Happy 45th Anniversary to Betty Davis’ eponymous debut album Album Title, originally released April 2, 1973.
Betty Mabry was born on the 26th of July, 1945 and if you judge her on the basis of her legendary ex-husband’s autobiography, you’ll regard her as not much more than a glorified star fucker. But then if you’re going to judge her solely on the misanthropic misogyny of an abusive ex-husband of just one year, then that’s all you deserve.
Should you want to escape the lens of toxic masculinity and embittered old-age that taints music legend Miles Davis’ recollections, then a world of funk, uncompromising artistry and female empowerment awaits your ears and soul.
I can stake no claim on discovering Betty Davis by seeing through the underwhelming attention Miles gave her in said autobiography. Instead I discovered her in the same way anyone did before they’d fully engaged in the instantaneous world of the internet—flicking through CDs or vinyl in some poorly ventilated, dusty cornered shop somewhere.
Predictably, despite the tone of the opening of this piece, it was the sight of Betty Davis on the front of her eponymous debut that lured me in. There, with a sizeable Afro, metallic silver thigh high boots and a magnetically carefree smile, stood 3 portraits of a woman of supreme confidence and power. The pictures painted many more than a thousand words.
Miss Mabry was born and raised in Durham, North Carolina surrounded by strong women (her mother and grandmother) who loved the blues. Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and B.B. King were among those that ruled the roost and it was the purity of that music that lured Betty in and compelled her to write her first song aged 12.
Sometime in Betty’s formative years (around the age of 12) the family made the familiar trek northwards for her father to work as a steelworker in Pittsburgh, before Betty hit New York to stay with her aunt to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology aged just 16. Though modeling offered Betty a steady income, her heart always truly belonged to music.
Prior to the release of her debut album in 1973, Betty wrote with many others on the New York scene at the time. She wrote “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers, wrote the songs that got the Commodores signed and recorded songs produced by a then-smitten Miles for Columbia, which have only just seen light of day. The influence ran both ways though as Betty is credited with introducing Miles to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and The Family Stone, both of whom would work their way into Miles’ subconscious in later masterpieces.
For Betty though the time spent immersed in the music scene hit the jackpot artistically when Santana Band percussionist Michael Carabello introduced her to Greg Errico some time in 1972. Despite knowing very little of each other beyond the headlines, they embarked on putting together what would become Betty’s debut album using the cream of the Bay Area’s musicians.
Glancing down the list of band members, the true nature of Betty’s music reveals itself before a note hits the target. Not only did Sly and The Family Stone provide the drummer in the shape of Errico, but bass came courtesy of the incomparable Larry Graham. Former Santana and long-time Journey guitarist Neal Schon completed the rhythm section, whilst among the backing singers were the Pointer Sisters and future disco king Sylvester.
That such a roster could be put together for someone who was virtually unknown outside certain small circles, speaks to the passion and single-minded determination of Betty’s artistic vision. And should this impressive list somehow persuade you that Betty was not an active participant, scan the writing credits after you check the last vestiges of your preconceptions at the door. Ms. Davis wrote and arranged all of the music on the album.
From the first note, the funk flows like a torrent. Album opener “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” is a lesson in low slung, leonine funkiness. Though she would go onto record a track named “F.U.N.K.” on Nasty Gal in 1975, it doesn’t match the utter gutbucket funk on display across this opener. The lyrical content is also incendiary and unexpected, especially from a female artist at that time. There’s no double entendre here. It’s ribald and unapologetically sexual as evidenced by lyrics like, “I said if I’m in luck I just might get picked up / I said I’m vampin’ trampin’ you can call it what you wanna / I said I’m wiggling my fanny / I want you dancing I’m a movin’ it, movin’ it / Try not to pass out.” In fact, according to an interview with UK magazine Blues And Soul, the NAACP contacted Betty to label her as a disgrace to her race.
The album doesn’t let up for one second either. There’s no ballad to break the flow until the final track, no torch song to take the flame. It’s pretty much all funk, all the way. “Anti Love Song” is another highlight and one that showcases the sheer brilliance of both Larry Graham’s bass and Betty’s sexually powerful and empowering lyrics: “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 possess your body too don’t cha / You know I could make you crawl.”
It wasn’t a woman’s place to be so forceful in her sexual liberation and she certainly wasn’t supposed to be the holder of power in the war of the sexes. But Betty had no brook with being a cowed, subservient woman. Her artistic voice spoke loud and clear to the equality of the sexes and a voracious independent sexuality that made no concessions to anyone else.
Her singing voice found some (foolish) listeners turned off, as that in and of itself her voice challenged the accepted norms of female singers. At that time (and still now to a certain extent) female singers (especially black women) were raised in the church with crystal clear notes and technically proficient vocal runs. Yet Betty shunned that narrative, modeling herself on her vocal heroes from the blues. After all, nobody had a problem with George Clinton’s less than perfectly stylized vocals did they? Why should it be any different for a woman?
Betty’s artistic and singing voice meshed perfectly in a way that countless other pristine-piped singers could only dream of—an artist in the truest sense of the word. Proof litters the rest of her debut, be it the nimble, rumbling funk of “Your Man, My Man,” the frenetic “Ooh Yeah” or the foot-stomping “Steppin In Her I. Miller Shoes.” The 2007 reissue courtesy of Light In The Attic Records came complete with three previously unreleased tracks that further cemented her artistic integrity, culminating with the intensely sensual slow dive funk of “I Will Take That Ride.”
Betty Davis is one of those artists whose influence is far greater than her record sales. It’s not hard to make a case for every subsequent female artist owing her a debt of gratitude for breaking barriers and shattering expectations of what a woman could say and do on record. From Millie Jackson’s more outré late ‘70s albums to Madonna and onto modern day female funkateers like Joi and Erykah Badu, a common thread runs through them. A thread of the same joyful disdain for the rules and expectations placed on female artists.
Betty would go on to record three more albums,, but only two were released: They Say I’m Different in 1974 and Nasty Gal in 1975. The third, Is It Love or Desire, was lost in the familiar netherworld of label politics and proved a breaking point for Betty. Years passed and she became harder to track down and was never heard from in a musical sense. Yet the devotion of her fans meant she never faded from memory and reissues brought new waves on board.
Her recalcitrance has recently been punctured by a particularly tenacious filmmaker (Phil Cox) who has made a crowd-funded documentary. Betty – They Say I’m Different is currently touring film festivals in the hope of a wider release, with the possibility of a DVD release some time later in 2018. Betty never dreamt there’d be interest enough for a film of her life and career, but with funk growing stronger by the day (George did tell you it would) and the use of her work ever present in hip-hop sampling, it means the time is ripe for the re-emergence of the first lady of funk.
Ms. Davis, the floor is yours. It always has been.