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Soul survivor

Bettye LaVette lost out on fame and fortune as a singer in Motown, but she lived the life anyway... and lived to tell the tale

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/6/2013 (1526 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Bettye LaVette, the Grandma Moses of Soul, had Hollywood screenwriters calling after they read the first sentence of her 2012 tell-all autobiography, A Woman Like Me.

"A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a 20-storey building at Amsterdam and Seventy-Eighth Street (in New York City)," wrote the 67-year-old, Detroit-born LaVette.

Singer Bettye LaVette found unexpected success late in life.

Singer Bettye LaVette found unexpected success late in life.

It's testimony to the wild, colourful life of a self-described "never was" that her frank memoir is juicy enough to be immortalized on the big screen (the singer will serve as technical adviser). The movie pitch was sweet payback for 40 years of waiting desperately for her big break.

"I think it's one of the most amazing things I've heard since, 'Would you like to record a record?'" says LaVette, who will be appearing June 19 at the Burton Cummings Theatre as part of the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

The soulful songstress heard that line for the first time at the age of 16, when she recorded her first hit single, My Man, He's a Loving Man. The ninth-grade dropout was soon signed to Atlantic Records, but the brash teenager quit the label in 1963, thinking it would be simple to sign elsewhere -- perhaps with Barry Gordy's Motown, which was scooping up girl singers at the time.

"I always say it was the first mistake I ever made and the biggest mistake I ever made," says LaVette during a telephone interview from her home in West Orange, N.J. "I was a very headstrong, stupid individual who thought she was very smart."

Her voice and gutsy delivery suggested early on that she fit in somewhere between her idol Etta James and Aretha Franklin. LaVette seemed destined to join the likes of Motown stars Diana Ross, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and Gladys Knight who were moving up the charts, but it never happened, owing to what she calls "buzzard luck." Record deals fell through, Wells' husband shot her first manager and her debut album in 1972 was inexplicably shelved at the last minute, causing her career to stall for decades.

"I was denied my career," says LaVette, who is on her 50th anniversary tour. "Every time a deal went bad, I quit the business. Every time a new one came up, I thought, 'This is it.' I believed everything they told me. They'd break my heart but all they had to do was call again and I'd be ready to start again."

That LaVette was out of the public eye didn't mean the free spirit wasn't a major presence in Detroit. Her love life, which started with a pregnancy at 14 and a marriage at 15, featured affairs with luminaries like Otis Redding, Ben E. King, Grover Washington Jr., Solomon Burke and Franklin's husband, according to A Woman Like Me. She has stories about most Motown stars, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Ross.

"I knew everybody at Motown," she says. "I've seen them broke or drunk or naked, or all three. In my book I wrote mostly about what I did with them. I wasn't saying I saw them do this; I was doing it with them."

LaVette believes fervently that she could have been as good as any of her contemporaries if she had received the same training and management. But she had to wait until a French record label official searching the Atlantic Records tape vaults found her aborted 1972 record and released it in France in 2000. About the same time, a live performance in Utrecht was put out in Munich, creating a European fan base.

A spike in interest led to her first hit album, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise, and Grammy nominations. Then, at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration concert, she sang a heartfelt A Change is Going to Come with Jon Bon Jovi, a moment of personal triumph.

"I have been pulled out of the crypt," says the song stylist, who can't remember if she has ever been to Winnipeg. "The thing I was most wanting was not to die in obscurity. It was not so much that I wanted to be rich, but to be well known, and I wasn't. Now I know I won't die in obscurity, although I might die broke. I wish it would have happened when I was younger. It's more of a relief now."

It's a wonder she's stayed in the music game all these years. She says what kept her going was that she didn't know how to do anything else. She thought she would always sing and had to hustle to do it. Often promoters called not for Bettye LaVette, but for a female singer. She would adapt to whatever was required. For small supper clubs, her repertoire would be soft little songs; at arenas, she would belt out big numbers. LaVette cracks that she would have learned to tap dance if Broadway had called.

After all this professional neglect, you have to forgive her when she gloats about her late-life good fortune.

"I have a wonderful husband that most of my contemporaries don't have," she says. "I have a record contract, which most of my contemporaries don't have. I can fit into a size 6, which most of my contemporaries can't.

"I'm the oldest living person who hasn't been a star with a record contract. I'm really very fortunate."

LaVette is excited about seeing a movie about her life but she's naturally wary about another false start that could end in bitter disappointment.

She wonders, with a laugh, "Are they trying to fool me again?"


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Updated on Thursday, June 13, 2013 at 10:08 AM CDT: adds fact box

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