[17 May 2007]
Spring 2007 has been an especially notable time to recognize women. Two major feminist art exhibitions opened—Global Feminisms at Brooklyn Museum and WACK! Art & the Feminist Revolution at Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles—while Judy Chicago’s iconic piece “The Dinner Party” was permanently reinstalled (also at the Brooklyn Museum). Hillary Clinton broke records and raised over $26 million dollars for her 2008 presidential campaign. And Oprah Winfrey convened a major town-hall meeting to address sexism and misogyny in hip-hop with international icons like Russell Simmons, Dr. Ben Chavis of Hip Hop Summit Action Network, and emcee/Gap model Common. Yet, in spite of such notable acknowledgements in the public sphere, a major omission was made. A mover and (ass-)shaker of funk was left in her quiet suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Who’s that, you ask? It’s Betty. Betty who, you ask? Betty Davis.
The truth about Betty is that she’s like anyone else in that there are two ways to know her: you know about her, or you know her. Before we explore either of those paths, here are some primers: Betty Mabry Davis was born on July 26, 1944 in Durham, North Carolina. When she was young, her family moved to Homestead, a small town outside of Pittsburgh known mostly for its post-wartime steel industry boom. Betty demonstrated a penchant for the arts at an early age, having written her first song “Bake That Cake of Love” at age 12; perhaps this was a reflection of her life-long immersion in music, particularly the blues. However, she was also bright from the jump, skipping a grade and graduating early. At 16, she left for New York City to study clothing and design at Fashion Institute of Technology. She made ends meet by working a host of odd jobs, and attending classes at the American Musical Dramatic Academy. Her stunning appearance and acting skills paid off as she became one of the few international models of color—at the prestigious Wilhelmina agency, no less—and was offered a part in a touring production of Hair. In short, her resume soon reflected a bright and curious soul. However, much of Betty’s mythology begins at this point; and what better place and time than New York City in the mid- to late ‘60s.
Before she even became Betty Davis, Betty was an icon in the city’s nightlife. Numerous musicians of the day anecdotally recall Betty for being a member of a captivating social clique, the Electric or Cosmic Ladies. Not to be confused as a groupie, these same musicians stress that Betty was an exceptionally clean and sober woman who was more interested in discussing music, than dealing in sex, drugs, and the such. Perhaps this drive and empathy helped Betty convince the Chambers Brothers to record her song “Uptown” immediately after a chance meeting in 1967; fortunately for the group, the song soon became one of its signature tunes. She later befriended Jimi Hendrix, dated musicians like South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Santana percussionist Michael Carabello, Eric Clapton, and Robert Palmer, and befriended Marc “T-Rex” Bolan. Her networking savvy gifted her with her own uptown club, her first record (a single called “Get Ready for Betty”), and her close friend (and longtime girlfriend to Jimi Hendrix) Devon Wilson. As quickly as Betty embraced the talent of her day, they seemingly responded in kind.
As star-studded and dazzling as Betty’s back-story appears, it pales in comparison to her connection with Miles Davis. A result of another chance meeting (a story with numerous versions, as detailed in Wax Poetics’ recent interview with her), the two were wed in 1968 after a brief courtship. The passion between the two was clear to anyone around the couple as Betty literally remade Miles’ image during their short year of marriage: she changed his wardrobe, and introduced him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, which undoubtedly inspired him to turn to fusion (even the title to his signature album Bitches Brew was changed from his original, comparatively passive Witches Brew under Betty’s counsel). Though Betty served as Miles’ muse, showing up on the cover of his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, and in such songs as Kilimanjaro‘s “Mademoiselle Mabry” and 1981’s “Back Seat Betty,” the marriage ended poorly as evidenced by Betty’s painful recollections (suggesting abuse) and Miles’ dehumanizing depiction of her in his autobiography (he accused her of infidelity with Hendrix, a claim she and her friends have repeatedly denied). While the relationship relegated Betty to a support role, it also served as the catalyst to create the Betty Davis everyone should know.
In 1973, Betty made contact with Just Sunshine, an upstart label based in the Bay Area, and secured resources to record an album. In spite of the fact that she was not a professional musician in the conventional sense (she had only studied music through her peers and had a couple recording sessions under her belt), she convinced her then paramour Michael Carabello to reach out to the Bay’s finest to assemble a band for her debut. Carabello acquiesced production duties to his friend and Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who assembled the group. The result snowballed into a who’s who of international-level stars. Errico already had an ongoing jam session with former band-mate and Graham Central Station leader Larry Graham and Santana and future Journey guitarist Neal Schon, so the three formed the core of Betty’s band. Asking around further, Errico (a novice producer, mind you) secured a “mind-bottling” support cast, including keyboardist Merl Saunders, the Tower of Power horn section, the Pointer Sisters, and Sylvester. Though the personnel vary from track to track, Davis holds the album together with a peerless performance.
