If the citizens of Detroit need any further inspiration when it comes to rebuilding their city, they only have to look at the rebirth of one of its long-neglected daughters, Bettye LaVette. Since emerging from obscurity with I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, her 2005 debut album for Anti Records, LaVette has become a prominent figure in the neo-soul movement, racking up a string of accolades and high-profile appearances. These have included singing “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at President Obama’s inauguration and serenading Kennedy Center honoree Pete Townshend with his own “Love Reign O’er Me.”
It’s been a decade that has in many ways launched an entirely new career for LaVette, and today at 66, she remains a remarkable physical specimen, with a voice that’s proven adept at tackling material by artists outside of the soul sphere, from Fiona Apple to Dolly Parton. But what is most remarkable about LaVette’s recent work is how she uses her interpretive skills to describe in plain terms how many times the recording industry has pulled the rug out from under her, on top of the general trials of being a female R&B singer in a male-dominated business.
LaVette’s latest album, Thankful N’ Thoughtful, stays true to that approach, featuring gloriously re-imagined versions of Bob Dylan’s “Everything Is Broken,” The Black Keys’ “I’m Not The One,” Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” There are still plenty of great soul singers out there, but what continues to make LaVette stand out is how, in this age of Adele, every song she adds to her repertoire likewise seems to add another facet to her personal tale of struggle and heartbreak.
To coincide with Thankful N’ Thoughtful, LaVette has put her life story in her own words with A Woman Like Me, an autobiography co-written with noted R&B historian David Ritz, which is sure to generate a lot of discussion among the genre’s aficionados. Some of the book’s more salacious revelations include LaVette turning down a marriage proposal from Otis Redding and later coming close to ushering Stevie Wonder into manhood, carrying on a lengthy affair with Aretha Franklin’s first husband Ted White and witnessing Diana Ross (referred to as “Diane” throughout the book) receive a beat-down in a Detroit club by the vengeful wife of Motown songwriter Brian Holland.
On every page, LaVette’s unflinching honesty strips away much of the varnish that has accumulated over the decades when it comes to the stories surrounding labels such as Motown, Atlantic and the artists who recorded for them. Overall, the book paints a grim picture of what it was like to be an aspiring black female recording artist in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when managers and label heads were often, as LaVette’s own experiences illustrate, little more than pimps. And while LaVette also admits to doing her share of drugs, she credits her vanity for keeping her away from the needles and pipes that wound up claiming so many of her friends and associates.
“Thank goodness you get something for giving up your youth,” LaVette says on the phone from the New Jersey home she shares with husband Kevin Kiley, a soul scholar she met in 2000 who has been instrumental in bringing her back into the spotlight. “Other books by my contemporaries were written after they became stars, and if that had been the case with me I’m sure my book would have had a completely different slant. But quite some time ago I reached a point where I became who I feel I was meant to be, and I stopped worrying about making an impression on people. If someone reads this book and says, ‘I don’t like her,’ I say good, that’s one more person’s name I don’t have to remember.”
LaVette further shrugs off the idea that she’s motivated by a desire to get back at people who did her wrong. She says that time has taught her those things take care of themselves. An example is her 2007 album, The Scene of the Crime, recorded with the Drive-By Truckers at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Ala., where in 1972 she’d made what was to be her debut album for Atlantic, which the label inexplicably shelved on the eve of its release. She eventually got a shot with Motown 10 years later, but that album, Tell Me A Lie, was stillborn mainly due to LaVette’s rightful dismay over the label putting an image of another woman on the cover. From then on until the turn of the century, her opportunities would be few and far between.
LaVette reflects, “I’m proud of what everyone at Motown accomplished, but it took a long time for me to form that opinion because I spent 20 years feeling envious of them. We were all friends when we were starting out, and that’s how I remember it today. Those were desperate times, but things were changing for the better. I just think now of how much worse it was back in the day for artists like Bessie Smith.”
However, when asked about the notion of “singing groupies” she puts forth in the book—specifically whenever Diana Ross is mentioned—LaVette says, “The joke for the longest time among the female artists was, ‘We should have played this like Diana.’ There’s always been this envious admiration for her, and even though I wasn’t signed to Motown [in the ‘60s], I knew everyone there and was privy to all of that information.”
She adds, “It wasn’t easy for me to tell a lot of those stories in the book. Thankfully, there were people who were still alive who were willing to corroborate what I knew was true, but back then this was all common knowledge. As I said, after these people became stars, it all just seemed to go away.”
It’s probably safe to say that more than a few of LaVette’s remaining peers are now envious of her position as an artist who has not only come back but also transcended the R&B world. A lot of classic rock fans certainly took notice of her last album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, which found her covering The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and others. However, she says that for Thankful N’ Thoughtful, there wasn’t any specific method to selecting the material.
“People have gotten used to the records I make for Anti having a theme or a concept to them, but this one wasn’t supposed to have one at all. We were working on the book at the same time, and at some point I realized that the album was sounding like the book. So if someone says that honesty is the theme of this album, I’m happy to hear that.”
LaVette knows the dearth of honesty in society all too well, and it took a long time to finally find people she could trust with her voice. It was the one thing that allowed LaVette to endure so many hardships, and her biggest satisfaction now comes from utilizing that voice to inspire others around the world seeking to improve their lives.
“I get asked all the time for my thoughts about this success I’ve been having,” she says. “I think it just has to do with people being tired of being disappointed or unfulfilled. I might not be the best, but nobody can ever accuse me of not giving my all whenever I record a song or walk out on stage. People will offer me songs that they think I should sing, but it’s ultimately up to me. If I don’t believe wholeheartedly in what I’m doing, I know that no one else will.”