a size-6 dress and high heels.”

Although she insists it was unintentional, the new album echoes her memoir’s themes. On the guitar-pushed soul tune “Time Will Do the Talking,” written by Patty Griffin, LaVette sings, “I don’t believe there’s such a thing as saying too much.” On the banjo-backed ballad “The More I Search (The More I Die),” written by Kim McLean, she adds, “I’m an open book, I ain’t got no secrets.”

One of the more poignant sections of the book is LaVette’s depiction of her Detroit home town after Motown Records left in 1972. It slowly became a city of empty nightclubs, vacant factories and decaying houses. She expands that portrait on the new album in the song “Dirty Old Town,” by British folk singer Ewan MacColl. In the original lyrics, MacColl described his own home, a gritty industrial town near Manchester, England, over an acoustic guitar. As is her wont, LaVette adjusted the lyrics and music to fit her needs.

“I didn’t know anything about the places he was writing about,” she says, “so I just changed it to the places I knew: my high school, the Graystone Ballroom, the auto plants in Detroit. . . . We recorded two versions. I liked the one that sounded like a funeral dirge, because the song is about a city that’s dying. The company liked the funky one better. So the company said, ‘Let’s use both of them.’ ”

All of the things LaVette describes in her book -- the sexual taboo-breaking, the personal heartbreaks, the moments of inspiration, the inner-city blues -- can still be heard in the giddy squeals, raspy anger and twisted yearning of her voice.

“I’ve always been unwilling to lie,” she says. “It’s just the way I am. It allows me to bring a lot of truth to the stage when I perform.”