Otis Redding, Ben E. King, Gene Chandler, Jackie Wilson, and Solomon Burke are among the many R&B legends Bettye LaVette cites as contemporaries. They’re also among the many legends she’s slept with. In her memoir, A Woman Like Me, the singer traces the tumultuous path of her life—from teen sensation in ’60s Detroit to Grammy-nominated comeback queen in the 21st century—but her narrative relentlessly, rivetingly reprises a single theme: sex.
Those looking for a shame-ridden confessional or weepy tale of redemption, however, won’t find it here. At age 66, LaVette remains an unapologetic drinker, atheist, and libertine. Born Betty Jo Haskins, the native Michigander grew up surrounded by domestic abuse, alcohol, and music—all supplied by her parents, who ran a speakeasy juke joint out of their house. “By the age of two, I could grind to the groove,” recounts LaVette. By 14 she was pregnant; by 16 she’d recorded her first single. After a brief, unsatisfying stint with Atlantic Records, she turned to prostitution—although her only regret is that she wasn’t a very good one.
From there, her story takes on a new dimension. Defiantly unwilling to sugarcoat or mythologize, she paints the ’60s soul scene as a psychosexual minefield where aspiring female artists such as her survived by being “groupies who sang.” But she doesn’t judge in moral terms—and in one harrowing, provocative passage, she even condones the violence perpetrated against her and other women by prominent men in the music industry. “It may sound radical to say so,” she levels, “but some women needed that.”
Her brutal way of viewing the world becomes more understandable as lover after lover falls by the wayside—along with record deal after record deal. Following some minor hits, aborted albums, and even fluke, fleeting success in the disco era as both diva and Broadway star, LaVette finally attained the goal she’d been seeking since she was 16: In 1982, she released her debut album—and it was on Motown. But the triumph was short-lived, leaving her legacy and career in disrepair until the ’90s, when the interest of European soul archivists led to a full-on revival in the new millennium that includes numerous albums, an Emmy nomination, collaborations with everyone from Drive-By Truckers to Jon Bon Jovi, and a heart-stopping live rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” at the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors.
Profane yet graceful, LaVette recounts these events with grit, ease, and prideful passion. Her anecdotes are vivid and unvarnished, and even her occasional dip into politics or petty grudges—on her shit list are old “friends” like Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross—doesn’t obscure the force of her spirit. Or her vigor. “No one has enjoyed sex more than I have,” mulls LaVette in the book’s closing pages, looking back on decades of hedonism and hardship with fondness and bittersweet resignation. “I’ve learned to fuck with the best of them. And yet, unlike singing and cooking, I can’t say that sex is better than ever.” That blunt wisdom gives her voice its enduring resonance—and A Woman Like Me its strength.