The singer was pregnant at 14, was married at 15 and had a hit record at 16
She tells the story of her dramatic life in her new book, "A Woman Like Me"
Bad decisions, bad luck kept her from finding success until later in life
If you don’t know singer Bettye LaVette, her alarmingly frank new memoir will catch you up on a life filled with more drama than a daytime soap.
Pregnant at 14, married at 15, with a hit record at 16, a long slide into obscurity, nearly dropped to her death from a roof by a pimp – It’s all there in “A Woman Like Me,” along with much more: her encounters with Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and many other musical luminaries; the time her manager got shot in the head; doing coke with a roster of superstars.
Many critics said the Detroit native’s talent equaled that of any of her more famous contemporaries. LaVette’s memoir reveals how bad decisions and what she calls “buzzard luck” left her destitute while others rose to the stratosphere.
Now in her 60s, LaVette has finally achieved a measure of success, thanks in part to fans abroad who became her champions. Along with the book she has a new CD, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” marking what her website calls “the culmination of a lifetime of near-triumphs.”
CNN talked with LaVette about her colorful life and career. The following is an edited version of the conversation.
CNN: Congratulations on your memoir and CD.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you so much. … It’s very exciting that I’m being afforded the opportunity to introduce myself to everyone. And, you know, with the book and the CD – I keep telling everybody if all of this doesn’t work out, I don’t know what I’m going to use as an excuse from now on.
CNN: It must feel a little strange to have to introduce yourself to people, because you have been in the business for 50 years now.
LaVette: It’s not strange; it’s just exhausting. I mean, to launch a career is something that a young person does. And since I’m not a has-been, I’m a “never was.” … I’ve done everything there is to do in this business except make money.
CNN: As a teenager, you had a hit record with “My Man – He’s a Lovin’ Man,” and that got you a deal on a major label. So even though you came from Detroit, you didn’t go the Motown route; you went with Atlantic Records.
LaVette: That was the place to be, not with a small local company (like Motown). All the people in the book, and Motown, all of these people were not born these people you know now – the company, none of the rest of it. At one point, they were just as insignificant as I was or later came to be. So people say, “Why weren’t you with Motown if you were from Detroit?” ‘Cause I was with Atlantic! And Berry Gordy wanted to be with Atlantic in 1962! (laughs)
CNN: At so many points in your career, you were just on the cusp of making it. You had a hit record. Then you were supposed to have an album coming out, but something would keep that from happening. Was it just fate that these things didn’t turn out, or how do you look at it?
LaVette: Something always happened. There was a definite reason. Like when I did eventually have the album on Motown. My champion was Lee Young Sr., who was president when I started the album but by the time it came out, he’d been fired (laughs). So that kind of thing happened to me more often. At Atlantic, Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler were having a breakup, and I was in the middle of it. And what are the chances that one of the No. 1 female singers, Mary Wells, her husband would shoot your manager? Everything that has happened has been book-worthy (laughs).
CNN: You begin “A Woman Like Me” describing a near-fatal experience with the man you call “J,” a pimp you became involved with during one of the low points in your life. You write that he dangled you over the edge of a 20-story Manhattan building after you told him you planned to leave him.
LaVette: I don’t really know whether he would have let me go (dropped me). He had been in prison a very long time before that. I don’t think that he would want to go back for any reason. I’m sure that someone would have noticed when I hit the sidewalk. That day, I was going to leave one way or another: Either he was going to drop me or if he let me go, I was going to leave. But I wasn’t going to be there anymore.
CNN: Did you really “lead a life of prostitution” at one period? Is that the way to put it? It seems incredible to say.
LaVette: This book does not need to be paraphrased, because really, I say things exactly as they happened. And whatever days I spent in that capacity, I say what happened on every one of the days. Someone always called for me to sing again. Singing, you know, started my life and saved me probably from being just an uneducated kid walking the street, and then it saved my life from any other things. It always distracted me. I don’t care what I was doing. If they called Bettye LaVette, I was willing to leave you and go. So it really wasn’t (that I was) so keen on prostitution. It was like, if I had any money at all, then (“J”) wanted it or expected that it was his. And when my career started to waver and I wasn’t making any money at all, he said, ‘Well, I certainly don’t think that – I know you don’t think that I’m just going to take care of you.’
CNN: It’s amazing how frank you are in the book. I guess you’ve just always been that way as a person.
