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Sizzling sessions with Bettye LaVette

HERB BOYD Special to the Network Journal | 9/6/2012, 12:16 p.m.
bettye lavette, a muskegon native

Reading Bettye LaVette's absolutely engrossing autobiography, "A Woman Like Me" (Blue Rider Press, 2012), you can almost see her holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a joint in the other as she tells her story to writer David Ritz. When LaVette confesses that she has learned more from pimps than preachers, you know her story is going to be a wild ride, and that it is, and you wonder how some of those still alive will react to her "tell-all" book.

Even those familiar with LaVette's trouble-ridden, sex-driven life will be stunned to hear her relate the countless number of men she bedded. In recounting her bedroom romps, readers may be reminded of the outrageous sex exploits of jazz great Charlie Mingus and basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain. Well, LaVette may not match them in numbers, but unlike them, she has no reservation about naming her boudoir beaus.

But it's more than a book about a singer, a veritable Dona Juana, trying to get beyond the sheets to the charts, trying to land a record contract but ending up on the short end of the you-know-what. Despite the numerous setbacks, the unfulfilled promises from producers--something she terms "buzzard luck"--LaVette is a survivor and no obstacle is too big for her to surmount. Her honesty is astonishing, and if half of what she relates is true, then her journey is no less painful than Billie Holiday's or Bessie Smith's.

From the opening pages when one of her pimps dangles her from the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper, you are taken on her furious passage of valleys and peaks, where she struggles valiantly to control the inevitable turmoil of her life. What is most intriguing about her book is the way she and Ritz mix humor and wit, a kind of comic relief to the moments of sorrow and setback. The cursing and wisecracking are nicely turned very much like the way she works a song, fingering the jagged edges of the blues without relinquishing her dominance.

She and Ritz succeed in the same way she jells with her musicians, especially the current ensemble that has made her stints at the Cafe Carlyle such splendid occasions. Longtime residents of Harlem, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit will relish those scenes so memorably evoked by LaVette as she recalls the clubs, incidents and the gaggle of lovers and mentors. Her relationship with musicians union representative Jim Lewis of Detroit is particularly rewarding given his relentless concern about the development of her craft. It was his recurring advice that if she learned to sing, "You can sing anything, anywhere," that got her over when the musical genres shifted.

All the bumpy stages of her life appear to have been just a training ground, testing her stamina and determination to reach that precious destination. She writes that it took her 50 years to finally get the right man in her life, Kevin Kiley, but there were indications, she often concluded, that she had reached that plateau before.

But at 67, LaVette may be tired of the ups and downs, the endless parade of paramours. Now it's time to settle down, smell the roses and accept her newfound success that, as all of us know, didn't come overnight. There may be more cocaine to snort, more weed to smoke, more champagne to drink, but let us hope there will be no more "buzzard luck."

A woman like Bettye LaVette is like no other.