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Bettye LaVette is an underappreciated, opinionated, tell-it-like-it-is singer.
"There's isn't anyone at Motown that I didn't see drunk, broke or naked," said the Detroit-reared R&B vocalist, who after years of obscurity established herself as one of music's most formidable song stylists with stirring performances at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors (the Who's "Reign O'er Me") and the 2009 Obama inaugural celebration ("A Change Is Gonna Come" with Jon Bon Jovi).
In her new memoir, "A Woman Like Me," LaVette, 66, tells it like it was during 50 under-the-radar-but-running-with-the-stars years in the music business.
"Diane Ross played the Motown game with more skill than any girl up there," writes LaVette, using the Supremes diva's given name. "She slept her way up the Motown command. We saw her as a stuck-up b---- with a small voice and big ambition."
LaVette is brutally honest about herself, as well: She was pregnant at 14, scored a hit song at 16, became a prostitute at 19, a cocaine user (she paid for it only once, she says), a lifelong drinker and marijuana smoker, and she didn't release her first bona fide U.S. album until she had been recording for 20 years.
Her first chapter is the most potent opening ever in a music-star bio: "A vicious pimp was precariously holding on to my right foot as he dangled me from the top of a 20-story apartment building."
Hey, it's not so bad, according to LaVette.
"I didn't have any great suffering to get over," the singer said of writing her raw and riveting memoir. "It was just telling all those stories. It was more like a confession."
She confesses to flings with R&B stars Otis Redding, Ben E. King, Solomon Burke, Gene Chandler, Bobby Bland and Jackie Wilson, as well as a Detroit pimp who became Aretha Franklin's first husband.
That tidbit was the only thing that received heavy scrutiny from lawyers, LaVette said from her New Jersey home, where she lives with husband No. 3, antiques dealer and record collector Kevin Kiley.
While LaVette names names, they haven't yet cried foul.
"I haven't heard from any of the [Motown] people in the book in 40 years," she said. But she suspects "Aretha is going to have issues."
LaVette hasn't heard from her own daughter, a Michigan schoolteacher, or her two grandkids about the book. Or from her band. As for her longtime road manager (and former lover) Robert Hodge, who is a significant character in her story, well, he hasn't read it, either.
However, Hollywood is likely to read "A Woman Like Me," co-written with David Ritz, who also collaborated on autobiographies by Ray Charles, Aretha, Etta James, R. Kelly, Buddy Guy and Janet Jackson.
If it became a film, who would she like to star?
"I tell you what: Alicia Keys acts very much like I did when I was younger," she said. "It was very hard for me to stop acting like a boy."
A tear in her voice
Despite more downs than ups in her five-decade career, LaVette isn't gloating about her recent rebound. But she is proud that she's a survivor. "Just wearing a size 6 [dress] and having my voice as strong as it is," she said, "is vindication enough for me."
Known for her guttural Tina Turner-meets-Janis Joplin voice, LaVette proved her prowess again with this fall's "Thankful N' Thoughtful," her fifth album since being rediscovered in 2003 by Anti-, the hip record label that's home to Tom Waits, Wilco and Merle Haggard. The new album features songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Sly Stone.
But it's not all oldies reimagined. LaVette does a slow, stripped-down, spellbinding reading of Gnarls Barkley's 2006 hit "Crazy."
"If you're in this business, there's a little bit of insanity going on," she explained. "Even with Justin Bieber, there's something that isn't like a normal child [experiences]. It's a little crazy. Since I've been in this longer than Gnarls Barkley [lead singer Cee-Lo Green], I'm crazier than he is. When he's 66, he'll be singing it just like this if he stays in this business."
LaVette never, ever sings happy songs.
"They don't feel good," she declared. "Ever since I was a little girl, I've always liked blue and minor [key] songs. I remember when I used to rush home from school to listen to Bobby Bland's 'Lead Me On.' I was in like the fifth grade. It wasn't one of the songs my schoolmates were listening to; they were listening to the Coasters and uptempo stuff like that. I'd listen to 'Lead Me On' or 'I'll Take Care of You' and just cry like I had had nine lovers. That's always been. One person described it as a tear in whatever it is that I sing. I think that's true."
In her book, LaVette owns up to mistakes. The biggest was being impatient and insisting that Atlantic Records release her from her contract in the early 1970s.
Despite missteps and what she considers a string of bad luck with record producers and labels, LaVette never stopped performing live, including a long tour in the musical "Bubbling Brown Sugar." Nowadays, the venues are getting more prestigious, from Yoshi's in San Francisco and the Dakota in Minneapolis (where she returns Monday and Tuesday) to New York's Apollo Theater and Cafe Carlyle. This fall, she earned a full-page spread in the Detroit Free Press, recognition in her hometown that she thought was long overdue.
"I'm in a fever pitch to make some money and to try and gain my standing," said LaVette, who has been alternating book appearances and nightclub gigs. "I want to be referred to casually the way my contemporaries are like when they say 'Diana' and they say 'Aretha.'
"I'd like for something of mine to be part of the American fabric. I don't realistically think I have enough time to do that. But I'm a happy woman. I am a happy woman."
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719 Twitter: @jonbream