ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Bette Davis, spelled with an E at the end of Bette, was, of course, a famous film actress, but there is another Betty Davis, spelled with a Y, who is a funk singer and ex-wife of the late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.
In 1975, she tried to break into the mainstream with an album called "Nasty Gal." Despite critical acclaim, the album never achieved commercial success. And now, "Nasty Gal" is getting another chance. It's been re-issued.
Our reviewer Meredith Ochs says the album was ahead of its time.
(Soundbite of song, "Nasty Gal")
Ms. BETTY DAVIS (Singer): (Singing) I ain't nothing but a nasty gal now.
MEREDITH OCHS: Betty Davis' openly sexy growl conjures images of the way she looked onstage in the '70s: thigh-high silver boots, hot pants, massive afro. Davis was Sly Stone, Mick Jagger and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all rolled into one woman. Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham once said that although Davis didn't play anything, her mind, body and spirit were her instruments.
On this album's title track, you can hear that her singing isn't just a voice, it's a supernatural force she's using to break social conventions, push funk to the extreme and propel herself as an artist.
(Soundbite of song, "Nasty Gal")
Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) I said, you went around telling everybody. You're just putting me down now. You dragged my name in the mud. All over town, I'm going to tell them why. You said, I didn't treat you. I didn't know you. I didn't love you well. But you know you lied, yes you did. I used to leave you hanging in the bed by your fingernails screaming.
OCHS: By the time "Nasty Gal" was recorded, Betty Davis and her band were a tight unit, their act finely honed over many months on the road. She wasn't just a woman fronting a group of musicians, she was part of the band, but she was also the leader in every way.
The music, the clothes, the choreography, Davis controlled the whole package, uncompromising in her vision. Aggressive and outrageous, she challenged the notions of what women could do and say on and off the stage.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) Hey now. Extra, extra. Have you read about me? Oh, they say I'm vulgar, and some people can do without me. Well, all I can say is, well, if it's such a shame, why do they blame for what I am thinking?
OCHS: Betty Davis could use her vocal power for ballads just as easily as belting. And on "Nasty Gal" she proved that she wasn't a one-dimensional screamer. This song marked the public reconciliation with her ex-husband, Miles Davis. She co-wrote the song with Davis about their relationship. Punctuated by his distinct trumpet playing, it's even more poignant.
(Soundbite of song, "You and I")
Ms. DAVIS: (Singing) I'm just trying, trying to be a woman and you, are you a strange one?
OCHS: This album was poised to be Betty Davis' commercial breakthrough, but it didn't work out that way. She left the business shortly after its release and moved to Pennsylvania, where she still resides. Some say that her image upstaged her music, but I disagree.
Listening to the propulsive funk and powerful ensemble playing, all driven by this astonishing woman, it's apparent that her image was just as important to the albums as a guitar or a keyboard or her voice.
Her image was the very concept from which her music stemmed. In 1975, Betty seemed to represent the era, but she probably pushed boundaries too far for mainstream music. And artists at the forefront of their art are seldom appreciated until the rest of the world catches up.
SIEGEL: The reissued album from Betty Davis is called "Nasty Gal." Our reviewer Meredith Ochs is a talk show host and DJ with Sirius Satellite Radio.