Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Return of Betty Davis

They call her different because she's a piece of
sugarcane. But could 70s funk queen Betty Davis be due for a major revival after
nearly 30 years?
A great record store is an institution of higher musical learning. Forget about it as a place to shop, a sort of supermarket of music. The point in going to a good record store is to wander around and discover strange new sounds through the aged wisdom of the staff, or via pure serendipity.

Many people are put off by the average record store clerk, an occasionally surly member of the species Fanatic and genus Musicanus who can be spotted in tee-shirts that are too small and old, hair that needs to be cut, and a permanent stoop from bending over to go through milk crates of old vinyl at yard sales. The Fanatic Musicanus can be cutting, even cruel about the selections of us lower forms of music aficionados, grumbling while ringing up our 50 Cent CDs and mocking us as soon as we leave the store. Hell hath no fury like a record store employee unimpressed.

But get on their good side, and Fanatic Musicanus is your best friend. There is something about record stores that cannot be replicated online or in big chain stores; namely, they allow you to glom off the expert knowledge of the record store employees. The Mall stores employ idiot teenagers, and even the 'Amazon recommends' selections can't match what a good record store clerk can do- pointing you in the direction of some piece of music that you would never have found otherwise that will change your life. To win the trust of the Fanatic Musicanus, claim to be looking for the Pretty Things. Most record store clerks absolutely love the Pretty Things. Then, after winning his trust, ask the clerk if they have any other 'cool stuff' in. A whole new world will open to you...

Two separate music stores have pointed me in the direction of Miss Betty Davis recently, and I'm glad they did. I first heard her while looking through the rack of Sly and the Family Stone CDs in the local cheap-o record shack. Her voice is very difficult to describe- imagine a bit raunchier and a lot louder version of Macy Gray, but with the record store clerks listening to her first CD, she was impossible to ignore. Her voice cuts the air like the prow of a ship. It demands attention.

Eventually, I had to ask the clerks just who this was that they were listening to. If you approach the Fanatic Musicanus slowly and with the appropriate amount of curiosity and deference, they will gladly talk your ear off. This is Betty Davis, man. Isn't she incredible? Absolutely. I tried to figure out where I'd heard the name before.

Like other record store rats, I've seen her albums before; the afro is damn near unmistakable. But I'd never thought to pick one up. I can only take funk in small doses; at its worst it reminds me too much of pimps and discos. The really brilliant stuff- Sly Stone, Earth, Wind & Fire, Kool & the Gang, etc.- can be overshadowed by the cheesier outreaches of funk. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example are both popular and completely terrible.

I'd read her name in Miles Davis' autobiography. Betty was Miles' first wife; that's her image on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro. Miles credited her with having him introduced him to the music of her friends Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. The influence is obvious on Bitches Brew- it's not stretching the truth to suggest that Betty Davis was one of the creators of jazz fusion. I don't know if I'd agree that she could get a tattoo reading ''THIS ASS INVENTED FUSION'', but I wouldn't argue with her if she did.

Betty Mabry was born in 1945 in Durham, North Carolina, and grew up on her Grandfather's farm. Her song ''They say I'm Different'' recalls the years that she woke up to slop the hogs and spent the evenings listening to her grandparents' blues records. When she was sixteen, Betty went to New York to study design. Here she sold a song she'd penned entitled ''Uptown (to Harlem'' to the Chambers Brothers, best known for the song ''Time has come today'', and did quite a bit of modelling.

Music was her first love however. In 1968, Betty got out of modelling and married Miles Davis at age 23. They were divorced the following year; Miles claimed that Betty was too wild for him, and by all accounts, he was possessive. Rumors that she maintained an affair with Jimi Hendrix aren't true, but she was friends with various psych and soul musicians, as we've noted.

She returned to modeling, posing in London and New York, and got her own musical career back on track. She put together a great group of musicians for her early demos and then first album, including Gregg Errico and Larry Graham from the Family Stone and the Pointer Sisters, and recorded Betty Davis for Motown Records in 1973. The album is a blast of blues and funk with Davis' over-the-top vocals front and center. It includes my favorite Davis song, the blistering ''Steppin' in Her I. Miller Shoes''. The debut is explosive and luridly sexual. It rocks the speakers like a caged tiger.

