Landing a record deal at 16 and growing up in show business amongst Diana Ross
and Smokey Robinson sounds like a scene of a movie. A movie in which a young,
successful star lives in a lap of luxury, attending swanky socialite parties and
earns extravagant income. For Muskegon-born rhythm and blues singer, Bettye
Lavette, that’s only half of the story.
The seventy-year-old singer was born in Muskegon, raised in Detroit, but claims
she grew up in show business.
“I was born in 1946,” Lavette said, “so if you wanted to do anything when you
finished working in one of those factories, if you wanted to go to a bar, you
couldn’t, so you had to come by my house.”
Lavette’s parents were from the South and raised her in a very hardworking
household, complete with a jukebox.
Her mother made beer and sold alcohol during the times of segregation, and
welcomed people of all colors to their house for libations. Often playing on the
jukebox was gospel and country western songs picked by her mother or blues and
gospel songs chosen by her father. A young Bettye learned all the songs and
would stand up on top of the jukebox, rolling her stomach up and down in time to
“My mother said I’ve always talked,” Lavette said, “she said as long as she’s
known me, I’ve talked.”
Lavette admits her mind was already formed in terms of singing, despite never
having been to a concert or seen television.
“I had to grow up and learn the difference between all them because I just
thought if you sung, you sung – you know. I didn’t think they were country
singers, and blues singers or black singers or white singers … I think I thought
of singers as a breed of their own. It’s like there are all these people and
then there are the people who sing.”
Getting pregnant at 15 and landing a record deal during her ninth grade year of
high school certainly made Lavette her own breed of teenager- a singer.
“I grew up really fast,” she said, “with parents who worked hard every day, but
who were drunk all weekend. My people were from Louisiana, and so you know—they
always said the rosary drunk or sober.”
While she attended high school in Detroit, Lavette argues she didn’t grow up in
Detroit, but rather show business.
“I can’t relate, like when I was in high school in Detroit, the moment I got to
the ninth grade I started singing. And I was a professional singer with a major
recording label. I didn’t start hanging around bars or singing with a group. I
literally went to a dance and the next Friday I had a record on Atlantic
records,” she said. “It’s odd, but it’s true.”
But the teenager’s success didn’t immediately call for superstardom, despite her
closeness with fellow Motown legends.
“We all started out at the same time, people that you know from Detroit, except
they went on to become stars and I kept starting and not quite getting there.”
The female rhythm and blues singer has had plenty of enough setbacks and upsets
to make a person want to up and quit the business, but Lavette remains diligent
“This is possibly my fifth career,” she says of the ‘newer’ success and becoming
more of a household name like her Motown friends. “There’s been all of these
really monumental starts and then these detrimental stops,” Lavette said of her
“I still know all these people and I knew them before they were stars,” she
said. “So a lot of quotes that I’ve made about them over the years in
conversation, have like kind of taken the party because I was really making the
quotes or telling the stories because I wanted to be someone at the party and I
wasn’t a Supreme or an Aretha Franklin or a Miracle or anything. So I would say,
‘one time Smokey Robinson said,’ or whatever, and I knew these things to be true
because I was there.”
When word of Lavette’s coming up in Detroit stories reached biographer David
Ritz, he proposed a book deal for the singer.
It was a deal that was initially thought to be turned down for Lavette. “I
really didn’t (want to) because I really think it would be better after I die,”
Lavette laughed. After reconsideration, she agreed to the deal and began the
“I thought that it would be very easy, because I thought it would be like the
parties I’d been at. I’d tell these little stories, but every time I would tell
a story, David Ritz would say ‘and what were you doing when this was
“It became frightening at one point, because I knew if I told this, I’d have to
tell that, whereas where I’m talking to strangers, I could tell the part that
was good,” she chuckled.
The story is a very gritty, honest account of her brutal upbringing, abuse,
alcohol, prostitution, and her fellow show biz stars straight from Bettye
“While I’m really kind of open in the book, I’m apprehensive because I’m alive
and so are they – a lot of them,” Lavette said of her book’s stories of notable
singers and songwriters.
