Betty Davis: Betty Davis (1973)

Betty Davis: Betty Davis (1973)

by Phil H

Betty Davis: Betty Davis (1973)

Betty Davis walked out on the music scene never to return before the 1980s had even got under way, fed up with an industry that just didn't know how to deal with such a force of nature.

For all the rip-offs and disappointments along the way, Betty still left a remarkable legacy behind both in terms of the huge effect her short marriage to Miles Davis had in transforming his career and the trio of earthy, incredibly alive funk albums she recorded in the early 1970s.

In his autobiography, Miles put the break-up of their marriage in the late 1960s after only 12 months down to: "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."

Carlos Santana put it rather better when he described her as "indomitable – she couldn't be tamed. Musically, philosophically and physically, she was extreme and attractive".

She was Betty Mabry when she arrived in New York from Pittsburgh aged just 16 to study fashion, but she was soon DJing in a nightclub called The Cellar and making connections in the music industry. She hooked up with Miles in 1967 and, despite being half the jazz legend's age, set about revamping his wardrobe and turning him on to the likes of her friend Jimi Hendrix and Sly & The Family Stone.

The impact was obvious when her face appeared on the cover of the following year's Filles de Kilimanjaro LP, with the songs Mademoiselle Mabry and Frelon Brun both inspired by Hendrix riffs - The Wind Cries Mary and If 6 Was 9 respectively. They recorded an album together in this period as well, which we can only hope eventually sees the light of day - every scrap Miles ever recorded seems to get released on another boxset eventually nowadays, so fingers crossed.

Betty also wrote the superb Uptown (To Harlem) for the Chambers Brothers' The Time Has Come LP before moving to London to take up modelling again when she split with Miles (she blames his temper), who nevertheless continued down the funky jazz fusion road she had opened up to him.

She returned to the States in the early 1970s with the intention of becoming a songwriter. The Commodores recorded several of her songs on a demo that helped them get a deal with Motown but the prospect of a Betty-penned album fell apart when she refused the songwriting deal offered by Berry Gordy.

"I never decided I wanted to be a performer - I wanted to be a writer. But I couldn't work out a writer's deal for financial reasons, so I was left with a lot of songs and that's how I got into the business," is how she explains the circumstances that led to her debut album.

Greg Ericco got involved, having recently quit as Sly Stone's drummer, and pulled together a band of top funk musicians, including Larry Graham on bass, Neal Schon on guitar, the Tower Of Power horn section and the Pointer Sisters and Sylvester providing backing vocals.

Not that there was any danger of Betty feeling overawed in such company, as becomes immediately clear on opener If I'm In Luck I Just Might Get Picked Up. Riding on the back of a monster groove built around Graham's hog-phat bassline, she warns 'I'm crazy/ I'm nasty/ I'm wild' before adding 'All you lady haters don't be cruel me/ Don't you crush my velvet/ Don't you ruffle my feathers neither'.

Any idea that she might be pandering to some kind of male fantasy is blown out of the water by Anti Love Song, which slows down the pace but not the intensity. 'I know you like to be in charge/ But with me you know you couldn't control me/ And I'd make you drop your guard/ Cos I'd have you eaten your ego/ I'd make you pocket your pride/ And just as hard as I'd be loving you, boy/ Well, you know you'd be lovin' me harder/ That's why I don't want to love you'. What wouldn't Madonna give to have written that?

Walkin' Up That Road is one of the songs originally written for the Commodores (that demo would make interesting listening too), with Betty's growled vocals and Schon's squealing funky guitar taking their place.

Your Man, My Man sounds like a female-fronted Funkadelic as Betty tells the story of a 3-way affair. A fearless soul sister she may have been, but Betty seems to be reaching back into the blues for inspiration from the likes of Lucille Bogan and Bessie Smith.

Side two starts with the steadily escalating groove of Ooh Yeah before Steppin In Her I Miller Shoes tells the tale of Devon Wilson, a former boyfriend Jimi Hendrix who got ripped off and abused before falling to her death from an eighth floor window of the Chelsea Hotel.

You can only imagine what the Commodores' version of Game Is My Middle Name sounded like, particularly the idea of Lionel Richie singing 'Do me in, do me in/ You know I could dig it man'. The album ends on a soulful note with In The Meantime, with great gospelly organ from Hershall Kennedy. In all, it's 8 tracks and just 29 minutes long - but then Betty always did know how to leave them wanting more.

Two more albums followed, none of them selling well due to radio stations refusing to play songs they saw as too wild and explicit. Millie Jackson subsequently watered down her shtick with some success but acts such as Macy Gray, Angie Stone and Erykah Badu keep Betty's spirit alive long after she disappeared back into the suburbs of Pittsburgh to live her life away from the public gaze.
Phil H