Betty Davis – The Columbia Years, 1968-69

betty davis_best of the columbia years

Title: The Columbia Years, 1968-69

Artist: Betty Davis

Label: Light In the Attic Records

Formats: CD, MP3, LP

Release date: June 30, 2016



For most of this somewhat disjointed album, soul singer Betty Mabry Davis, profiled here in a Blackgrooves review of her early 1970’s output, is heard taking first cuts at songs for a never-completed album co-produced by her then-husband Miles Davis.

The two 1969 sessions at Columbia Records’ 52nd Street, NYC Studio produced no actual master takes for a commercial release, and indeed don’t amount to enough time for a CD release. So, Light In the Attic, the Seattle reissue label that has brought Davis’s four later albums back into print for a new generation of funk fans, filled out this barrel-bottom compilation with out-takes and a single A side from Mabry’s earlier session at Columbia’s Hollywood studio. That session, produced by her then-boyfriend Hugh Masekela, resulted in one single, which didn’t chart and faded into obscurity.

Davis got another try at the music business when she relocated to NYC, fell in with Jimi Hendrix’s and Sly Stone’s entourages (and in fact wrote music for Stone, and later for The Crusaders), and caught the eye of Miles Davis. Betty and Miles Davis were married for one turbulent year, but she helped effect a major change in the jazz icon’s music, by introducing him to Hendrix’s blues-rock and Stone’s hard-funk, among other “younger” music styles percolating around New York and California in the late ‘60s. Miles’ reaction was to scrap traditional jazz and move into a new electrified, rock-influenced direction that came to be called “fusion jazz.” Miles’ most well-known achievement in this style was the album Bitches Brew, the title of which was suggested by Betty Davis. To be fair, Miles evolved his style throughout the “electric period,” and the fantastic album In A Silent Way pre-dated Bitches Brew, so the Betty Davis “influence-creation” story is probably somewhat overblown. But her influence on Miles was no doubt strong, as he admitted in his autobiography.

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Turning back to this new-old CD, Light In the Attic has re-explored the circumstances of the single musical collaboration between Betty and Miles Davis, during the time of their brief marriage. The booklet well documents the sessions, and includes interviews with Davis, Masekela and bassist Harvey Brooks. Also shown are reproductions of Columbia internal memos showing Miles Davis’s producer, Teo Macero, who co-produced the Betty Davis sessions, urging other executives to renew Betty’s contract. Columbia never did re-sign her, and thus the album was never completed.

Net-net, the New York sessions are rough and incomplete, but the makings of an album were emerging. Betty Davis was backed by Hendrix’s drummer and bassist, Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, along with a host of jazz greats who were in the Miles Davis orbit: Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, and Brooks. The playing on the four songs that survive in complete takes from the New York sessions is at the level of these musicians, in other words excellent, when they can find a groove. Then there’s the issue of Betty Davis’s voice getting in that groove. When it happens, more in some songs than others, it’s clear that this group could have made a very interesting funk-jazz album. The problem is, there wasn’t enough time to get locked in all the time, get enough songs completed, and otherwise polish and finish a commercial album.

As for the Hollywood session, we hear on this album the A side of Mabry’s one Columbia single, “Live, Love, Learn,” a somewhat sappy pop-soul ballad that didn’t click with an audience. The better stuff out of Hollywood is the previously-unreleased material: an alternate take of the single’s B side, “It’s My Life” (with a killer Masekela horn arrangement), and the straight-ahead Motown-esque “My Soul Is Tired.”

This album ties up some loose ends with Light In The Attic’s Betty Davis project, but it’s probably not worth the casual fan’s time or money. The New York material was not released because it was not finished. The Hollywood material is of a failed attempt at a breakthrough, but “It’s My Life” is a neat late-1960s soul-pop scorcher (why wasn’t it the A side of the single?). Betty Davis’s best music came later.

Reviewed by Tom Fine

Is It Love or Desire

Title: Is It Love or Desire

Artist: Betty Davis

Label:  Light in the Attic

Catalog No.: LITA 047

Release Date: 2009 (previously unreleased)

The central question of Betty Davis’ career can be summarized, without too much over-generalization, as “What’s a nasty gal to do?”  From her eponymous 1973 debut, through her two follow-ups They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal (also just reissued by Light in the Attic), it’s the theme Davis returned to time and again, even as the NAACP, record producers, and other “advisors” pleaded with her to tone down the “hot mama” angle and present herself in a more commercial (i.e. demure) light.

