To paraphrase one of her likely acolytes, Betty Davis was a very kinky girl, clearly the kind that even husband Miles Davis might hesitate to take home to Mother. But Betty Davis, who died last week at 77, was so much more than that. Davis was a model, muse, and wildly provocative singer-songwriter whose albums may not have sold well but have had a strong influence on many artists who followed in Davis’ I. Miller shoes.
A 2017 documentary, Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different, tells Davis’ story. Davis appears on screen, though viewers don’t see her entire face as she poetically recalls her life. Anyone who wants to understand Betty Davis and her work needs to watch this film.
Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina in 1944, Davis subsequently grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her parents and grandmother introduced her to Elmore James as well as monumental women blues singers, including Ma Rainey and Big Mama Thornton.
A desire to become a model led Davis to New York City at 17. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and gradually became acquainted with Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Eric Clapton, and other leading lights of the 1960s. Davis began honing her songwriting skills, which she had started doing when she was 12. An early success was “Uptown (to Harlem)”, which she successfully offered to the Chambers Brothers. That band can be seen playing “Uptown (to Harlem)” in Questlove’s 2021 documentary, Summer of Soul.
Betty and Miles Davis married in 1968, but the marriage lasted just one unhappy year. Betty’s influence on Miles’ music, however, was profound. “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)”, a 16-minute-long track that is, in part, a meditation on Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary”, is named for Betty. Her face appears on the cover of Miles’ Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Betty may also have convinced Miles to title his classic album Bitches Brew rather than his choice, Witches Brew. Davis, in turn, produced a set of songs for Davis, though this music was not released until 2016, when they were compiled, along with a few songs arranged by Hugh Masekela, on The Columbia Years.
Despite this influence on Miles’ music, it’s Betty Davis’ three mid-1970s albums that are have ensured her musical legacy. In the film, Davis said, “I left Miles. His genius gave and took from me. But my smile had become false. I told no one how Miles was violent. So I wrote and sung my heart out. Three albums of hard funk. I put everything there. The doors in the industry kept closing. Always white men behind desks telling me to change.”
Her 1973 self-titled debut is a gritty funk-rock masterpiece. From the electric-guitar-and-organ intro to “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up” through to “Steppin’ in Her I.Miller Shoes”, and closing with the country-tinged closed, “In the Meantime”, Betty Davis is a lost classic. It brings together the talents of Larry Graham, Gregg Errico, Neal Schon, Merl Saunders, the Pointer Sisters, Sylvester, and others, all in the service of Davis’ self-written songs and electrifying vocals. It’s a funky, take-no-prisoners kind of record that rocks hard.
They Say I’m Different followed in 1974. Davis celebrates blues and early rock legends on the title track, including Robert Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, and Chuck Berry. Meanwhile, “He Was a Big Freak” and “Don’t Call Her No Tramp” further enhance Davis’ reputation as a songwriter unafraid to explore sexuality and sexual politics in her songs frankly.
Despite the presence of “You and I”, a stunning ballad co-written by Betty and Miles, 1975’s Nasty Gal was not a hit and led to the end of Davis’ career when Island Records shelved what would have been her 1979 follow-up, “Is It Love or Desire”. Despite all this, Nasty Gal is every bit as engaging as Davis’ previous two albums.
After the shelving and the death of her beloved father, Davis returned to Pittsburgh and pulled off the most incredible pop music disappearing act this side of Bobbie Gentry. She never recorded another album, though she did, of course, appear in the documentary.
Finding a copy of Betty Davis’ debut in a thrift shop about ten years ago was my own Betty Davis epiphany. Of course, I was blown away by the record, but it was essentially unplayable, having been understandably loved to death by previous owners.
Though her albums were not major sellers, Betty Davis’ influence has been immense. In the documentary, rock singer Militia Vox says, “I first discovered Betty when I was desperately looking for some kind of blueprint for what I was doing and what I knew I wanted to do. So when I was looking for goddess to pray to. I found this picture of her, and I was just like, whatever she’s selling, I’m buying.”
It’s hard to imagine the likes of Prince, Rick James, Madonna, Janelle Monae, and many others without Betty Davis.
Light in the Attic Records fostered a Betty Davis revival in 2007 and 2009 with reissues of her three 1970s classics plus a first-ever issue of Is It Love or Desire? Anyone who wants to learn more about the woman who inspired Miles, Jimi, Sly, Prince, Madonna and, nearly everyone else who heard her, should listen to these records at once and bask in the glory that was Betty Davis.
Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different ends with a reunion of her Funk House backing band. Band members call Davis on the phone and invite her to join them in playing some tunes. Davis enigmatically, but definitively, declines. She does have the last word, though, stating at the end of the film, “But if want to leave one thing behind, I want to say that being different is everything. It is the way forward.”