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Remembering Betty Davis And Her Legacy
John Doran , February 10th, 2022 09:12

Betty Davis was a mover and a shaker in the Greenwich Village of the late-1960s, she was a great musician but was also politically, sexually and sonically progressive, an explosive mix that was too much for many people in her own day. Words by John Doran

Betty Davis, portrait by and courtesy of Robert Brenner

There’s rarely a first prize in music. It’s often not the person breaking new ground who reaps the rewards. The spoils frequently go to those who merely capitalised after the fact, riding on the coattails of the revolutionary action. Militant funk rock performer Betty Davis, who has died this week at the age of 77, was one such groundbreaking artist who didn't really get her full dues until much later in life, after making the mistake of being way too far ahead of her time while being radically non-commodifiable.

While no longer the obscure name she perhaps was two decades ago (thanks in part to an excellent series of reissues by Light In The Attic records and a more recent documentary film Betty – They Say I’m Different) the fact that Davis didn't become a household name in the late 20th century is initially puzzling. First of all there was that voice. At the end of the 1960s she created an incredible vocal grain for herself comprised of equal parts honey, grit, engine oil and bourbon which, coupled with a magnetic sense of timing, left her with one of the most instantly recognisable deliveries in funk (to genre partisans at least). She deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as George Clinton, James Brown and Sly Stone for this reason alone but the sheer, hyperreal weirdness of her vocal style also made her an analogue of Bob Dylan, David Bowie or Bryan Ferry in terms of a stop-you-in-your-tracks, where-did-that-come-from vocal punch.

And then there was the quality of her back catalogue. From her vein-popping adrenalised singing to her writing chops via the calibre of the musicians and producers she inspired to give their best, she became a ubiquitous and essential ‘greatest hits’ compilation in waiting. At least now thanks to streaming and reissue culture anyone can dive in. Check out the relentlessly boogieful ‘Down Home Girl’ taken from a session featuring the dream team of Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Mitch Mitchell, Wayne Shorter and Larry Young, with Teo Macero and Miles Davis on production duties. Then there’s the hard-strutting funk rock "hit" ‘If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up’; the strident street fighting ‘Your Man My Man’; the pro-bondage anthem written in part to praise Jimi Hendrix and in part to put down Miles Davis ‘He Was A Big Freak’ and the self-explanatory slab of dancefloor dynamite, ‘F.U.N.K.’

But when the four albums Davis recorded in the 1970s failed to find the audience they deserved and she was laid low by depression after the death of her father at the end of the decade, she retreated from the music business altogether.

If her assertive sexuality was a touch too much for the record buying public of the mid-70s (and this seems to be the general consensus among people who knew her at the time) then it was odd that she wasn't really adopted as a cause celebre in the years that followed. (Vocal supporters of Davis such as Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae have tended to be the exception rather than the rule until relatively recently.) Lyrically, Davis messed hard with the very stratified gender roles of the day when it came to sex and she did so with humour, self-awareness and appetite as well as confidence that occasionally spilled over into aggression. But her sex positivity was matched by a sense of creative and business self-determination that saw her become her own band leader and manager when looking after the affairs of her group, Funk House. She refused to be moulded by a white patriarchal record industry and this in part cost her a financially lucrative career. (During her recording career she apparently turned down Eric Clapton as producer on the grounds he was "banal".)

Courtesy of Light In The Attic

While some of her album artwork was obviously very sexually confrontational (especially the sleeve to Nasty Gal) you would think provocation was her sole M.O. to read some reviews. But if one takes her self-titled debut of 1973 and They Say I’m Different from the following year, visually they are a thrilling document of the times speaking as much to Afro-futurism, Black power, high fashion and New York street style as they do to sexual liberation. (Likewise her lyrical palette was much wider than often portrayed.)

This heady mix of self-determination, radical politics, visionary art, killer fashion, new music and sexual agency was the product of a very particular time and journey. Betty Mabry was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1945 before her family moved to Homestead, Pennsylvania, a steel town near Pittsburgh ten years later. She embarked upon a dual career in fashion and music and after graduating from the NYC Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked as a model for Wilhelmina. She became one of the first Black models to be featured in Glamour and Seventeen, while working for the designers Halston, Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali and Stephen Burrows.

She had been writing music since the age of 12 and was accomplished in her craft by the time she hit New York. Initially she was happy just to write for other people and to eulogise her new town. You know the utterly fantastic ‘Uptown (To Harlem)’ by The Chambers Brothers? That’s one of hers. She was courted by Motown but turned down a lucrative songwriting deal in order to concentrate on writing music for herself. She found herself instantly at home in the Greenwich Village of the late 60s, befriending Hendrix and The Family Stone and becoming part of Manhattan’s counter cultural moveable feast. When she saw Miles Davis playing at the Blue Note she apparently didn’t think much of his jazz but she “dug his shoes” and told him so. The couple married in 1968 although it didn’t last long due in no short part to his appalling violence but both of them benefitted from the short relationship in artistic terms. Davis, who was by this point in his 40s and terrified of losing his relevancy was introduced to many of cultural influences that would revolutionise his work and inform his ‘electric’ period by his much younger, hipper wife, while he persuaded her to become a performer and not to settle just for song writing credits.

After early sessions for Capitol Records in 1968 and 1969 with Hugh Masekela and Miles didn’t amount to anything solid, she reinvented herself the following decade as an indomitable funk rock performer and role model for the times who was easily the equal of any priapic ‘rock god’ to cradle a mic stand suggestively. Exactly why her career didn’t take off in the liberated 1970s is ultimately a moot point but it possibly highlights some of the blatant hypocrisies of attitude that existed along lines of race, gender and class during this period of so-called emancipation.

