Friday, February 22, 2013

One of a Kind: A Woman Like Me by Bettye LaVette

Bettye Lavette at the San Jose Jazz Festival in 2009 (Photo by Andy Poupart)

Bettye LaVette has been waiting a long time to tell this story. In fact she has been waiting a long time to have anybody care about the story she tells. Her success in the last couple of years has seen this remarkable singer move to the top of the world. Elvis Costello, Pete Townshend and Paul Shaffer are all quoted on the back cover, raving about the book. They all mention her voice in their blurbs. They’re not only talking about her singing voice either. That voice stands on its own as one of the finest R&B instruments in use today. They are referring to the voice she uses to tell her story: a raw take-no-prisoners voice that is not afraid to tell it like it is.

She was merely a teenager in Detroit when she had a hit single with “My Man He’s a Lovin’ Man”. Motown was busy with their stable of artists so she went to Atlantic Records. It didn’t work out. Although she hung with some of the biggest names in music, she never broke out. She moved from label to label, never getting the break she felt she deserved. The labels and producers would record a song or two, put out a single, but no albums followed. Even when an album was recorded, fate intervened and caused something to go wrong.

LaVette has a voice all right, and co-author David Ritz lets her use it. The story unfolds in breathless prose as if flowing from Bettye herself. Her language is punctuated with a particular expletive that expresses contempt, frustration and anger. “Muthafucka!” she spits out at the end of particular tales. And you know exactly what she means.

Most autobiographies dwell on the successes of their authors. “And then I wrote…” but LaVette didn’t have that many successes, until ANTI- Records found her in 2005. A Woman Like Me (Blue Rider Press, 2012) charts the lack of success brilliantly. Bettye never lost faith in herself, she always knew she could out-sing most of the divas in the business. Once ANTI- Records put out I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise, a series of re-releases came forward from labels she’d been ignored by in the past. She stormed the barricades and moved from success to success, and, in 2009, she sung at Barack Obama’s first inauguration.

Her luck with record companies was echoed by her luck with men. She documents both the good and the bad, but the bad are more memorable. Pimps, wife-beaters, drug users, and the odd nice guy who would see her through a trouble spot. Of course, it’s how she met her husband, so one cannot argue with her ultimate success on both personal and musical fronts. Bettye LaVette has a distinctive, raw vocal style and she uses the same forceful voice to tell her life story. A Woman Like Me? I’m not sure there’s many out there just like Bettye LaVette.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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