However, for her second album, ''They Say I'm Different'' from 1974, Davis produces and modifies her vocals slightly, making it a bit more accessible. Nevertheless, the albums were not commercial successes, and Betty's frank sexuality led to protests from religious groups and refusal by record stations to play her songs. By all accounts, her stage show was just as wild, with Davis in lingerie and her musicians playing sans shirts.

Nasty Gal came out on Island Records in 1975. Betty recorded material for at least two more records. The fourth album, to be called Crashin' from Passion, was recorded in Bogalusa, Lousiana. This album was almost released on Philly International Records, but it has since been lost. According to all involved, it was her best work. Guitarist Carlos Morales: ''It would have been hit material if it had been released. We knew when we heard it.'' The music has never been released.

Rather confusingly, Betty recorded a fifth album, also entitled Crashin' from Passion, which was released in bootleg versions in the 1990s. At this point, she left the music industry entirely and moved to Pittsburgh, leaving a brief musical legacy and a mystery for record collectors. She also broke contact with several friends, and a number of rumors circulated, including that she had O.D.ed. Davis never used drugs though, and was clearly scared by Hendrix's death. She wrote: ''Jimi Hendrix was a good friend of mine and I knew what had happened to him. I mean the business I'm in killed one of my friends... The rock era is dead now.''

Her records went out of print in the 1970s, but their legacy lived on in samples and admiration. This year, Light in the Attic Records released her first two albums on CD for their first official release ever in this medium. The packages are just beautiful, with extremely detailed 32-page booklets and digipak technology. They should find their way onto many College Radio play-lists and university parties. And, as I've found, they are very popular with the Fanatic Musicanus.

Is the time right for a Betty Davis revival? The remastered albums sound gorgeous, and also completely ahead of their time. A loud, funky, sexual, and overpowering female vocalist in the mid-70s who wrote all of her own songs? It's hard not to think that she would have been a superstar if she had made it to the 80s. And it's quite possible that Betty Davis could use this new burst of attention to return to a career in the music business. In her first interview in 30 years, Betty expressed interest in writing songs for contemporary singers. She'd be a perfect fit with Lil' Kim.

The best outcome though could just be in bringing Betty Davis the financial rewards that she has deserved for so long. It's incredible to hear reports that she was living in the poorer sections of Pittsburgh very recently. These albums are amazing- they're mean, raw, sexy, funny, and catchy-as-hell. I've been singing ''Game is My Middle Name'' to the cat all week. If they bring Betty Davis back to the attention of music fans, it would be all for the better. The music scene needs her, now more than ever.


Anonymous said...

Lil Kim? That statement is as ridiculous/racist as funk reminding you of pimps and discos.
Macy Gray is far from Betty Davis. Try Joi, she's a much more logical fit. Such a great write-up is dead on yet unbelievably left field.

Anonymous said...

And what makes you think the woman isn't happy just because she is living in the poorer sections of Pitts, PA? She has made her own her decisons from the start of her career and continues to...that in itself is a form of happiness worth more than royalties. Funk is about rawness: living, singing, etc. Don't you understand!?

Rufus said...

Look, "Anonymous", you might want to take into consideration the fact that I wrote this after having listened to funk for about a month, so yes, my references were limited. Not being familiar with Joi enough to use her as a reference shows that I'm still learning about the music. Don't you understand that?

And since you probably know more about the music than someone who just came to it, don't you think that it might be better to encourage them to learn more about it than to throw around the word racist for such a trite reason? I just discovered this music, and I have, so far, loved it, and want to share it. But I'm no expert.

I mean, this is why I lost interest in the punk scene- you always had someone ready to tear you a new one because your record collection wasn't as big as theirs, or you didn't know as much about the music. But, here's the thing- we all have to start somewhere! Anyway, I will definitely listen to Joi when I have the money for a CD.

That brings me to one other thing- I said that I think Betty Davis deserves to be getting more royalties than she has from her music, which is not the same as saying that she's not happy or that her life hasn't been fulfilling. She probably is very happy, but I'm a big believer in the idea that artists deserve to be well compensated for their art. This is becoming very rare for musicians in this age of the Internet, but I've said here before that I believe that good musicians should be making a lot more money than most of them are. I still believe that.