She was a musician who embodied the most revolutionary and visionary energy of the late 60’s and 70’s yet was too daring for her time. Long before Madonna’s Erotica chapter, Davis sung about S&M, bondage, and prostitution. Though she walked away from the industry rather than compromise her vision, Betty Davis remains the queen of soul/rock/funk fusion.
Born Betty Mabry, Davis was raised on the blues and began songwriting at 12-years-old. Later she would go on to employ the raw simplicity of blues legends Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Big Mama Thornton to craft her own unique sound. Her beauty, designer aspirations, and songwriting talent would take her from North Carolina to New York.
Just 16-years-old and endowed with model good looks Davis became part of the multi-racial, sexually fluid, artistically driven Greenwich Village crowd. It was a perfect niche for the self described introvert to express her multi-faceted artistically radical style. Word of her songwriting began to spread and she was soon hired to craft songs for the Commodores who were aiming to clinch a record deal with Motown. Davis’s songs did the trick and The Commodores received a record deal launching them into super stardom. Betty also garnered the attention of powerful industry execs but choose to turn down a songwriting deal with Motown rather than relinquish ownership of her work.
In 1968, 23-year-old Davis was already a key player in an electric music scene, counting Jimi Hendrix (who she would later deny having an affair with) and Sly Stone as close friends, when she met Jazz legend Miles Davis. In the Miles Davis bio, “So What: The Life of Miles Davis,” biographer John Szwed described Betty as, “quintessentially sixties, all funky chic and an exploding Afro, with talent to burn: she had studied fashion design [the Fashion Institute of Technology]; written “Uptown [to Harlem]” for the Chambers Brothers on their The Time Has Come album; appeared on the Dating Game TV show and as a model [Signed to Wilhelmina Models] in Ebony, Glamour, Jet, and Seventeen; was co-owner of the Cellar, a club for teenagers in New York city; and was beginning a singing career.”
The pair quickly fell in love and Betty introduced Miles to the inside world of psychedelic rock, becoming the catalyst and muse for his change in musical direction. Betty’s psychedelic image appears on his 1968 album, Filles de Kilimanjaro, and the song “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)” was penned for her. The jazz genius and the soul/funk visionary were only married for one year but her influence on his sound continued into his 1970 Bitches Brew album and beyond.
Davis’ wild glamour, unapologetic attitude, and “fuck me feminist” persona masked an astute business woman known for her steadfast commitment to her own ideas. A “pure” sound was what Betty insisted on and she made sure this would be achieved by being the songwriter, singer, performer and producer on two of her albums. Whatever and whoever didn’t fit with her vision were refused outright. She most famously turned down collaboration with Eric Clapton, who she considered dull.
The self-titled 1973 album Betty Davis and 1974 They Say I’m Different showcased her outrageous style. She was drawn to the “rawness and the simplicity” of the blues records from her childhood but she doused them with nasty glamour, infusing straightforward raunchy lyrics and minimal instrumentation with an exciting blend of rock, soul, and funk. No other woman was doing it at the time and this would ultimately end her career.
While daring shape shifters such as David Bowie were revered for playing with taboos and sexuality, many didn’t quite know how to handle a racy salaciously predatory woman like Davis. Her controversial music garnered intense protest and were both boycotted and banned. As one fan surmises, she was “too ahead of her time. Too hard to market.” Rather than watering down her lyrics, sound, and image to appeal to an audience that would take decades to catch up, Davis abruptly exited the industry in 1979, a few years after the commercially disappointing 1975 Nasty Gal.
In 2007 Light in the Attic Records re-release Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different. In 2009 they reissued Nasty Gal and the shelved Crashin’ From Passion renaming it, Is It Love or Desire. Davis finally received the royalties and international stage she deserved. Esquire magazine, granted a rare interview with Davis, called her music a “Molotov cocktails of sticky sex and unchained rhythmic propulsion.” The world was ready for Ms Betty Davis.
Now in her late 60’s the deeply private Davis continues to write songs but has no interest in returning to the stage. Despite or because of being too ahead of her time and too difficult to market, Betty Davis maintains an iconic status and cult following amongst artists and music lovers of the past 30 years. Her vocal fire is embraced by up and coming performers and continues to be sampled. Her style inspires the most daring taste makers. And even in an era of Rihanna’s “blue pop” fans still blush when savouring the queen of funk’s lyrical goodies.
Suggested Listening: Check out: Photo Credit: Images Courtesy of Light in the Attic Records
Anti Love Song
If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up
Game Is My Middle Name
Light in the Attic Records
Photo Credit: Images Courtesy of Light in the Attic Records
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