Betty Davis’ self-titled debut is funk like no other. Its closest musical relation is Sly Stone’s early ‘70s molasses—deliberate, moist, and bizarre in substance—but where he often buries his voice within the arrangement, Betty kicks the mic stand over and demands your attention. Though her vocal technique is admittedly lacking (in the words of Graham Central Station member and album back-up vocalist Patrice Banks, “She couldn’t sing”), she carries the album in two ways. The first is through sheer performance. As her band rumbles and thumps out funk-rawk, she coos lines like, “I know you could have me climbin’ walls / So, that’s why I don’t want to love you” on the anthemic “Anti-Love Song.” On the Graham Central Station-style slapper “Come Take Me,” she channels throatzilla and rip-roars over the track. Seemingly raw and spontaneous, Betty’s ownership of the material reveal her to be calculating and confident. This leadership makes the music, as the band alone would only appeal to musicians and appreciators of genre-busting jams; with Betty, the music becomes a slow cooker of unbridled lust that teases and passes each beat, and flicks and licks each chord.
As if this isn’t enough, Betty takes the music over the top with her explosively unapologetic songs. Titles like “Your Man, My Man” and “You Won’t See Me in the Morning” lack subtlety about subject matter, but swagger with a confidence and bravado previously exclusive to men. Betty frequently reverses gender roles and expectations to demonstrate control and strength that could even knock Tura Satana off her feet. In this sense, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and “Game is My Middle Name” unconsciously seize the spirit of second wave feminism by equalizing depictions of an independent woman.
Betty wasted no time and followed up her debut with the aptly titled They Say I’m Different the following year. The album is equally noteworthy for her increased command as she took over the producer’s reins. In a bold move, she assembles a completely new band of unknown musicians; a handful of stars still stop by to assist, including Buddy Miles on guitar and Headhunters drummer Mike Clark, but their roles are mostly cameos. The new group reproduces the first album’s sound competently, albeit with more of a blues turn. However, the band is once again the backdrop to Betty’s writing, which becomes more personal. In a rare glimpse of her non-stage personality, Betty embraces her upbringing on the autobiographical title track, and pays homage to her heroes (“Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Son House… and Bessie Smith!”) to make sense of her identity. She also displays a growing ability to connect her struggles with those of her peers, artistic and otherwise, such as her defense of a prostitute’s dignity on “Don’t Call Her No Tramp”—“You can call her… an elegant hustler, but don’t you call her no tramp.” Betty still exhibits little subtlety or restraint, as “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him” continues the first album’s outlandish sexual antics, and “He Was a Big Freak” describes Jimi Hendrix’ purported fascination with sadomasochism (“I used to get him off with a turquoise chain!”). However, her sophomore release demonstrates her songwriting versatility and extends the promise of her debut.
Given all of this, the writing was already on the wall. Drummer Greg Errico lamented in the Wax Poetics article, “there weren’t… radio formats for heavy funk like that.” Only on specialty or independent radio did Betty receive any airtime, and even the few stations that added her songs to rotation encountered resistance; “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up” was played once on a Detroit radio station, but provoked a litany of phone call complaints and was subsequently banned. Betty’s live performances garnered better attention; Vernon Gibbs described her show as “[t]he most exciting event of the year” in Black Music. Again, fellow musicians and artists seemed to agree as luminaries like Richard Pryor, Cecil Taylor, and Gil Evans came to pay their respects at her concerts; Muhammad Ali apparently went backstage to meet her. Yet, peer support didn’t translate into critical or commercial success, let alone mainstream understanding. Major label interest from Island Records gave Betty a chance to record a third album on a larger platform, but 1975’s Nasty Gal flopped. Another album was recorded, but Island, not knowing what to do with her, shelved it and dropped her contract. Just as quickly as she swept the business off its feet, the business pulled the rug out from under her. Betty recorded another album independently in 1979 called Crashin’ From Passion, but lost control of the master tapes and never saw any income returned. The album was released in 1995 as a bootleg, but Betty had long since checked out from the business and returned to her family’s home in Pennsylvania.
As bizarre and sadly familiar as Betty’s tale may be, there is in fact the silver lining of a possible Hollywood ending. Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records has reissued her first two albums, which had heretofore been available as expensive imports or questionable re-presses. For this project the albums are crisply mastered, so the listener can practically feel Betty spit in their ear. Even better is the thoughtful packaging, which includes in-depth liner notes written by Soul-Sides.com’s Oliver “O-Dub” Wang and features significant input from Errico and Betty herself—an amazing contribution by itself considering she has not permitted public interviews for decades, let alone shown an interest in engaging the music industry. Previously unreleased songs and takes round out the package, providing a welcome document of Betty’s in-studio experiments and development of her vocal style. However, the bells and whistles are simply that; the basic fact of making Betty Davis’ music readily available again is the greatest achievement of these reissues.
Ideally, this new attention will lead to wider support and embrace of Betty Davis’ contributions to popular music. As alluded above, countless peers of Betty have already sung her praises. Contemporaries, such as Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, and Ludacris, have rhymed over samples of her work. But unspoken is Betty’s role in framing the work of numerous female artists today. Though they may not know it, many carry on aspects of Betty’s legacy: Lauryn Hill and Ani DiFranco’s fight for independence mirrors Davis’ constant insistence on controlling her work and vision; Lil’ Kim and Madonna’s unapologetic take on sexuality bares a striking resemblance to Betty’s outspoken command of her body; and bands like the Bellrays, J*Davey, and even the Noisettes join Betty’s exploration and explosion of the African-American woman’s role in popular music. Finally, here is a chance to embrace one of pop’s truly human icons. Who’s that, you ask? Now you know.