Posted: October 3rd, 2008
“If Betty were singing today she be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis.”
– Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography
The former wife of Miles, Betty Mabry Davis is perhaps the only woman in the world who could rightfully have the following legend tattooed across her rear: THIS ASS INVENTED FUSION. 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 experienced 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 claims that it was he who gave up his good thing in the end, while an old friend of Betty’s claims that it was she who got bored, leaving Miles for an unnamed rock star.
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. It was songs like this, along with the album’s openning track, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” that solidified her notorious image as a “nasty girl.”
Unfortunately for Betty, America was not yet ready to embrace a woman with such an explicitly sexual persona. Her outrageously flamboyant image eclipsed her talent. Several of her live shows were boycotted by religious groups and even canceled. Radio steered clear of her unconventional music, judging it too hard for black stations and too black for white ones. Her records didn’t sell. Betty vanished from the scene, a rumored victim of a drug overdose. According to several old friends, Betty was very much set against drugs, making this oft-repeated and persistent rumor particularly vicious.
That the record buying public shunned Betty Davis should come as no surprise. She had a much rougher edge to her music than other female funk and soul artists of the ’70s. Song for song, Betty Davis is actually one of the most extreme sounding debut records of the decade.
Like Bitches Brew, it takes equal parts inspiration from Hendrix and Sly Stone. Future Journey guitarist Neal Schon gives the music its distinctly hard rock Hendrix edge. The Sly angle is fleshed out by former Family Stone drummer Gregg Errico, who plays on and produces the entire record. Former Sly bassist Larry Graham adds an even more unmistakable sound with his trademark grooves. The roster of other musicians playing on this record is impressive: Patryce Banks, Willie Sparks, and Hershall Kennedy of Graham Central Station; Tower of Power horn players Greg Adams and Michael Gillette; and the Pointer Sisters. All these musicians come together to form a flexible and propulsive band, laying down heavy beats behind Neal Schon‘s dominant lead guitar and Betty’s shocking vocals.
Like all original sounding music, Betty’s voice eludes description, and must be heard. A friend was struck by how contemporary it sounded. It’s pretty obvious that she was a major influence on Macy Gray. Betty was a powerhouse, pushing her vocal cords to the limit on every performance. She gave it all up, unpredictably alternating between sexy breathiness, moans, and full throated screams. Her voice is not for the feint hearted, as she drags the listener on an fiery tour of her bad-ass soul. This take no prisoners style of singing can sometimes be a bit much to handle. Make no mistake, Betty’s brand of black music is not pleasantly soulful, it’s ecstatically hard. Many will find it grating and inaccessible in places. Here was a woman capable of projecting sex in a single scream, an unsentimental envelope pusher with the raucous pipes of a banshee. Even on the album’s only slow song, “In The Meantime,” Betty sings with tongue in cheek sweetness about the dark pleasures in being alone, closing out the record with a promise that she will survive with or without a man.
Way ahead of her time, Betty was the original super freak, a musical extremist who demanded too much from her audience. She came and went with a thunderous roar.
- Neal Schon – guitar
- Gregg Errico – drums
- Larry Graham – bass
- Patryce Banks – percussion
- Willie Sparks – drums
- Hershall Kennedy – horns
- Greg Adams – horns
- Mic Gillette – horns
- Pointer Sisters – vocals
- If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up
- Walking Up The Road
- Anti Love Song
- Your Man My Man
- Ooh Yea
- Steppin In Her I. Miller Shoes
- Game Is My Middle Name
- In The Meantime