By Ben Edmonds
Detroit Free Press Special Writer
Zoom LaVette wrote her book with noted biographer David Ritz.
When we first encounter Bettye LaVette in her new autobiography "A Woman Like Me," it is the mid-1960s and the Detroit soul singer is being dangled by one foot from the roof of a building 20 stories above Amsterdam Avenue in New York City, her fate in the hands of the furious pimp-lover she was attempting to leave.
That's only page one of a dizzying, careening, nonstop roller coaster ride of an autobiography. The book, along with a new album and an international tour, are being coordinated in celebration of the 50-year milestone in LaVette's perplexing, frustrating, but ultimately triumphant career.
Fifty years ago the Detroit music scene was in explosive bloom, and LaVette was one of the city's bright young stars. The diminutive 16-year-old with a commanding voice had just crashed the R&B Top 10 with a saucy boast called "My Man -- He's a Lovin' Man." The talent it showcased predicted an ascendance that would seat Bettye LaVette alongside her neighbors Smokey Robinson and Aretha Franklin at the table reserved for immortals.
It didn't happen. She continued to make records, some of them great, but none caught the necessary breaks and many were never even released. Everyone acknowledged her dazzling potential, but nobody could give it the proper setting. Her bad luck, some of it self-inflicted, was as tenacious as her talent. The ledge we meet her on is one she would dangle precariously from, metaphorically speaking, for decades.
What she calls her "buzzard luck" has reversed dramatically in the past 10 years, thanks to a series of well-received contemporary albums and a pair of televised star-making turns. The first was a jaw-dropping rendition of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors. It was followed a month later by another show-stopping performance, this one a duet with Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" during Barack Obama's inauguration festivities. After almost half a century, public perception changed from "Never heard of her" to "Why haven't we heard of her before?"
Hard road to the top
This ranks among the greatest feel-good stories in recent memory, but the feel-good part accounts for a small fraction of the story LaVette has to tell. Her book, co-authored with David Ritz (celebrated biographer of Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and many others) is an unflinching and uncompromising look at a life lived across the tracks from fame, where the brass ring was always within view but never within her grasp.
"I did think there would be a book," she says by phone from New Jersey, where she now lives. "But I always thought I'd be discovered after my death, and then somebody would write this great book about me." We are thankful she got around to it herself. No outsider could have begun to do this woman justice.
What you get in "A Woman Like Me" is LaVette raw and unfiltered. "At my age I'm not trying to make any kind of impression on anyone," she says.
The singer, 66, clearly relishes her late-life breakthrough, and she has never stopped engaging the world with the enthusiasm of a teenager. She has an endearing salty streak, leading to statements like, "I know everybody in Detroit over 50. No matter how rich or poor they may be, I've seen 'em drunk or broke or nekkid; sometimes all three."
LaVette is an unabashed sensualist for whom sex -- whether deep, casual or strategic -- has played a part in her life she has no interest in disguising or downplaying. Likewise, she offers no apologies for her fondness for alcohol and the occasional medicinal cigarette. Standard-issue celebrity repentance is not on her menu. "My story is one in which Jesus will not be making an appearance," she writes.
This is a woman who, after arguing theology with the Baptist cast of a musical called "The Gospel Truth," arrived at rehearsal the next day with a T-shirt that proclaimed, "Everybody has to believe in something. I believe I'll roll another joint."
This sensualist also happens to possess an utterly ferocious work ethic and dedication to craft. It helps explain why she's still around after 50 years, and still enjoying herself, when so many others have fallen by the wayside. There is a time to work and a time to play, and LaVette has found ample time for both.
Her narrative is studded with remembrances of Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Diana Ross (whom she pointedly calls Diane), Otis Redding and other luminaries. Some may wish they had not been remembered. In one sharply recalled scene, the wife of famed Motown songwriter Brian Holland catches him having a rendezvous with Miss Ross at the Twenty Grand nightclub and delivers a savage and very public beat-down of the diva.
