June 12, 2007


The Soul Singer in the Shadows: She was Miles Davis' second wife with a killer set of pipes and attitude to spare. For the first time in decades, Betty Davis talks about walking away from the business. (Litsa Dremousis, 5/31/2007, Esquire)

If you listen for it, it's there. The faint hint of a growl, like a Bengal tiger rising from a nap. "It doesn't matter," she says when asked if she prefers to be called "Betty" or "Ms. Davis" and the voice is unmistakably that of the legendary funk songstress, the woman who roared "I said if I'm in luck/ I just might get picked up" at the start of her self-titled debut, Betty Davis, thirty-four years ago.

Light in the Attic Records has just re-issued Davis' first two discs, Betty Davis and 1974's They Say I'm Different, Molotov cocktails of sticky sex and unchained rhythmic propulsion. To support the re-releases, she agrees to what is only her seventh interview in the past three decades, conducted by phone from her home in Pittsburgh. She is engaged but reticent, politely and frequently answering questions with the fewest words possible. When asked if her epoch-defining years sometimes feel as if they happened to someone else, her reply is a single snare drum kick with zero elaboration: "Yes." [...]

She was the twenty-three years old when she became Miles Davis' second wife and part-time muse, introducing the iconic trumpeter and composer to her close friends, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Betty wasn't merely arm candy, however -- she was a musician in her own right, a fact that likely added to the mercurial nature of her marriage to Miles, which ended after a year. "The focus on my personal makes me a bit uncomfortable sometimes," Davis says. "It doesn't really matter to me in that degree." Which is fitting for a woman who wrote and arranged all her songs and turned down collaborating with Eric Clapton, reportedly because she found his work too staid. [...]

Today, Davis is lauded as a visionary, albeit one few people under the age of thirty can remember by name. Her legacy lives on. Ice Cube, Talib Kweil, and Ludacris have sampled her tracks and Lenny Kravitz and Skin just covered "Anti-Love Song" off Betty Davis.

Here's her own version:

Betty Davis

Download "Anti Love Song" (mp3)
from "Betty Davis"
by Betty Davis
Light In The Attic

More On This Album

Betty Davis Is Back, Thanks to Seattle's Light in the Attic: Reviving the records of the long-lost soul diva may be the label's most artful move. (Brian J Barr, 5/02/07, Seattle Weekly)

She's onstage wearing a negligee. Silver, dangly jewelry sparkles on her wrists and rests over the slope of her clavicle. Her long, mocha legs are wrapped tight in seductive hosiery. These legs are truly a sight: strong and lean and sultry. They burn. Their length is accentuated by a pair of ridiculously high-heeled, space-age go-go boots. To top it all off, her hair is poofed out in an afro the size of a small planet.

Men can't take their eyes off of her; she reminds them of their insignificance. Women can't either; she floods them with confidence. She's strutting about the stage, pirouetting and spreading those legs so far apart, you think she'll split in two. Splash her with water, and steam would no doubt rise up.

Then she sings: "I said if I'm in luck/I just might get picked up!" She's not pleading for a date. No, this lyric is a challenge: Who'll be man enough to take her home? The all-male band behind her is funky—pure psychedelic soul funk—and Betty, always the entertainer, has made them appear shirtless and oiled onstage. Smoking as they are, however, they just fade into the background. That wild woman dancing around is stealing the show.

"I said I'm crazy/I'm wild!"

No kidding.

That was Betty Davis in 1974, onstage at New York City's Bottom Line. She was the embodiment of funk music and a true sex symbol, the forerunner to Madonna, Joi, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Macy Gray. The list goes on to include the less obvious, such as electro shockstar Peaches and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux. She has also been sampled by the likes of Ice Cube and Talib Kweli.

"Betty Davis is the funk," says poet and rapper Saul Williams.

Embraceable You: Funk's first feminist Betty Davis resurfaces. (Dan Nishimoto, 18 May 2007, Pop Matters)
In 1973, Betty made contact with Just Sunshine, an upstart label based in the Bay Area, and secured resources to record an album. In spite of the fact that she was not a professional musician in the conventional sense (she had only studied music through her peers and had a couple recording sessions under her belt), she convinced her then paramour Michael Carabello to reach out to the Bay’s finest to assemble a band for her debut. Carabello acquiesced production duties to his friend and Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who assembled the group. The result snowballed into a who’s who of international-level stars. Errico already had an ongoing jam session with former band-mate and Graham Central Station leader Larry Graham and Santana and future Journey guitarist Neal Schon, so the three formed the core of Betty’s band. Asking around further, Errico (a novice producer, mind you) secured a “mind-bottling” support cast, including keyboardist Merl Saunders, the Tower of Power horn section, the Pointer Sisters, and Sylvester. Though the personnel vary from track to track, Davis holds the album together with a peerless performance.

