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Soul Singer Bettye LaVette Tells Detroit's Story

People always told 66-year-old soul songstress Bettye LaVette she should write a book. Fifty years in show business should make for more than a few good tales, right?

"I'd say, 'Yeah, well, I'm sure I won't be famous enough to sell a book before I die,'" LaVette says, her brassy voice made as clear through her vibrant laugh as it is by her songs. "After I die, they can tell the story full-out, because I won't be there to blush or whatever.'"

But LaVette's manager thought the idea had legs — and one night he sent author David Ritz to her dressing room to get started on the thing.

"I really did not prepare for it at all," LaVette says of the resulting book, A Woman Like Me, released last week.

"These are stories that I've told. I've always said, 'Everyone who's black in Detroit, over 50 and done anything — I've seen them broke, drunk, or naked, or all three.' If I had known how confessional it was going to be, maybe I wouldn't have done it," she says, laughing.

The book hit stores just a week after a new record, Thankful N' Thoughtful. The 15-track record finds LaVette doing what she does best: wrapping her voice around a carefully selected collection of songs. She adds a menacing groove to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" ("I'm older and crazier," she says), a righteous fury to Bob Dylan's cranky rant "Everything is Broken," and brings a raw touch to The Black Keys' "I'm Not the One."

The record's finest moment comes near the end, with a slow version of The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," recast by LaVette as a "funeral dirge" for her beloved Detroit. It's the second version of the song on the record, coming after an ambling, uptempo take.

"Well, the record company liked one, and I liked the other," she says. "Neither of us was willing to give. Have you seen the commercial with the peanut butter and the chocolate? [I said,] 'Let's do both.'"

With its military drums and minimal piano line, LaVette's preferred cut certainly gets her point across.

"I'm watching my city die before my eyes," she says. "Everyone else was able to think a little more commercially [regarding the faster take]. You know, I could see their point; it just isn't the way I wanted to tell that story. But I liked them both, I liked the other one as well, but for me, it was like singing 'Happy Birthday' at a funeral. They were gracious enough to let me have my version, too."

But while the song's mournful lyrics, penned by Shane MacGowan, certainly speaks to the less-than-shining state of modern-day Detroit, they also tell of the city's fierce determination. "They tried to chop me down, like an old dead tree," LaVette sings, adding with a slight chuckle, "but they couldn't."

"Less than 30 years ago, I was doing a play in Atlanta, and you could have shot off a cannon and not hit anybody in the whole downtown. You know? So that gives me hope," LaVette says of that city's comeback. "I look at Toledo, which is right there next to Detroit, and now looks better than Detroit. I know where it came from; that gives me hope. I look at the cities that have not come back, like Buffalo. Everybody is doing a little something-something in every town . . . I'm so very glad that the president [worked to] keep the plants there, keeping some of them open. One thing that's encouraging when I go home, everybody is trying to do something. Some of it, I can tell when they're telling me about it that it's futile — that's not going to work, but that everybody is trying to do something is a positive thing."