The question itself is not trivial.  Even today, 33 years after the 1976 recording of Davis’ great “lost” album Is It Love or Desire, American culture struggles with its portrayal of, and reaction to, women who refuse to view their sexuality as merely a necessary prelude to the holy grail of motherhood, or to soften it under the socially-acceptable veneers of “monogamy” or “committed relationships.”  Unsatisfied housewives are “desperate;” older women who date younger men are predators (“cougars”).  Modern American life is about women “having it all” – yes, you too can have a career as a high-powered fashion designer, bring your 6-month-old to work and bounce him on your knee as you look over the fall clothing lineup, and run home in time to cook a 3-course meal for your well-coiffed hubby, all while having your period! – but what happens when what a woman really wants is night after night of sweaty sex?  And, if there is a price to pay, might it not be worth it?

Davis’ opening salvo captures a braggadocio more commonly associated with male blues performers (and their rock ‘n’ roll offspring), while at the same time acknowledging the risk of heartbreak and abandonment inherent in the exploration of her sexual identity: “Lover of many men, I’m too hot to handle, I’m too cold to freeze.”  This is a theme Davis returns to throughout the album in songs like “Let’s Get Personal” and, less successfully, “Whorey Angel.”  The former includes a great, almost absurdist, come-on: “I want you to loosen up and think foolish things, because if you can think them you can have them. And by the way, what is your name?,” while “Angel” explores similar territory less creatively.  Indeed, Davis’ bravado fails to conceal the sense of loneliness that pervades Is It Love.  Surely it’s no accident that the original title was to have been Crashin’ From Passion: “We did it on a bed of roses, and now the daylight comes, and I got the I-don’t-know blues, ‘cuz, uh, crashin’ from passion.”

On Is It Love, Davis is accompanied by her band Funk House, a tight ensemble comprised primarily of musicians from Davis’ native North Carolina who had supported Davis live and in the studio starting with 1975’s Nasty Gal.  What Funk House may lack in name recognition (compared to, say, the heavyweights who played on her debut album), they more than make up for in groove and punch.  Clavinet, wah-wah guitar, and thumb-popping bass lines creep in and out of the mix, and the band shifts easily from the throbbing funk stew of the opening track to the guitar-driven rock-funk jam of “It’s So Good.”  More importantly, though, the band and Davis are also capable of surprising range and delicacy.  “When Romance Says Goodbye” is a stunning portrait of the end of a love affair, with a minimalist bass pulse supporting an acoustic guitar filigree that would not be out of place in a Cassandra Wilson or Norah Jones song.  When Davis sings, “There’s so many things in life he has to deal with. I say to him, ‘I try to be a woman.’  He answers back ‘You’re a woman I can’t sleep with.’  It’s strange the way two people change,” the heartbreak is deep, true, and overwhelming.  “Bar Hoppin'” is another departure from the rock-funk groove, a swinging, boozy paean to hard-drinking and hard-living (“Drink it up, drink it down, bar hoppin’, can’t stop it”) that includes a nice interlude of walking bass and jazzy ride cymbal.  There’s even room for a little psychedelia in “For My Man,” which blends together chicken-scratch guitar; spinning, burbling synth lines; and reverb-laden fiddle from (of all people) Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and somehow makes it all fit.

Exactly why Is It Love languished for over 30 years is something of a mystery.  The recording was finished and mastered (the original masters are used for this release), but the tapes never made it to Island Records, Davis’ label, apparently the result of a brouhaha between Davis and the record company.  Davis was clearly fed up with the music industry by this time – “Stars Starve, You Know” is a ridiculously funky rant against Island, the music industry, and anyone else who tries to tone down the Nasty Gal (“They said if I wanted to make some money I’d have to clean up my act.  So I called Miles Davis.  He said, ‘That’s ‘cause you’re a fine black bitch, that’s all of that'”) – and Light In The Attic has done funk fans everywhere a great service by bringing this album back from its undeserved obscurity.  Kudos to the label, too, for including detailed notes and song lyrics (although the librarian in me wishes for a little closer proofreading).  Is It Love or Desire is no throwaway or abandoned, half-finished project.  It’s an album that should have been released 30 years ago, and the missing link in Davis’ discography.

Reviewed by Terry Simpkins