It may also seem odd initially that she didn’t succeed commercially given the larger continuum of often successful Afro American female singers she placed herself on. No-one would suggest that she was innovating purely by recording licentious and provocative songs for example. One of her very clear inspirations was the openly bisexual Bessie Smith, aka The Empress Of The Blues, who sang up until her death in 1937 about a wealth of different subjects including her heartfelt appreciation of good sex. While euphemistic by today’s standards, her contemporary audience had no trouble parsing the question “Do you need a little sugar in your bowl?” She was the highest earning Black entertainer of her day but not exactly an outlier when it came to raunch. Rude records by the likes of Maggie Jones and Mamie Smith sold in the kind of numbers that most contemporary artists can only dream of today. While not exactly standard fare, Lucile Bogan’s ‘Shave ‘Em Dry’, recorded in 1935, remains defiantly and eye-wateringly unbroadcastable to this day, making Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ look like the work of Karen Carpenter by contrast. More to the point this track is way more outrageous than anything Betty Davis would ever go on to record forty years later. But all of these great blues artists of course were ghettoized by a white music industry which (in very general terms) couldn’t have cared less about the lyrical content, until that is Elvis Presley was used to market Black music to white teens. Previously ‘race music’ had been targeted at and bought by a majority Black audience. By contrast Davis, who first started performing professionally in the late-60s, lived in a time of great social flux, thanks in no small part to the civil rights movement which was in many ways reaching the end of its first stage as her career was beginning.

Betty Davis, by and courtesy of Derek Ridgers

When Betty Davis started recoding demos in 1968, the style of heavy funk she settled on was brand new. Despite being a violent misogynist and having a shameful track record as an employer, James Brown’s status as a musical innovator can’t be denied. When he recorded ‘Cold Sweat’ in 1967, with its monstrous groove riding a sickly, elastic, one-chord bass line, featuring the demented screaming that cast him as the Dr Frankenstein of funk (and that’s not mentioning that thunderous breakbeat) – he had brought something new kicking and screaming into this world. But if you listen to the recordings of the shelved Betty Davis studio sessions (only released a few years back as The Columbia Years 1968 - 1969 by Light In The Attic) and her debut album you can see that she wasn’t that far behind him. If anything Davis eventually went much further in terms of lyrics and delivery. Brown’s hits – yes, even ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine’ – are weirdly chaste by comparison. His songs may have been a shock to contemporary mainstream mores but they feel to me more like a sublimation of sexual energy into dancefloor performance, while Davis was much more direct, unwaveringly brave and straightforwardly libidinal with her intensity.

The primary reason for Davis’ name being allowed to fade almost to obscurity for many years is ringingly obvious: misogyny. Plenty of other funk musicians stepped out of the spotlight (not the least Sly Stone) over the years only to have their stature grow in size. Some will no doubt feel that she was the co-author of this obscurity herself and to be fair she remained a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a particularly funky enigma for a very long time in her unwillingness to do press or revisit her old work. (Full disclosure: I personally gave up trying to work out how to get an interview with her myself about a decade ago after her friend Larry Graham, the suave slap bass pioneer, Graham Central Station front man and former Family Stone member and Prince cohort, assured me I was fighting a losing battle.)

But outside of the obvious context of sexism there was another, more subtle (but strongly linked) injustice that happened when we allowed her name to temporarily fade from memory and it was one that denigrated the music itself. Every time the voice of a female innovator was removed from the picture (either via action or inaction) the entire ecology she was once part of became altered in negative terms. The absence of Davis from the top table (and a lack of canonical praise heaped upon other such stellar female soul and funk musicians as Etta James, Marlena Shaw, Marva Whitney, Lynn Collins, Spanky, Betty Wright, Merry Clayton and so on), a skewed and cartoonish portrayal of sexuality could misguidedly be read from funk music. In the same way the ironic revival of Blacksploitation movies in the 1990s inspired by the films of Quentin Tarantino did much to kick dirt over the genre’s radical roots by changing the context in which they were consumed, the real revolutionary message of (Black) sexuality in the 1970s, via the medium of funk music, became so one-sided it was eventually traduced (in terms of popular culture at least) to the faintly ludicrous, vicious and ironically deified image of Rick James in red patent leather. The unapologetic message that Betty Davis brought at the height of her powers really wasn’t that different to the message spoken loud and clear by Bessie Smith two generations earlier: working class black women deserved respect on their own terms and what’s more they had a right to enjoy the kind of sexual license that men had always traditionally taken for granted. This is as much part of the radically torrid story of funk as the raw, impolite, militant physicality of James Brown which exploded like a grenade into staid white culture in the late 60s.

There is a tendency to view reissue programmes as being a kind of fracking or cultural strip-mining, taking precious heat away from radical new talent and, no doubt, this is sometimes true. In some cases such as that of Betty Davis, however, simply listening, learning and appreciating can represent the first steps being taken to righting a cultural injustice.

Miles Davis’ observation in 1990 – “If Betty were singing today, she would be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman” – was perspicacious. The Madonna comment was fair and obvious but the Prince comparison touched on something altogether smarter. It’s almost as if Prince was the spiritual heir to the combined visions of James Brown and Betty Davis – an idea that would now perhaps be altogether clearer to more people if such an integral part of the puzzle hadn’t been obscured from view for so many years.

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