Soul legend Bettye LaVette got an early start in music. She made her first album at 16, which is why she's already celebrating her 50th anniversary in recording.
And boy is she celebrating. There's a new album on deck, Thankful N' Thoughtful. The disc features LaVette's reinterpretations of hits by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Black Keys, Neil Young, Gnarls Barkley and many more. Early reviews have lauded her bold reworkings of "I'm Not the One" by the Keys and "Crazy" by Barkley.
But the singer isn't content with just another record. She's also releasing her autobiography (written with David Ritz). LaVette has had quite the colorful life, and she spares no detail or hair-raising experience in A Woman Like Me. The music drops Sept. 25 on Anti-Records, with the book following on Sept. 27 (Blue Rider Press/Penguin).
The singer will also tour the country between September and the end of November and sign copies of A Woman Like Me at Barnes and Nobel in Manhattan on the 27th. Below, check out the exclusive premiere of "Dirty Old Town," an Ewan MacColl standard LaVette says she re-wrote for her beloved Detroit. Then read an excerpt from the book, in which LaVette describes leaving high school, finding "the action" and connecting with a young Berry Gordy.
Bettye LaVette - Dirty Old Town
Here's an exclusive excerpt from A Woman Like Me:
I left high school in the ninth grade when they told me I had to take swimming lessons. Northern had a fabulous pool and everyone was expected to swim. Not me. I don’t take to water. It’s even hard for me to take a shower when water’s coming at my face.
“If you want to be excused from swimming class,” said the principal, “your mother’s going to have to come in and sign a form.”
“I’m a mother,” I said. “What do you need my mother for? Besides, she’s working. She’s doesn’t have time to fool with your forms.”
“Then we don’t have time to fool with you.”
“You won’t have to,” I said. “I’m gone.”
The only things I missed about school were those red-devil pills, the kind that got you high and hyper. So instead of going to Northern every morning, I’d go to the shack across from school and hang out with the pill poppers and weed smokers. That was our little teenage drug community, where no one was reprimanded or kicked out.
I heard some of the older kids talk about the Black Bottom, the entertainment area of colored Detroit centered on Hastings Street. They talked about the Flame, where big-time acts like Della Reese and B. B. King performed. They also talked about the slick operators and fast women who frequented the area. That talk fascinated me. So did the older guys who hung outside Northern High accosting the sexier girls. They were Black Bottom pimps looking to recruit. My first thought was Choose me! Choose me! but I didn’t get chosen. Why not? I was shapely. I had a big booty and a cute face, but I guess that wasn’t enough. Maybe I lacked that come-hither vibe that makes a successful hooker.
A girlfriend and I hitchhiked to Black Bottom so we could see it for ourselves. It was love at first sight. I loved seeing all those long Eldorados, all those fast-moving people, all the action on the street and in the clubs. If you had told me I could be a singer in one of those clubs, I would’a never gone home again.
Ladies of the night in stacked heels and push-up bras!
Pimps in green silk suits, fancy fedoras, and spit-polished alligator shoes!
This was life, this was Paradise Valley!
I just wanted to stretch out on the sidewalk and take it all in.
I just wanted to stay there forever.
I was never the same. Never.
A taste of Black Bottom had me searching for any place where there was music and action. A girlfriend told me about the Graystone Ballroom on Woodward Avenue where Berry Gordy, a part-time songwriter and full-time hustler, was signing acts for his fledgling local label called Motown. Mama warned me to stay away from the Graystone, which, of course, made it more enticing. She suggested that I stay home with Terrye, but she and Sister were doing a fine job of caring for my little one. Long as they were around, I knew Terrye was in safe hands. Mama liked to say to me, “Betty Jo, it’s your red wagon. Either push or pull it.” So I pushed up my bedroom window, crawled out, took those three little steps, and hit the sidewalk running.
They were all there: Otis Williams and the Distants, who would soon become the Temptations. The great David Ruffin, who would soon lead the Temptations. The Miracles with green-eyed Smokey. Mary Wells, who was singing Smokey’s songs.
In music-crazy Motor City, no one was crazier for music than I was. At an early age, I was listening to music that adults loved. I loved jazz. I loved Etta Jones’s version of “Don’t Go to Strangers.” I thought that was the most sophisticated music I had ever heard in my life. Music gave me a crazy kind of confidence. I had a voice. I could project. I could belt it out. I was ready. But I had no entrée. I needed a connection.