On record and on the record, Bettye LaVette sings her life

Singer Bettye LaVette has a new memoir, “A Woman Like Me,” and new album, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.”
Marina Chavez
Singer Bettye LaVette has a new memoir, “A Woman Like Me,” and new album, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful.”

Bettye LaVette appears on the cover of her new memoir the way her admirers often see her in concert. Which is to say at the mercy of her emotions. Her eyes are closed, head tilted back. Her mouth is twisted in a look of anguish. The muscles around her throat are clenched, as are her fists. She’s standing in front of a classic old microphone.

For a static image, it conveys a lot about LaVette, 66. a soul singer who first emerged in the early 1960s but didn’t find lasting fame until 40 years later. In 2005, Anti-Records, an indie label in Los Angeles, released “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” which unearthed LaVette from years of relative obscurity and prompted generations of new fans to wonder, “Who is this — and why didn’t I know about her sooner?”

“A Woman Like Me,” her memoir co-written with David Ritz, answers those questions. LaVette dishes the dirt, too, from candid stories about her sexual exploits (the one about Solomon Burke is a doozy) to running with pimps who fueled her cocaine habit. She also writes about the making of her albums and the inevitable heartache she felt each time success eluded her.


The book coincides with a new album, “Thankful N’ Thoughtful,” songs from which LaVette will perform when she headlines the Wilbur Theatre on Thursday.

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The Globe recently caught up with LaVette by phone from a hotel room in Seattle. Not surprisingly, she was as spry and feisty as she presents herself in concert and in the book.

Q. Page after page, you write about incredible disappointments and promises that went unfulfilled, and yet you kept going. What did you have faith in?

A. Eventually, I had faith in the fact that I was very talented. Before that, and the reason I came to that conclusion, is because people kept helping me. Even in the midst of having all this bad luck — the pimps, the managers — everybody tried to help me. Until I met Jim Lewis [her mentor and former manager], I had never even had any insurance or belonged to a union. Everybody paid my bills. So the people who do like me, really like me. Those people in the book did not lift a hand to do anything for me. So I don’t feel I owe them any kind of allegiance. It’s not an exposé about them; it’s about me. They were just in my life.

Q. You have an interesting passage about how Jim tried to school you on singers, making you listen to everyone from Nancy Wilson and Judy Garland to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. But you didn’t end up sounding like any of them.


A. Before my first record came out, I had never seen a live show or anyone on stage. But I had seen every musical that had been made, so I liked Judy Garland and Doris Day. It never occurred to me that I could be a singer because I didn’t sound like them. That’s one of my blessings — it’s very unique that I don’t sound like anybody else.

Q. What surprised you about writing the book?

A. I thought it would be conversational. One of my greatest lines for all these years has been, “I know everybody at Motown. I’ve seen ’em either drunk or naked or broke, or all three.” And people would chuckle. But David Ritz would say, “Which ones? And what were you doing when they were doing this?” That was the most difficult part. I used to say those little snatches and move along. But David would say, “You’re going to have to write the book if you’re going to write the book.”

Q. You weren’t prepared to name names?

A. No, not really. But then I said, “I wonder what it would be like if they stopped speaking to me, considering they haven’t spoken to me in 40 years.” So I said I have absolutely nothing to lose here.


Q. Who would play you in a movie about your life?

A. I was trying to think of who I’d like to play me when I was young. I don’t know that much about young actresses and actors, but I think I could choose better than they chose for Ike and Tina [Turner, the subjects of 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It”]. There’s so much difference between Laurence Fishburne and Ike Turner that it was like he was playing a girl.

Q. What about Angela Bassett as Tina?

A. I think she’s a great actress, but I didn’t like the way she portrayed Tina. For one thing, Tina is very quiet. She speaks very softly, usually. I didn’t like either one of those characters at all. It was far from Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ray Charles.

Q. You’re known for your interpretations of songs, and you’ve talked about how they have to speak to your experience in order to pull them off. Is that still true?

A. Well, I don’t like singing love songs anymore. It’s easier for me to sing the hurt songs because whatever hurt I ever had is still buried in there somewhere, so I just call it out when I start to sing. But the stories have to make very good sense.

Q. You don’t spend much time with a song’s original version, do you?

A. Oh, no. After I get the words down, that’s it. I want to think it how I want to think it. That’s why I’ve never done “Respect” or “Midnight Train to Georgia” — I was completely satisfied with the way they were sung. Usually I’m singing songs because I’m correcting them; I’m making me like them. (Laughs.) That’s what happened with “Love, Reign o’er Me” [the Who classic she famously sang at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008]. I had to make me like that song because it didn’t make any sense to me and I didn’t like it. When I got the words, then it became mine. And I liked mine.

Q. What’s a surefire way for you to turn down a song?

A. If it talks about God, if it talks about dying. I just think that would be so stupid of me to die if somebody left me. And I don’t know any other reason why you would die in a song. I liked the “Crazy” tune [by Gnarls Barkley, which LaVette sings on her new album]: “I remember when I lost my mind.”

Q. What have you learned about your voice over the years?

A. That it is indeed that: my voice.

Interview was edited and condensed. James Reed can be reached at jreed@
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