Betty Davis’ self-titled debut is funk like no other. Its closest musical relation is Sly Stone’s early ‘70s molasses—deliberate, moist, and bizarre in substance—but where he often buries his voice within the arrangement, Betty kicks the mic stand over and demands your attention. Though her vocal technique is admittedly lacking (in the words of Graham Central Station member and album back-up vocalist Patrice Banks, “She couldn’t sing"), she carries the album in two ways. The first is through sheer performance. As her band rumbles and thumps out funk-rawk, she coos lines like, “I know you could have me climbin’ walls / So, that’s why I don’t want to love you” on the anthemic “Anti-Love Song.” On the Graham Central Station-style slapper “Come Take Me,” she channels throatzilla and rip-roars over the track. Seemingly raw and spontaneous, Betty’s ownership of the material reveal her to be calculating and confident. This leadership makes the music, as the band alone would only appeal to musicians and appreciators of genre-busting jams; with Betty, the music becomes a slow cooker of unbridled lust that teases and passes each beat, and flicks and licks each chord.

As if this isn’t enough, Betty takes the music over the top with her explosively unapologetic songs. Titles like “Your Man, My Man” and “You Won’t See Me in the Morning” lack subtlety about subject matter, but swagger with a confidence and bravado previously exclusive to men. Betty frequently reverses gender roles and expectations to demonstrate control and strength that could even knock Tura Satana off her feet. In this sense, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and “Game is My Middle Name” unconsciously seize the spirit of second wave feminism by equalizing depictions of an independent woman.

Betty wasted no time and followed up her debut with the aptly titled They Say I’m Different the following year. The album is equally noteworthy for her increased command as she took over the producer’s reins. In a bold move, she assembles a completely new band of unknown musicians; a handful of stars still stop by to assist, including Buddy Miles on guitar and Headhunters drummer Mike Clark, but their roles are mostly cameos. The new group reproduces the first album’s sound competently, albeit with more of a blues turn. However, the band is once again the backdrop to Betty’s writing, which becomes more personal. In a rare glimpse of her non-stage personality, Betty embraces her upbringing on the autobiographical title track, and pays homage to her heroes ("Leadbelly, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Son House… and Bessie Smith!") to make sense of her identity. She also displays a growing ability to connect her struggles with those of her peers, artistic and otherwise, such as her defense of a prostitute’s dignity on “Don’t Call Her No Tramp”—“You can call her… an elegant hustler, but don’t you call her no tramp.” Betty still exhibits little subtlety or restraint, as “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him” continues the first album’s outlandish sexual antics, and “He Was a Big Freak” describes Jimi Hendrix’ purported fascination with sadomasochism ("I used to get him off with a turquoise chain!"). However, her sophomore release demonstrates her songwriting versatility and extends the promise of her debut.

-REVIEW: Betty Davis: Betty Davis (John Ballon, All About Jazz)
While their marriage only lasted a year (1968-1969), Betty's impact on the immortal jazz trumpeter was tremendous. Her cutting-edge musical tastes and incomparable sense of style were too much for Miles to resist. A self-righteous 23-year old model, Betty conquered the man twice her age with a potent mixture of youth, beauty, and sex. Within a year, she had completely remade Miles in her own youthful image. As she poured herself into him, his playing grew younger, his outlook fresh. She ripped through his closets, tossing out the elegant suits he had worn for years. This was the late '60s, revolution was in the air, and suits were the uniforms of the Establishment. The time had come to get hip, and Betty pointed the way, introducing Miles to the musical and material gods of revolutionary style: Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.

Anyone with half a grip on the past knows that Miles expereiced far more than a wardrobe makeover during his tumultuous Betty year. Deeply influenced by the cosmic rock guitar of Hendrix and the experimental funk of Sly Stone, Miles turned mad genius and unleashed the electrified musical Frankenstein known as Bitches Brew. This monster he created would sadly run amok as fusion lost its soul and became an F word. But for a brief moment during these still glowing days of late '60s Eden, Betty ruled as the mentor-muse for the original man and his music. There are even rumors about an unreleased album of songs that Betty wrote and recorded with Miles and his band.

Betty was fire, and while Miles welcomed the sparks, he knew better than to stay too close for too long. In his autobiography he wrote: “Betty was too young and wild for the things I expected from a woman...Betty was a free spirit, she was raunchy and all that kind of shit.” Rumor holds that Miles broke things off because he suspected that his wife was tangled up in a torrid affair with Jimi Hendrix, an infidelity that she has flatly denied to this day. Miles self-preserved, giving up his good thing in the end.

It might have been enough if the story ended there, but it certainly did not. As Betty's lyrics attest, she was not a tragic woman beholden to any man. This was a woman with the strength of a Black Panther, a woman in total control, a predatory feline fully aware of the power that her beauty and sexuality gave her over men. On her self-titled 1973 debut album, she declares war on love in her raunchy funk masterpiece, “Anti Love Song.” In sharp lines probably directed at her ex-husband, she sings: “No I don't want to love you / 'Cause I know how you are / Sure you say you're right on and you're righteous / But with me I know you'd be right off / Cause you know I could posess your body / You know I could make you crawl / And just as hard as I'd fall for you, boy / You know you'd fall for me harder / That's why I don't want to love you.” Belted out in a ferocious over the top style, “Anti Love Song” is the classic bad girl anthem.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 12, 2007 12:08 PM
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