It’s one of life’s ironies that an artist as independent and ahead of her time as Betty Davis (Mabry) is today remembered mostly for her brief marriage to Miles Davis, and for having transformed the trumpeter in record time from Italian suited jazzer to psychedelically garbed imbiber of Bitches Brew. (Davis credited Betty with introducing him both to hip threads and the sounds of Hendrix, Sly Stone, and others.) Chump change indeed for a singer, songwriter, model/fashionista, and provocateur who was a Greenwich Village scene maker while still in her teens. She wrote “Uptown (To Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers, and later went on to release three unheralded records of low-down ‘70s funk whose open sexual attitudes prefigured later, more commercially successful efforts by Rick James, Prince, and Madonna.
Raunchy, uncompromising and not really in the mood to take crap from anyone, it seems that Betty was a bit too much, even for the sleazy ’70s. Album covers which ruled out her being confused with Joni Mitchell and song titles with lyrics to match, such as “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up” and “He’s a Big Freak”, got her on the wrong side of the Religious Right, the NAACP, and feminists. In some cases, she got banned from the airwaves. By 1979, her recording career was finished and until recently she was little more than a rock footnote.
Returning to life’s ironies, however, the legacy of a woman who sang so often of pleasures down under has received a boost from just that location. Teaming up with American blues guitar virtuoso Joe Bonamassa, Australian powerhouse vocalist Mahalia Barnes (daughter of Australian Rock legend Jimmy Barnes) and her ace band the Soul Mates have revisited 12 tracks culled from Davis’s three releases: her self-titled 1973 debut, They Say I’m Different from a year later, and 1975’s Nasty Gal. The project reportedly took flight after Barnes played some vintage Betty for producer Kevin Shirley while working with him on her Dad’s Hindsight record. Shirley dug what he heard, and with a producer’s smarts he likely saw a talented songwriter ripe for rediscovery. In a masterstroke, he then flew Bonamassa down to Sydney to lend a hand. Three days of recording later Ooh Yea! – The Betty Davis Songbook was good to go.
From the moment things kick off with “If I’m Luck, I Might Get Picked Up”, it’s clear this crew means business. The only thing Davis ever did that dented the R&B charts (it reached number 66 in 1973), in the hands of Barnes and Bonamassa it becomes a heavy slab of funk-rock while never losing the original groove. Barnes walks a fine line between Davis’s sex-kittenish growl and her own powerhouse belting, and the result is mesmerizing. As he does throughout the record, Bonamassa makes his presence felt without overcrowding the singer or band. “Steppin’ in Her I Miller Shoes” enters like a souped up “Nutbush City Limits”, and one fast begins to realize they’re listening to a winner, even as the song itself tells of a loser, in this case a used and abused groupie. It’s one of Davis’s best lyrics and Barnes tells the sad tale well while Bonamassa’s guitar wails like the cold wind surrounding yet another homeless victim of excess.
“In the Meantime” is a classic nugget of Memphis Soul balladry with Barnes sounding completely in her element showing off Davis’s more vulnerable side and organist Clayton Doley conjuring up Booker T. Jones on a rainy night in Georgia. Warmed up, we’re now ready for “He’s a Big Freak”, a song which helps one to understand both the true essence of Betty Davis and why she was having trouble getting airplay in an era when “Midnight at the Oasis” was considered risqué.
Kept his mind entertained all of the time
I’d get him off with my turquoise chain
I used to whip him, I used to beat him
Oh, he used to dig it
Yeah, he used to really to dig it
Over a brutal funk groove, the verses continue on in a similarly salacious manner until there’s little to do but hope the chap survived, and perhaps take a cold shower. It’s one of the record’s highlights, and Miss Barnes (who worried she wouldn’t do the song justice) simply sounds overwhelming. Even in an age of “50 Shades of Grey”, “Millennium”, and “respectable” porn stars, the song still packs quite a wallop.
Barnes and crew wisely cool things down on “Your Mama Wants You Back”, which features a Meters-like groove. By now the party is in full swing and the sweaty funk triple shot of “Game is My Middle Name”, “Nasty Gal”, and “Ooh Yeah!” keeps the dancers on the floor and the rest of us wondering if Mahalia Barnes might be one the truly great Soul vocalists of the early 21st century. On the more laid-back “You Won’t See Me in the Morning”, and “Anti-Love Song”, Barnes proceeds to remove any possible lingering doubts about who’s calling the shots in the bedroom, while both further show off what a tight band the Soul Mates are, in addition to Bonamassa’s jaw-dropping chops.
“Walking up the Road” features Mahalia’s Dad Jimmy lending some gritty vocal assistance and a darn catchy guitar riff, but it’s probably the least interesting thing on the record, even if it was probably a gas to record. The record winds up in fine style with the slinky grooved “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him”. Egged on by the backing vocals (“girly but strong and empowered”, as Barnes puts it in the liner notes), the singer is “gonna do it till the cows come home” with another “fine young thang”. After an album of cheap thrills, one-night stands, and a few victims, Barnes insists it’s still just physical, but as the track builds to a climax one gets the feeling she might secretly be looking for Mr. Right and some real L-O-V-E. Amazing Soul Mates ensemble playing and guitar work here by Bonamassa and Franco Ragatt. Great closer.
Ooh Yea! – The Betty Davis Songbook is one fine record that’s as funky, greasy and wonderfully retro as a Saturday night fish-fry, while boasting the type of modern, in-your-face sounds and production we’ve come to love on modern releases from Guy Clark Jr. and Vintage Trouble. Mahalia Barnes and her cohorts have breathed new life into material by a songwriter and performer who was ahead of her time and forgotten too quickly as a result. Life’s ironies aside, Miles would dig it too.