If you’ve never heard of Bettye LaVette, she’s well aware. The R&B singer’s new book, A Woman Like Me, chronicles her decades-long career as singer on the fringes of the Motown greats and soul legends, so close to breaking out so many times before things kept falling through or, as she says, “my sugar turned to shit.” LaVette, who had her first hit at age 16 (“My Man—He’s a Loving Man”), scored a hit album four decades later with I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise. Grammy nominations, TV appearances, and a slot singing at Barack Obama’s inauguration concert followed.
A Woman Like Me details the long journey to success, but is also filled with frank gossip and stories told about the star singers LaVette met on her way. (There’s a handy index in the back if you want to skip to the dish on your favorite legends.) From her sexual exploits with Otis Redding and Ben E. King to Diana Ross’s real talent, here are the juiciest bits.
1. 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.
2. She Slept With Otis Redding and Ben E. KingWhen 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.”
3. She Slept With Aretha Franklin’s HusbandIn 1963, LaVette had an affair with a pimp named Ted White, who also happened to be Aretha Franklin’s husband at the time. LaVette says 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 LaVett, 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.”
4. Tina Turner Tolerated Ike’s BeatingsEven 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.”
5. Marvin Gaye Knocked on Her Door 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.”
6. Stevie Wonder’s Deflowering Party 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.
7. ‘Diane’ Ross Is a ‘Stuck-Up Bitch’ 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 bitch 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.”
8. Making it BigIt wasn’t until 2005’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise that LaVette, though boasting legions of devoted fans, finally had a hit record, one that outsold all of her previous efforts. She landed a plum gig on the televised Kennedy Center Honors concert to pay tribute to The Who and show off in front of Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, and Beyoncé—all the women she had long hoped to best in the industry. “I wanted to demonstrate to them that I was their equal, and then some,” she writes. And she did. “I saw that Barbra was spellbound. Aretha did not let me out of her sight. Beyoncé held her breath.” A YouTube clip of her impressive performance made the rounds, and soon after, she was invited to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” with Jon Bon Jovi at President Barack Obama’s inauguration concert.