Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Betty Davis in New York in 1969.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
Betty Davis in New York in 1969.
Anthony Barboza/Getty Images
One of my favorite recordings of Betty Davis isn't a song. In the summer of 1974, the funk singer/songwriter appeared on Al Gee's Rap N' Rhythm, a nationally syndicated interview program that was regularly pressed to vinyl and sent to radio stations by the U.S. Army Reserve. Betty had just turned 30 and was about to start her first tour to help promote her second studio album, They Say I'm Different. Their conversation barely lasted 20 minutes, so Gee could only ask a short series of boilerplate questions about her creative process and astrological sign. Nonetheless, there's this delightful moment where Betty is asked to describe her musical style and she responds in a distinctive Pittsburgh-by-way-of-Greensboro drawl: "I would just say it's raw ... r-a-w."
For many musicians, this kind of casually playful back-and-forth might not be revelatory, but that changes if you consider that the Rap N' Rhythm session is, as far as I know, the only extant recorded interview of Betty in the '70s. As such, it's one of the only times where we get a glimpse of her outside her musical persona, and the contrast is startling. Betty the funk artist was irrepressibly rowdy and raucous, a larger-than-life personality who could command a stage with little more than a pose. However, on Gee's program, Betty could be surprisingly soft-spoken, bordering on demure at times (though perhaps that was in response to Gee all but fawning over her). After her "r-a-w" line, she and Gee share a laugh. The first time I heard the recording I realized that, despite having interviewed Betty numerous times between 2007-09, I couldn't recall ever hearing her laugh before. It was nice.
Betty Mabry Davis, who passed away early Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh at the age of 77, was an intensely enigmatic artist, having spent the first 30 years of her life on a remarkable ascent into the spotlight only to utterly vanish from public view for the next 30 years. Up until 2007, when the first legitimate reissues of her music began to roll out, the primary way you would have discovered her at all was by randomly finding one of her three studio albums in a record store bin. Once you did though, it was like being let in on a secret that you instantly wanted to share with others.
Her songs were filled with gritty yet sultry style of electrified funk — dirtier than James with more blues than Sly. Likewise, as a vocalist, she shared little in common with her gospel-trained contemporaries with their perfect pitch and vocal control; she took her cues from growling blues singers like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Moreover, she was doing all this as an unapologetically outspoken, sexually empowered performer who shocked the Black cultural establishment of her time. Both musically and professionally, she was an artist without much precedent nor peer and because of that, she's been the object of constant fascination and inspiration for decades. I always think of how Joi, the accomplished neo-soul singer/songwriter, once told me that when she was first introduced to Betty's music almost 30 years ago, it was a "revelation that I was not alone."
It's important to remember that prior to (and even after) Betty's recording career, most of the prominent women in funk were managed by male songwriters and producers: think Marva Whitney and Lyn Collins (James Brown) or Parlet and The Brides of Funkenstein (George Clinton). In contrast, Betty wrote almost every song she ever recorded and produced most of her own studio albums, working with musicians she hand-picked. Few Black women in the music industry have ever enjoyed that level of creative autonomy so early in their careers: not her '70s contemporaries like Tina Turner or Chaka Khan, nor later artists she's sometimes compared to, like Janet Jackson or Beyoncé.
Even with her short-lived and abusive marriage to Miles Davis in the late '60s, she seemed a bigger influence on him than the other way around. While he helped produce a series of demo songs for her in 1969, they didn't land her a deal at the time; she did that on her own several years after their divorce. Meanwhile, Miles put her visage on the cover of his 1968 LP, Filles de Kilimanjaro, which included the song "Mademoiselle Mabry." Importantly, Betty introduced Miles to her own friends like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. Not coincidentally, this was also the time when Miles began his turn towards jazz-rock fusion, culminating in his landmark 1970 electrified album, Bitches Brew. In his 1990 autobiography, Miles only devoted a few pages to their relationship — much of it unflattering — but he at least acknowledged that she was "talented as a motherf*****" and "a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life," opining that "If Betty were singing today she'd be like Madonna; something like Prince."
In essence, Miles was making the same observation that many others have regarding Betty: She was the embodiment of being "ahead of her time." But while that's intended as a compliment, it also suggests that, in Betty's day, her talents went overlooked or underappreciated. One of her first recorded songs was titled "Get Ready For Betty," but as it turns out, the world wasn't ready for her.
Betty's musical education started in early childhood, listening to her grandmother's blues albums in rural North Carolina. She wrote her first song at age 12, a ditty titled "I'm Going To Bake a Cake of Love." Soon after, her father moved them to Pittsburgh for work. By age 16, Betty left for New York where she quickly immersed herself in the city's vibrant music scene. At age 20, a chance encounter with singer Lou Courtney led to her recording a pair of sides with arranger/producer Don Costa, including her solo debut in 1964, a soul stomper titled "Get Ready For Betty." A few years later, she befriended the Chambers Brothers and wrote the ode to Harlem, "Uptown," for them.