LaVette also has no difficulty expressing a contrary opinion, as with her passionate defense of Ted White (husband/manager of Aretha) and Ike Turner (husband/manager of Tina), figures usually vilified in reportage of their respective ex-spouses.
She sees this not as telling all, but simply telling it like it was and is. "Everything I wrote is true," she states firmly. "I had to get three witnesses from the '60s for some of the things I said, and I did. It had to be notarized and we had to retain attorneys. All just to tell the truth! But what I was telling weren't secrets. It was common knowledge at the time, not privileged information. I'm not saying mean things about people. I'm just saying what happened, how it happened, and with whom. That's all."
The early part of the book paints a vivid picture of a vanished city, the Detroit of Black Bottom and her parents' blind pig, the Graystone Ballroom and Phelps Lounge and Paradise Valley. While big names will grab the attention, her most poignant portraits are devoted to relative unknowns, prisoners on the fringe with her. Like Rudy Robinson, the doomed piano genius who was LaVette's accompanist for many of the leanest years.
"Ooh, that man could make me so angry," she says. "He was a brilliant musician and a hopeless drunk. We argued every single day, and I fired him at least once a month ... for 30 years! But without him, and of course Jim, I wouldn't be the artist you see before you."
Jim is Jim Lewis, and LaVette's relationship with the union official and music aficionado was central to her development. He was her mentor, manager and biggest booster, and it was under his tutelage that a talented know-it-all became an authoritative singer and polished performer fit for any stage in the world.
"It's hard to talk about me without talking about what I learned from him," she acknowledges. "Jim once took me to see (singer-bandleader) Billy Eckstine at the Roostertail. I was 17 and did not want to be there. When we went into the dressing room Jim said, 'Billy, I'd like you to meet a young lady who wants to be a singer.' Wants? I had a record in the charts; Billy Eckstine hadn't had a hit in 20 years! I was offended, but Jim was right. He knew how much I didn't know. I fought him every step of the way, but he made me see it."
LaVette continues: "That's why I can't believe things like 'American Idol.' I know how long it took me to possess, truly possess, even one song, so what 'American Idol' promises in a few weeks is not real. Jim Lewis wanted to impress upon me how much work I had to do before I became the singer I thought I already was."
The decades she endured in obscurity were dedicated to doing that work, to turning a voice that was already a natural wonder into a supremely disciplined musical weapon. When her chance came she was more than ready. She'd been ready for years.
When she stepped forward at the Kennedy Center to sing "Love Reign O'er Me" and faced an audience that included members of the Who and Barbra Streisand, Beyoncé and Aretha Franklin, she was not intimidated in the least. Having watched too many less gifted performers roar past her while she was stalled on the fringe, she takes an understandable pride in arriving at the peak of her powers when she did.
"Anybody that's seen my show knows how hard I work," she asserts. "I keep myself together -- I can fit into a size 6! -- and I keep my voice strong. I have what I've always wanted: a husband, a manager, a booking agent, a publicist, a record company and now a book publisher. These are things my friends and neighbors have had for years. Now I have them. And I can move so much more expediently because I don't waste any time. I'm late for nothing. I know my stuff when I get there. It takes me five days to record an album. I learned this not for the sake of efficiency, but from the years of no money."
On the new album "Thankful N' Thoughtful," her emotive rasp transforms a diverse set of songs from Bob Dylan, Sly Stone, the Black Keys, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Gnarls Barkley and others. "Dirty Old Town" is the most radical example of her transformative process. She keeps only the song's basic framework and rebuilds it with personal references -- to Northern High, the Graystone and Dodge Main -- until Ewan MacColl's English folk song has become LaVette's mournful celebration of her own dirty old town.
"That was how I found my way into that song," she says, "and after I finished it I had to cry. I feel so bad about what's happened to my city. At the same time I feel hopeful for the possibility of a turnaround, because I know how much Detroit has to offer."
More Details: 'A Woman Like Me'
By Bettye LaVette and David Ritz
Blue Rider Press, 278 pages, $26.95
In stores Thursday