A review by Charles R. Cross of a new memoir by soul singer Bettye LaVette, whose early success gave way to struggles ... and finally to career renewal.
‘A Woman Like Me’
by Bettye LaVette with David Ritz
Blue Rider Press, 260 pp., $26.95
The first track on Bettye LaVette’s new album, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” due this week, is Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken.” LaVette does a brilliant updating on the song, and turns it into a funk- and soul-soaked romp that is both tragic and celebratory.
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The same could be said for LaVette’s new memoir, “A Woman Like Me.” It begins dark, and gets darker by the chapter, even though along the way LaVette is both thankful and thoughtful about her tumultuous life.
She is also unapologetic. “I was born into a heavy drinking family,” LaVette writes in the chapter “Drink.” “Early on I became — and I remain — a serious drinker. I make no apologies for this.” “A Woman in Me” is anything but a rehab chronicle, or one that seeks to reframe past sins.
Instead, LaVette tells it like it is. “I’m a man’s woman,” she writes. “Maybe a psychologist would say that because I lost my dad early, I kept searching for him in all these older guys. But I didn’t go to a psychologist.”
LaVette sings as straightforwardly as she writes, probably because she is from no-nonsense Detroit. Much of the start of her memoir, cowritten with David Ritz, details the Detroit blues scene. There are beautiful cameo portraits of Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke and Little Esther Phillips along the way.
Her love life, though, would always be more of a problem. LaVette became pregnant at 14, and then debuted with her first hit single, “My Man, He’s a Lovin’ Man,” at 16. Just a few years later, LaVette was penniless and working the streets of Manhattan as a prostitute.
If there are laments in her book, they mostly surround how she hoped to find success again (what she calls “buzzard luck”), but time and time again projects derailed. Her career stalled for decades.
Though LaVette immediately outlines to the reader in the prologue that hers is not a story with a quick and orderly shift of fate (“Jesus will not be making an appearance,” she writes), eventually a shift does come. Some of it is rooted in the accepting love of her alcoholic mother, who always told Bettye to “keep trying.”
She did, and in the last decade LaVette has moved back into the limelight, celebrated in 2009 when she wowed the audience at President Obama’s pre-inaugural concert. At 67, she remains an outspoken interview subject, but also a vibrant talent, as her new CD illustrates.
But it was always there in LaVette’s voice. As her mother told her early on, “You can sing, baby.” And she can.