It’s a career filled with enough fuel to the fiery business full of letdowns,
and the lowest of lows, but seventy-year-old Lavette keeps on keepin’ on.
Referred to as “an overnight sensation after 50 years in the business,” the
singer has certainly ‘paid her dues’ to be in the big leagues, and has started
seeing more opportunities come her way over the last few years. Opportunities
she said she was and is still totally prepared for because of years of hard
Her album “Worthy” has been nominated for a Grammy, but it’s a nominated Lavette
will boldly tell you she doesn’t feel the typical response to.
“You’re honored when you haven’t really worked for it, and everybody just likes
you suddenly. But there are very few things that that could be given me now. If
you do this for 55 years, I don’t know that anybody gives you anything,” she
said. “They should be honored that I’ve held on, and still am an idiot for them
and this business. I don’t necessarily feel honored, and especially when I lose
to someone who hasn’t done as much in it as I have or when I’m called the wrong
thing-whatever category they choose to put me in, but there’s no way in the
world you can hang in this business for 55 years and be categorized.”
A resume of 55 years that’s included five careers, according to the spunky
seventy-year-old, and led her to many friends in places able to help. Some of
her friends helped record live albums, started record labels, pressed vinyl and
sold them at shows. This led to her landing a spot with the Rosebud booking
agency, which got Bettye into the eyes and ears of many people unaware of her
uniquely crafted voice.
“They were able to put me on festivals as an old braud from Detroit,” she
laughed. “I was able to introduce songs from all three of the CDs as well as
make the people remember who bought records from the 60s, 70s and 80s.”
Still, it was no luck, but rather a series of opportunities and hard work. “It
was a culmination of things—it’s like what luck really is: a lot of
opportunities garnered at the same time. And I was totally prepared. Totally.”
“Then I was working out of vehemence, because I was working off frustration,”
she said. “I slammed all the gigs, the CDs sold well at the gigs, because the
record companies weren’t big enough to put them in stores. And that got me a
record contract with Epitaph. And the rest, should I say, now the rest is
Her ‘buzzard luck’ went on to haunt her as her album with Epitaph somehow didn’t
get submitted to the Grammys. Bonnie Raitt, Grammy Board member and notable
blues singer/songwriter was so upset, according to Lavette, that she called the
Board and asked them to revote. “I love that woman,” Lavette exclaimed.
Despite a re-vote, the record company tried to repay Lavette for the mistake and
it led to her landing her in the living rooms of millions of Americans.
She was called to do the Kennedy Center Honors, performing The Who’s “Reign Over
Me,” and President Barack Obama’s Inaugural.
While both moments left Lavette smiling from ear-to-ear, she argues one can’t
put a single label on one’s most proud moments.
“Oh, honey, you can’t. In fifty five years, you can’t. I’ve got 35 proud
moments, there is no singular proud moment … You’ll find as you go along, you’ll
have 100 proud moments, you can’t narrow them down to one.”
While Lavette has had plenty of shining moments, she’s still out on tour, not
only to make her name known, but also some money.
“I’ve never had the opportunity to make any money, and this is the very first
time. And when this all first started, I was completely broke and not known,”
she said. “And I had the opportunity; I thought I would die broke and completely
unknown, now I see I’m just gonna die broke,” she laughed. “But everybody will
know me because I’m accepting all of the gigs.”
Don’t let that quote fool you into thinking Bettye is nothing but a money-hungry
star though, she certainly remains grounded.
“The most important thing in the world is time. People think its money; but its
time. The only thing that anybody asks for on their deathbed is more time -- not
more money, not more steaks … more time,” she said.
It’s Bettye’s time that has been quite busy, spending much of it outside of her
New Jersey home, playing gigs on tour and making appearances. She’s headed back
to Detroit for the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame induction alongside Barry Gordy
and Smokey Robinson, and then onto Philadelphia for more awards.
After 55 years in the biz, Bettye Lavette remains a force to be reckoned with.