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Stateside: Reflection on a voice, singer Bettye LaVette's musical career

Mercedes Mejia

Fifty years ago, singer Bettye LaVette recorded her first single and Top Ten hit, “My Man- He’s a Lovin’ Man.” But the time between “Man’s” release and now has not been one of unscathed fame and stardom.

The Muskegon-born artist delves into the ups and downs of her career in her new autobiography, “A Woman like Me.”

Along with her book, LaVette recently released a new album, “Thankful ‘N Thoughtful.” She will perform material from the record at her show tonight at the Ark.

For LaVette, singing was recreational and didn’t immediately begin as a career option.

“It was just something I could do for a very long time. My family was not a musical family but I could always sing and people always liked it. It never occurred to me that I could be a singer. I had never seen a singer,” said LaVette.

LaVette’s exposure to music started at a young age. Gospel singers would frequent her family’s house, introducing her to the capabilities of the human voice.

When asked about being 16 and recording a single in Detroit, LaVette was modest and understated.

“It was really easy. No one was referred to as a producer. Everyone was writing or forming groups. A lot of girls groups were forming then. Everybody was singing. It was no big deal to record,” said LaVette.

After recording her single at Atlantic, things got difficult for LaVette when her first manager was shot.

But like so many of the obstacles LaVette faced throughout her career, it was just something from which she grew.

“Nothing that ever happened to me was like what happened to anyone else,” said LaVette.

LaVette compares her career as a singer to any other job- it was what she did and she did not give up on it.

“Over the decades, sticking with it became easier because if I quit after doing this for 30 years, that would mean I was 60 before I became proficient at anything else. Looking at it like it was my job, that was more important than anything else, even if it only paid $50 a night. I was thrilled when I could pay taxes,” said LaVette.

Singing, to LaVette, is personal; the words she delivers come from a place with which only she is familiar.

“The only place I can go. To me. I can’t make them anybody’s but my own. When I’m doing the songs, the words are very important to me. If the song is something that made me cry yesterday, more than likely it will make me cry today. I sing for myself and I want it to be good for me. Now, my audience is also pleasing me so much,” said LaVette.

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