Betty Davis is an indelible, significant part of American music. In the late 1960s, she introduced then-husband Miles Davis to Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone. Not only did that influence the sound on Bitches Brew, but she also came up with the name of the album. She’s on the cover of another Miles album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and the final track of that album is named after her. We might not have Miles Davis’s fusion years, at least not the version of them we got, without Betty Davis.
But it’s important, especially in light of The Columbia Years 1968-1969, to separate Betty Mabry’s talents from the jazz legend whose last name she assumed for her recording career in the 1970s. Betty Mabry wrote “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers in the 1960s. She wrote songs for the Commodores. Her talent as a songwriter was so great that Marc Bolan told her to stop writing for others and start writing and performing for herself. She would end up doing that, releasing Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, and Nasty Gal between 1973 and 1975. None of the albums were commercial successes, but they all resonate today as brilliant, if cult-classic, albums.
These early recordings, now made available by Light in the Attic, would seem like a good preamble to those albums, a chance to see Betty Davis become the singular, sexual performer should would become in later years. That’s both true and not true of this set, however. It’s a short set — nine tracks in 31 minutes, including two takes of “I’m Ready, Willing, & Able” — and the music doesn’t waste any time. Producers Miles Davis and Teo Macero brought in Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell among others, hoping to record some tracks that would land Betty a deal.
Hearing them now, it’s hard to believe she couldn’t get one. The songs are punchy and catchy. The first track, “Hanging Out”, is a rough cut that eventually unravels, but the lean guitar riffs and Mitchell’s drumming make a perfect, propulsive pace for Davis to strut herself across. She talks to the band around her, and delivers her lines with a playful sneer. It’s just half of the attitude we’d hear on her later records, but it’s a charming song that — with a cleaner take — should have landed her some more attention. Davis’s take on Cream’s “Politician Man” is funkier and more overtly sexual than the original, and it feels more at home with Betty Davis singing. The band turns the heavy stomp of Cream’s version into something funkier yet just as bass heavy. These songs suggest the promise in these sessions. They run alongside a solid, if middle of the road, version of CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” and decent but maybe a bit rushed versions of originals like “Down Home Girl”.
These 1969 cuts fare well in comparison to her work from 1968, cutting a single with Hugh Masekela. Those songs included here feel like a big-band, radio-friendly kind of funk that didn’t suit Davis. Her band in 1969 was leaner, meaner, grittier. It’s Davis that seems a bit held back on these recordings, though. The Columbia Years 1968-1969 isn’t the sound of Betty Davis finding her voice so much as it is the sound of her fighting to get out from under the shadow of Miles. With Miles credited as a producer, you have to hang some of the musical limitations of these songs on him. The band is strong, but often — as on “Born on the Bayou” — too by the numbers. If, in his mind, Miles had exhausted the limits of jazz, these songs suggest he was just getting to know how rock and funk music could work and mutate. Sure, he would work some of this into his own sound and create a run of classic records, but Betty Davis’s 1970s output suggests she had a better handle on pure rock, R&B, and funk traditions.
There’s also a telling moment here. Before “Politician Man”, we hear Miles’s gravelly voice come through the mix, giving instruction to Betty. “Sing it just like that,” he demands. “With the gum in your mouth and all, bitch.” It’s a playful moment, but it’s also a demand, and if it does get the best performance out of Betty in these songs, it also suggests a power struggle that never quite got resolved between these two strong-willed musical minds. It’s telling that Betty Davis would make her albums, the ones where she found her voice, after her marriage with Miles Davis ended. Surely, having Miles in the studio with her could have helped her career. But The Columbia Years 1968-1969 suggests that their musical relationship ended exactly as it should have: quickly. Miles needed to go find his own new sound, and thankfully he got out of the way so Betty Davis could find hers. That tension on these recordings is interesting from a historical standpoint, but stunting to the music itself, unfortunately.