American soul music, historically speaking, has had its fair share of strong female characters, from Josephine Baker to Beyonce. However, few ladies hold a candle to the polarizing impact made by the likes of Betty Mabry Davis. She might not have had the pipes of some of her ’70s contemporaries like Diana Ross and Minnie Riperton, but what Davis lacked in vocal prowess she more than made up for in feel. In song, Davis assumed the role of a Praying Mantis, the kind of woman who would kill and eat her lover after copulation (albeit to a heavy funk soundtrack).
In life, she seemed to be no different. So much so that even a badass like jazz legend Miles Davis couldn’t keep her in check, evident in Davis’s controversial affair with Jimi Hendrix (alluded to in her classic song “He Was a Big Freak”) that not only dissolved the couple’s short-lived marriage but also any chance of Jimi and Miles, whose sound at the time was highly influenced by the guitar hero, of jamming and recording together (though a bootleg of one session is rumored to be out there). However, Davis was unapologetic in her attitude and approach to love and sex, giving way to an artistic style that smacked with voracious feminism and brute sensuality that recalled the days of such “race music” divas as Lucille Bogan and Ma Rainey in the ’20s and ’30s while paving the way for such modern-day female acts as Lil’ Kim, Pink, and Peaches.
In continuation of their reissue series of Davis’s short, yet influential catalog, Light in the Attic unearths her 1975 Island Records debut, Nasty Gal, as well as the official release of Is It Love Or Desire (original titled Crashin’ from Passion), originally intended for a 1976 street date but shelved by Island and which contains music never heard before by the public ear. “This Woman Will Break Your Heart” proclaims the inside cover of Nasty Gal, an album filled with some of her most aggressive and voracious set of tunes to date. Backed by a solid band comprised of some cousins and family friends calling themselves Funk House, these 10 tracks find Davis taking her R&B hellion act to new heights of intensity.
“You said I love you every way but your way / And my way was too dirty for ya now,” she growls on the title track with the fury of a frontman for a NYC hardcore band as Funk House throw down some of the grimiest funk grooves this side of James Brown’s Hell. Nasty Gal also finds Davis showing a rare air of vulnerability on the lovely ballad “You and I”, which she co-wrote with ex-hubby Miles and featured string arrangements by Gil Evans. Fans of her music are still arguing over which of Davis’s albums is the funkiest: this one or her eponymous 1973 debut. However, when you dig into tracks like “Dedicated to the Press” and “Talkin’ Trash”, you might have no choice but to err on the side of Nasty.
Is It Love or Desire (1976) is a triumph strictly for the fact that is now made available after so many years in industry limbo. The reasons behind its shelving still remain ambiguous to this day, with some citing a rift between Davis and Island chairman Chris Blackwell as the root cause, while others pin the blame on the studio the album was recorded in holding onto the masters as collateral for late payment. However, regardless of what held it down, now that this genie is out of the lantern, funk fans the world over are rejoicing in hearing material they have been waiting well over 33 years to hit their earholes. Is It Love or Desire hardly disappoints. Once again backed by Funk House, who have been called “one of the most amazing funk bands in the history of music” by Thom Jurek of All Music Guide, Betty remains as feral as ever on here.
Given the case that this album was recorded deep in the heart of Bogalusa, Louisiana, one can easily ascertain a real gris-gris feel to some of these tunes, particularly the psychedelic “Whorey Angel”, the bluesy, almost Stones-like “Let’s Get Personal”, and album closer “For My Man”, which features the violin work of New Orleans legend Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The Island Records-baiting “Stars Starve, You Know” recalls the aggression of Nasty Gal, while “When Romance Says Goodbye” finds Davis taking another stab at the ballad on this jazzy tune that serves as arguably the finest vocal performance of her career. A big round of kudos goes to Light in the Attic for getting this album out to funk fans, as Is It Love Or Desire has the prowess to go down as her career high watermark, three-and-a-half decades in the making.