I fell in love with Bettye LaVette in an instant! I was watching the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 and this woman who I had never seen before walked across the stage, stood in front of the microphone and delivered a soul-wrenching rendition of the 1973 song “Love, Reign o’er Me” in tribute to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who. I sat on the edge of my couch, taking each moment of her emotional performance and jumping to my feet and applauding at home, just like the audition did on television.
I rewound the tape to hear her introduction again, jotted down her name and immediately began learning all that I could online about this incomparable talent.
Then in January 2009, I saw her perform again on television, this time a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at “We Are One: The Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial.” The two sang a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Then, LaVette would wow me once again during a televised tribute to Chaka Khan on the 2011 UNCF “An Evening of Stars.” LaVette delivered a show-stopping performance of Khan’s “Love Me Still” accompanied by Herbie Hancock on piano and it was so incredible that it even brought Khan to tears.
This week, the 66-year-old LaVette released her memoir “A Woman Like Me” (Penguin Group) and let’s just say the book captures the essence of her 2005 CD, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise.”
In the tome, the Muskegon, Michigan-born singer shares candid stories about some iconic music names and her confessions are bound to ruffle a few feathers. The Daily Beast chronicled some of the more shocking aspects of the book and they’re featured below:
SHE WAS BRIEFLY A PROSTITUTE: Any doubts that LaVette’s rise to the top was glamorous are dispelled in the first sentence of “A Woman Like Me” – “A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a twenty-story building at Amsterdam and Seventy-eighth Street.” What follows is a brief summary of her affair with a charming pimp who convinced her to start turning tricks. She only managed to bring in one steady client: Johnny Desmond, the popular crooner then starring opposite Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl on Broadway. She finally tried to get out of the trade, a decision that led to her being dangled from a roof and beat up. She ran away through the streets of Manhattan wearing just a bra and a pair of shorts.
SHE SLEPT WITH ARETHA FRANKLIN’S HUSBAND: In 1963, LaVette had an affair with a pimp named Ted White, who also happened to be Aretha Franklin’s husband at the time. LaVette said she and Franklin were friends, and she’s not sure if she ever knew that she was sleeping with her husband. “Either way we didn’t have problems getting high together and shooting the breeze.” White shepherded Franklin to the top of charts, but, writes LaVette, “When it comes to the history of Aretha, Ted has been unfairly maligned.” He was an abuser. But LaVette, in her characteristically nonchalant (perhaps even naive) way, claims, “In the context of the Detroit showbiz culture of the sixties, men slapped their women around … But without Ted’s grooming, Aretha would never have been a superstar.”
TINA TURNER TOLERATED IKE TURNER’S BEATINGS: Even more controversially, LaVette claims the situation was the same with Ike and Tina Turner. “Hundreds of men would have whisked her off in a hot minute,” but she claims she stayed because she wanted to learn the lessons his beatings taught. “Those lessons resulted in her becoming a millionaire many times over.”
HELPING STEVIE WONDER LOSE HIS VIRGINITY: When Stevie Wonder was 16, some people in the industry wanted to throw him a party in LaVette’s basement apartment. The occasion: he was to lose his virginity. LaVette says she was first approached for the honor, but she suggested that her more sexual friend Marrie Early would be more “unforgettable.” When Early never showed, a beaming Wonder quickly became woefully dejected.
SHE ALMOST BEDDED MARVIN GAYE: For all her conquests—and LaVette admits to being the pursuant in many cases—Marvin Gaye was the one who got away. “Like nearly all the women who knew him,” she writes, “I’d been chasing Marvin and getting nowhere.” During one standing engagement in Chicago, she repeatedly invited Gaye up to her room after dinner, and each night he stood her up. Fed up, she threw a party one night. Gaye knocked on her door. “Oh, I thought you’d be alone,” he said, and walked away. “Marvin had finally come for me, and I blew it. I’d lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m still kicking myself.”
DIANA ROSS SLEPT HER WAY TO THE TOP: How did Diana Ross make her way to the top? “She slept her way up the Motown command,” writes LaVette. Throughout A Woman Like Me, LaVette refers to Ross as “Diane,” and does little to hide her disdain for the star. “Most of the female singers felt the same way about Diane as I did,” she says. “We saw her as a stuck-up b—h with a small voice and big ambition.” One night, while Ross was in the midst of an affair with songwriter Brian Holland, Holland’s wife showed up at a club, beat Ross up, and tore off her clothes. “America’s Supreme sweetheart was left standing in her slip, panties, and bra.”
SHE SLEPT WITH OTIS REDDING AND BEN E. KING: When LaVette was just 16, she was introduced to a Detroit producer, who she says she seduced for his connections in the music business. He helped her record her first single, “My Man—He’s a Loving Man,” which quickly burned up the charts. While touring the country, she encountered a talented singer from Macon who flirted with her. She took a shine to him, even though “he wore mohair suits and red socks. Tacky!” The singer was Otis Redding, just before he broke out himself. To LaVette, their affair was a tryst, but Redding wanted to marry her, even though his girlfriend at home was pregnant. It wasn’t LaVette’s only fling with burgeoning stars on that tour. She also had a brief affair with “Stand By Me” singer Ben E. King, though he “had both a home wife and a road wife.”
All of those tantalizing tidbits and more are featured in “A Woman Like Me” and I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to read the rest of LaVette’s tell-all memoir.
VIDEO: Watch Bettye LaVette’s performance of Chaka Khan’s “Love You Still.”