A WOMAN LIKE ME by Bettye LaVette and David Ritz (Blue Rider), 272 pages, $28.50 cloth. LaVette plays the Winter Garden Theatre tonight (Thursday, November 1). See listings. Rating: NNNN
R&B veteran Bettye LaVette's autobiography opens as the singer's pimp is dangling her off the roof of a Detroit building. As intense as that scene is, by the end of her colourful life story, it doesn't even stand out as a particularly shocking moment.
And when it comes to the better-known soul music legends of 1960s Detroit, she doesn't hold back in the least, which makes her memoir a gold mine of juicy gossip about superstars like Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and many others.
LaVette appears to be completely unconcerned about burning bridges in the music industry, which makes sense when you find that for much of her life she was essentially snubbed by the star-makers and celebrities who sprang up in the Motown era. However, that career arc also makes for a more engaging narrative than most rock autobiographies; instead of peaking in her early 20s, she spent 50 years trying desperately to make it before finally getting the recognition she deserves.
LaVette makes no apologies for living and loving the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll lifestyle. She is, however, definitely aware that others might judge her for some of her choices, especially regarding her family. Nor does she shy away from spilling the beans about how many men in the music industry were essentially pimps, an aspect of the business she sees as a fact of life back then that most people would prefer to forget.
The raunch and debauchery make for an entertaining read, but LaVette deserves credit for also being a great storyteller with a huge personality. Of course, that larger-than-life part of her character, combined with a lot of stubbornness and bad luck, also explains why it took her so long to be properly recognized as an artist.
But instead of getting beaten down, she just responds to each new disappointment with a "muthafucka" (easily her favourite word) and moves on to the next opportunity.
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