However, like many aspiring artists, Betty met with her share of promising leads that wouldn't pan out. An early demo deal with Columbia Records, in which she had both Hugh Masekela and Miles helping to produce, ultimately went nowhere. She wrote several demo songs for the Commodores, which helped them get signed to Motown, but even though the Detroit powerhouse offered her a writer's contract, she balked when they insisted on owning all her publishing. Eric Clapton, then still with Cream, offered to produce her but as she told me, Clapton was "into a classic-type blues style whereas I'm more into an avant-garde bag. I just don't think it would have worked."
The turning point came in 1972. Betty was frequently traveling between New York and San Francisco for personal and professional reasons and that landed her on the radar of Woodstock promoter, Michael Lang, who signed Betty to his Just Sunshine imprint. The subsequent album, Betty Davis, released in 1973, captured the "r-a-w" essence of how she wanted her music and persona to sound, a mix of Southern gut-bucket blues and the San Francisco rock sound, filtered through Betty's NYC socialite sophistication. She made it clear that she wasn't following the conventional R&B playbook of the time; when most others in her situation would be trying to mint a hit with a love song, Betty cooked up an "Anti-Love Song" instead.
As powerful a first impression as she made with her debut, They Say I'm Different, which followed a year later, was even more of Betty coming into her own. It was the first album where she wrote and produced every song plus began to shuffle her band with players of her own choosing. The album's first track, "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him" is arguably Betty's funkiest song ever (though there's no shortage of competition), opening with a lean guitar riff, viscous bass line and a heavy anchor of a back beat. The album also contained a song that had many wondering who the title referred to: "He Was a Big Freak." The track exemplified her willingness to tackle sex and sexuality head-on, no less in an era when the respectability politics around Black femininity rarely endorsed such brazen candor but she also insisted that the song wasn't about any single man from her past but rather was a commentary on the kind of men she had met over the years. In any case, the album also boasts one of the greatest soul/funk LP covers of the era, with Betty clad in a custom outfit from the late Bay Area designer Kaisik Wong: an astounding, Egyptian-Coptic-inspired, Afro-futuristic costume replete with transparent, spear-like rods and fur-lined platform heel booties.
This was also the time when Betty finally took her show on the road, and if her songs caused a commotion, this was equally as true for her soon-to-be legendary performances. A concert-goer once described them as "burlesque funk" and while photos and recordings of those shows are incredibly rare, in the scant examples we have, Betty can be seen prowling the stage, all but oozing swagger. Cultural icons such as Richard Pryor and Les McCann flocked to see her; her bandmate Fred Mills remembers a Philadelphia show where a man was patiently waiting outside of Betty's dressing room, hoping to chat with her; it turned out to be Muhammad Ali.
Betty's third, and what became final, album of the '70s, Nasty Gal, came out a year later — this time via Island Records — and it pushed the proverbial envelope further. If people found her messaging on the title track too subtle, Betty also recorded "Dedicated to the Press," a bitingly sarcastic song addressing her public perception.
There was a fourth album recorded in 1976, but problems arose in the middle of producing it. Island had Betty and her band, now known as Funk House, down to the state of art "Studio In the Country" in Bogalusa, La. but the label and Betty began to fall out over creative differences. Not only did Island drop her but they also stiffed the studio on the bill which left the masters in a state of limbo for the next three decades until it finally gained a proper release in 2009 under the name Is It Love or Desire. Back in in the '70s, however, the damage was done. Her band split up, the tours stopped. She attempted a disco-era comeback that also never received a proper release at the time (Light in the Attic will be releasing it soon, under the title Crashin' From Passion). After the death of Betty's father in 1980, she fully retreated from public view for the next quarter century.
Betty has often been described as a "trailblazer," but implicit in the term is the idea that she was on her own for much of her career. As noted, the mainstream music industry of the early '70s wasn't exactly inviting towards independent Black women artists, nor was the general cultural climate comfortable with songs and stage performances as erotically charged as Betty's. Allegedly, the NAACP in Detroit once tried to get her songs banned from local radio, arguing she was promulgating a negative image of African American women. And while Betty had opportunities to collaborate with any number of talented male artists, including Miles, Maskela, Clapton, Greg Errico and Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone) and Neal Schon (Journey), unless you were in a group like Labelle or the Pointer Sisters, women tended to be siloed away from one another. Betty may have made the road by walking, as they say, but she often did so alone, whether by intent or circumstance.
We've never really known much about how she felt about this. Betty, an intensely private person, was never one to share much of her interiority outside of what she may have hinted at in her songwriting (most of which she insisted wasn't autobiographical). Even the 2017 documentary about her, Betty: They Say I'm Different, makes plain its desire to solve certain mysteries around her, but despite her participation the film ultimately concedes that its goals are unachievable. Whatever Betty wanted us to know about her, she mostly put in her work and was content to keep the rest to herself.
A rare exception comes from 1974, an interview she gave to Black Music magazine. In response to a question about what other artists she was similar to, she replied, "I'm me and I'm different; my music is just another level of funk. I love Tina [Turner], but we are two totally different people. The same with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Larry Graham, and Stevie Wonder. We all make your fingers pop, but for different reasons...so don't compare me." Like her album title insisted, she was different and until the end, she held to that ideal.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at CSU Long Beach. He wrote the liner notes to the Light in the Attic releases of Betty Davis (2007), They Say I'm Different (2007) and Is It Love or Desire (2009).