There’s been a huge resurgence of interest in funk-rock-soul diva Betty Davis over the past year, fueled in part by Seattle’s niche reissue company, Light in the Attic, and their release of her two iconic albums from the early ’70s, which have been sampled by the likes of Ice Cube, Talib Kweli and Ludacris. Suddenly, articles and reviews are springing up everywhere. Davis recently graced the cover of Wax Poetics (the featured article, “Liberated Sister” by John Ballon, is a must read for any fan and the photos will knock you out) and Seattle Weekly managed to track down the reclusive singer for a personal interview.
Born Betty Mabry in 1944, she literally burst onto the scene in the 1960s. After recording one song which failed to chart, she started writing for other musicians, including the Chambers Brothers and later, the Commodores. Meanwhile, she became a major trendsetter and fashionista, working as a top model and then opening her own cutting-edge nightclub, The Cellar, in New York City. But by all accounts, it was her marriage to jazz icon Miles Davis which provided the necessary catalyst for her music career.
According to legend (and John Ballon’s article), Miles had caught Betty’s eye during a performance at a local jazz club in 1967. She later showed up unannounced at his door wearing a see-through butterfly dress and handed him her card saying only, “I’m a musician and I think you might want to get together with me.” Then, after noticing Cicely Tyson in the background, added, “And when you throw that b**** out, I’ll be back” (in all fairness to Ms. Davis I must point out that she has disputed this account). To make a long story short, the two not only got together, but were married for one brief year (1968-1969). During this period Betty is said to have had a tremendous influence on Miles, introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and personally inspiring his landmark fusion album Bitches Brew (a name suggested by Betty to replace Miles’ original working title, “Witches Brew”). Miles repaid the favor by agreeing to produce an album for Betty and enlisting the help of Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and bassist Billy Cox, but after recording only a few tracks, the project was scrapped for reasons that are still not entirely clear. Yet this did not have a negative impact on her career; in fact, the opposite may have been true.
Known as “young, wild, and raunchy” (in Miles’ words), or more elegantly stated by Ballon as “a potent mixture of beauty, music and sex,” Betty was a true free spirit, fiercely determined to chart her own musical course. After the break-up with Miles, she was linked with many other musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Hugh Masekela, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer, and Michael Carabello of Santana. A gifted songwriter, she continued to pen songs for herself and others, but her personal relationships with jazz & rock’s elite no doubt opened other doors, and proved particularly useful when it came time to gather session musicians for her first album.
Betty headed out to San Francisco in 1972, where Carabello introduced her to Sly Stone’s rhythm section. Funk bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico were tapped for Betty Davis, along with guitarists Neal Schon (Santana) and Doug Rodrigues (Mandrill), and organist Hershall Kennedy (Graham Central Station). Back-up vocalists included Sylvester, the Pointer Sisters, Patryce Banks (Graham Central Station), and Kathi McDonald (Insane Asylum), among others. As if that weren’t enough, the horn section featured Tower of Power regulars Greg Adams, Mic Gillette, and Skip Mesquite. The result was a unique combination of heavy funk grooves underlying Davis’ gritty, piercing vocals. The standout track on the album, said to be “the classic bad girl anthem and one of the funkiest recordings ever made,” was “Anti Love Song,” penned by Davis and possibly directed at Miles (“No I don’t want to love you / ‘Cause I know how you are / Sure you say you’re right on and you’re righteous / But with me I know you’d be right off / ‘Cause you know I could possess your body / You know I could make you crawl / And just as hard as I’d fall for you, boy / You know you’d fall for me harder / That’s why I don’t want to love you”).
Davis’ 1974 follow-up album, They Say I’m Different, was basically a reprise of the first, and does not demonstrate any significant musical growth. In fact, Davis’ vocals (she was by no means a “singer’s singer”) can grate after awhile. But once again she gathered a stellar line-up of musicians, including ex-Hendrix guitarist Buddy Miles, and consequently this album really smokes. It also came to personify Davis’ bad girl image. Two songs, in particular, would eventually have a very negative impact on her career. The sadomasochistic “He Was a Big Freak,” about Hendrix, was banned from airplay (“I used to beat him with a turquoise chain / When I was a woman, I pleased him / When I was his mistress, Ooooh / When I was his flower, Ooooh”). “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” created an even bigger furor for its overtly sexual lyrics (“I said if I’m in luck I just might get picked up / I said I’m dishin’, trickin’ you can call it what you want / I said wriggling my fanny / I want you dancin, doin it, doin it / This is my night out”). So what’s all the fuss about, you might ask. Yes, this is pretty tame stuff by today’s standards, but in 1974 the song was actually blacklisted by the NAACP!
Davis was eventually ostracized by mainstream Black America for pushing the envelope too far—her Afro was too big, her attitude even bigger, her clothes too skimpy, her sexuality too much on display, her music definitely not suitable for prime time. But her live performances remained a huge draw—her aggressive on-stage persona was equalled only by the likes of Rick James, Sly Stone and Mick Jagger. Certainly no female performers of the era even came close. According to Carlos Santana (as quoted from the liner notes), “She was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis. Betty was a real ferocious Black Panther woman. You couldn’t tame Betty Davis.”
Light in the Attic must be applauded for these fine reissues. Mastered from the original session tapes, each CD includes several bonus tracks with previously unreleased material. The 30+ page booklets feature extensive liner notes by Oliver Wang with dozens of vintage photos. Credit must also be given to John Ballon, who managed to track Davis down in Pittsburgh by sifting through tax records (many had thought she was dead), and then convinced her to sign off on these reissues. You’ve got to check this stuff out- both the reissues and Ballon’s article in Wax Poetics. What a blast from the past!
Posted by Brenda Nelson-Strauss