WEST ORANGE, N.J. — Bettye LaVette makes no apologies for her life. Sitting cross-legged on an Art Deco chair in her living room here, sipping wine, she was animated and gritty as she talked about the decades she spent singing in clubs and cursing her “buzzard luck,” while her contemporaries, like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, became superstars.
“I thought I was going to die in obscurity,” said Ms. LaVette, 66. “I’m still going to die broke but not obscure.”
It has been 50 years since Ms. LaVette, then a teenage mother from a working-class Detroit home, recorded her first single, “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” which became a hit on Atlantic Records and seemed to foretell a bright future. But she quarreled with Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records and left the label, and even though she recorded dozens of other R&B singles in the 1960s, including the minor hit “Let Me Down Easy,” her career never took off. She survived as a club performer and appeared in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” on Broadway and on tour. Her long-delayed first album in the early 1980s didn’t sell. By the late ’90s, she was popular only among European R&B enthusiasts.All that changed over the last decade. She got an aggressive manager, started playing big festivals, signed with Anti- records and put out three critically acclaimed albums, two of which were nominated for Grammys. In 2008 she blew the room away at the Kennedy Center Honors and was invited to sing a month later at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration festivities.
This week she released her fourth album on the label, “Thankful n’ Thoughtful,” a soulful set about survival and perseverance, along with a brutally honest autobiography, “A Woman Like Me” (Blue Rider Press), written with David Ritz. The book relates her early struggles in the seedy R&B world of New York and Detroit, a world that she said was full of “producer-pimps,” whom female singers like herself felt compelled to sleep with to further their careers.
She talks vividly about her drinks and drugs, and her tangled romantic relationships with a string of drug dealers, pimps, producers and other artists, including the jazzman Grover Washington Jr. and the vocalist Solomon Burke. She even relates how she worked in a shady “sex clinic” to make ends meet.
In an interview she talked about her long struggle to be recognized, her unexpected success at a late stage in life and her triumphant moment at the Kennedy Center. Here are edited excerpts.
Q. How did you write the book with Mr. Ritz? What was the process?
A. I related stories. Because I’m from Detroit, I know everybody at Motown. I’ve seen them all either drunk or naked or broke or all three. But in writing the book, David would say “Which ones?” I’d say which ones. And he’d say what were you doing when they were doing this. It wasn’t like a conversation. It was like a confession.
Q. Are you worried about offending people with these stories?
A. Oh, baby, anything they would say would only be helpful to me. That’s what I’ve been trying to get them to do this whole time: say my name. Anything I could have been sued for, somebody else has validated.
Q. Much of the book concerns your two-decade struggle to get an album released. Why did it take so long?
A. It was various things. The people I’m angry with in the book, I’m angry at them because they felt like it was O.K. to go to bed with me, but it wasn’t O.K. to further my career. Probably because I would have told their wives.
Q. What do you think of the state of R&B these days? Are there any singers you like?
A. There aren’t any R&B singers. I feel so bad about the title R&B because now they’ve made anything that’s black R&B, and that’s just not true. I think these lovely young ladies, Beyoncé, and, what’s the cute little girl’s name, Alicia Keys — all of them should be pop singers. They aren’t rhythm and blues singers. If they were standing on a stage next to Big Maybelle, like I was, they’d be blown off the stage.
Q. What is your biggest regret when you look back at your career?
A. Leaving Atlantic. Not that I would have stayed there and become a star. If I had stayed at that time, while I still had some kind of fortification in Jerry Wexler, the routes I would have taken would have been better.
Q. Didn’t he want you to record with Burt Bacharach?
A. Yeah, and I wanted to record with Leiber and Stoller. Who was Burt Bacharach? A one-hit wonder!!!
Q. You say in the book that “genre jumping” has become your thing. In 2010 you did an album of British rock covers, and some of your most successful songs have come from country and indie-rock artists. Now the new album includes songs by Bob Dylan, the Black Keys and the British folk singer Ewan MacColl. How do you choose material?
A. I just hear a song I like, and it doesn’t make any difference where it came from. They are just words on a piece of paper. They are rhythm and blues when I sing them, whatever they were before.
Q. What was it like when you sang at the Kennedy Center in 2008 with Beyoncé, Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin in the audience?
A. Three Stooges slap.
Q. Three Stooges?
A. That was what it was. Barbra Streisand was right there. Aretha was right there. Beyoncé was right there. Slap. Slap. Slap.
Q. You felt you had something to prove.
A. I didn’t have anything to prove. I just had them sitting down listening, and I wanted them to hear it. We could have done this at any time.
article by James C. McKinley Jr. via nytimes.com