Bettye LaVette has had affairs with both men and women.
“I don’t know that any of them could be called relationships,” says the veteran soul singer. “They’d have to be called dalliances because I was so young. And it’s not where I am now.”
The dalliances, recounted in her 2012 memoir A Woman Like Me, did give her “keen insight” into the LGBTQ experience, as well as enduring LGBTQ friendships. “My best friend since we were five years old is gay, and my best newest friend for 30 years is gay, and the other one, of 35 years, is a transsexual. I have a complete understanding and comfortability with people who are not necessarily, quote-unquote, straight.”
Overall, very little has been straight, traditional or predictable in the life of LaVette, who grew up in Motown-era Detroit and became a recording artist at 16. “I’ve sung whole songs, they tell me, since as long as I could talk,” she says.
More than a half-century later, the good-humored singer is in what she refers to as her “fifth career,” which over the past decade has included lauded performances at the Kennedy Center Honors and at the first Obama Inauguration. “There just have been so many false starts to success.” How does she stay positive, particularly in this politically dark, post-Obama era?
“It’s very easy for me to get depressed, but it’s very easy for me to work it into a song. There’s something for me to do with all of my feelings all of the time. I have great, great faith in this country. I think that anyone who came from slavery has great faith in this country. When slavery was first talked about as being abolished, 99 percent of the whites in this country were opposed to that…. I believe that this little glitch that we’re in now — I don’t think we’re necessarily going backwards, I just believe that the people who are backwards have been coming forth.”
Her best case for remaining optimistic is the promise of greater personal success to come. LaVette has just signed a new contract with Universal Records and has a new album due out next spring.
“Now, I don’t have any thoughts of becoming Justin Bieber,” she laughs, “but I certainly would like to see the book turned into documentary form, and I would like to see what’s going to happen over the hurdle with this new CD. All the ducks are in a row right now for the very first time in my entire career. So if this shit don’t work, I’m going to start taking it personally.”
Bettye LaVette performs Sunday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m., at The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW. Tickets are $20 to $45. Call 202-787-1000 or visit thehamiltondc.com.
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