LaVette: I have. There’s no need to embellish (the story) or paraphrase me. I said exactly what happened.
CNN: You make no apologies for your life.
LaVette: Well, baby, I’m almost 70 years old. And nobody up to this point has cared enough to do anything for me, so why should I care what they think at this point?
CNN: You talk in the book about coming from a line of drinkers. If you hadn’t been a drinker, do you think things would have turned out any differently in your life?
LaVette: I for many, many years drank only beer and really was not a drinker. It’s just that I’ve always drank, ever since I was a kid. But I didn’t just walk around with a drink in my hand all the time. It’s just that all these people started to get on my nerves after the last 25 years; I probably drank a bottle of champagne a day. But my mother and the people I’m talking about (in the book) who came to my house were drinking straight corn liquor. And with drugs – I never bought any cocaine in my life. I just knew a lot of cocaine dealers, and when I was with them, I would blow the cocaine, but if they would run out it, I’d go home, and I didn’t look for any more.
CNN: In the book, you say you recognized the dangers of doing heroin and didn’t touch that.
LaVette: Heroin makes you look so ugly, but cocaine really just impairs your voice because it gives you a false sense of physicality, and you push harder and whatever. And the next thing you know, your voice is gone. And even while my great love is marijuana, I can’t smoke and sing because it dries my throat, and singing is the most important thing. Bettye LaVette is the only person who can just call all the shots. It’s like they say, “You have to do this, and you have to do that,” well, I do that. I will still take dictation from Bettye LaVette. If that means I have to leave the party 15 minutes after I got there to go to bed, then that’s what I have to do.
CNN: Let’s talk about some of the major figures you mention in the book, people you knew and interacted with. For instance, the late Tammi Terrell. When we hear about Tammi in the book, she’s pulled a gun on you. Why would Tammi do that?
LaVette: It was jokingly. She just kicked the dressing room door open and said, “I hear you’ve been looking for me.” But I didn’t know who she was. I had never seen her. We became good road friends.
CNN: You appeared in the touring production of “Bubbling Brown Sugar” with the legendary Cab Calloway.
LaVette: He was old and cantankerous, and he really didn’t have that much admiration for most of the artists of today, and you know, he had seen the Cotton Club dancers dance, and then he saw the Bubbling Brown Sugar dancers dance. I mean, it’s hard for me to have seen Otis Redding, to have seen James Brown in his prime, to have seen Marvin Gaye and then find a – I won’t say a name – and then for me to find (one of today’s young stars) amazing, I can’t do that.
CNN: In the book, you say of Diana Ross – Diane, as she was known to people back then– “We saw her as a stuck-up bitch with a small voice and big ambition.” Do you feel she earned her success?
LaVette: She had to work, and I really believe she has become a fine entertainer. I admire the brave steps she took. I knew exactly where she came from, so I know how unusual it was to her to have been in a movie. It’s like me writing a book. The things I say in the book were who these people were when I knew them (back then). I don’t even really know who they are now. Because I haven’t had the opportunity to make any money and be with them (as a peer). (My mentor) Jim Lewis always told me, ‘If they don’t know who you is, you ain’t.’ And I’ve always lived by that.
CNN: Even when you had kind of fallen off the map in the music business, there were fans abroad who never forgot you.
LaVette: I had at least three fans, like in Vietnam. When I’m sitting there depressed, thinking no one cares anything, to receive a phone call or a letter from Vietnam and have someone send me a picture of them holding my 45 of “Let Me Down Easy” or “My Man,” some days, that kept me alive. I mean spiritually. I mean, I really don’t have the nerve to kill myself. I feel like if I’ve got the nerves to blow my brains out, I’ve got the nerve to carry on.
CNN: Eventually, your musical fortunes turned around, and now you’re a two-time Grammy-nominated artist. How do you sum up your incredible life?
LaVette: I don’t know how to sum it all up or that it need be summed up. You know, all of those things happened to me. I’m very glad that I came out of most all of them almost unscathed, because I have so many dead friends. I consider myself extremely fortunate and then too, the gift that is my talent is just that: a gift. You cannot be taught to sing. You can only be taught to sing correctly. Nobody sings but birds and people. If you can sing, it was just given to you, and so I’m always mindful of that, probably. I’m greatly honored to be able to sing. It’s all I’ve got.