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.