Interview with Funk Goddess Betty Davis

February 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

A truly emancipated woman is a rare find in this age or any other, but to discover a lady as free as Betty Davis amid the debauched misogyny of early Seventies music scene is like stumbling onto an unknown species. While most of her contemporaries were standing by their men or feeling like natural women, Davis was moving full force toward her own destiny, making music that was nothing anyone could have suspected yet everything she wanted it to be.

To hear her heyday recordings (1973’s self-titled debut, 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal), is to experience female sexuality stripped to it’s raw and throbbing core – a miasma of shuddering cries and feline growls set over the funkiest of progressive grinds. Davis’ specialty was deep bass, heavy beats and predatory vocals, a type of spoken word/singing that slipped fluidly between sensual sadism and orgasmic glee.

In other words – it was music made for fucking, made by someone who loved to fuck.

With Davis’ first two albums currently in re-release through Seattle-based Light in The Attic Records, the white-hot spotlight has been turned back on…in more ways than one. For anyone who loves music, particularly balls-out no holds barred funk, these records are a true treat. Davis, along with musical collaborators like Sly Stone drummer Larry Graham and guitarist Neal Schon (later of Journey) virtually created her own genre – a sound that would go far beyond the intergalactic grooves of Parliament/Funkadelic or the liquid soul of Marvin Gaye.

Davis pushed funk straight the bedroom, put on the satin sheets, poured the champagne and added a hot streak of S&M deviance. Her sound would eventually give messy, musical birth to the sex-imp charms of Prince, the cool sensuality LL Cool J, and most recently, the raunchy, sweat-saturated beats of Peaches, who sings Davis’ praises with a true fan’s ardor.

“Betty Davis was too hardcore for everyone when she recorded her amazing innovative funk albums,” Peaches says in an email, “Now is the time for this true original explicit wild woman to be fully accepted and appreciated. She is the perfect icon to represent sexy powerful playful women!”

Peaches has a point. Listening to these early recordings, it’s no surprise to find that Davis was not only a myth, but a muse as well, inspiration to some of the most legendary musicians of her time, including pals Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix, boyfriend Eric Clapton and ex-husband, Miles Davis. And Ms. Betty knew how to give as good as she got. She was encouraged and inspired by Bolan and Hendrix, nurtured by Clapton. As far as he famous ex-husband goes, Davis is, by all accounts, responsible for shaping the direction of his later career, pushing him not so gently forward into such incredible experiments as Filles de Kilimanjaro (which features Mrs. Davis on the cover) and Bitches Brew.

“Betty was a free spirit,” Miles wrote in his autobiography, “ talented as a motherfucker”.

A story eventually imbued with some serious sequined glamour, started with the most modest of beginnings. Davis, nee’ Betty Mabry, grew up a steelworker’s daughter amid the soot and smokestacks of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Precocious, lovely, she was immersed in music early on, writing her first song at the tender age of 12.

“I remember listening to John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton,” says Davis in a recent phone interview, “People like that. My mother was into the blues. There was music around the house growing up. As a kid I started writing and as I grew old it developed. It was songs about little things like ‘Bake a Cake of Love’, funny little songs that eventually evolved into something bigger.”

After an early graduation, Davis relocated to New York and studied music, acting and fashion design before finding easy money as a hugely successful Wilhelmina model.

“When I was coming up, I didn’t start doing the music full on until after I got married,” remembers Davis, “At first, I was just doing a lot of modeling, hanging out and having a good time.”

With spreads in Elle, Glamour and Ebony, Davis integrated easily into the upper milieu of the age’s movers and shakers, developing a refined taste for living high and fast. Davis’ career would allow for not only good times and easy access to a variety of fascinating men – but also for the evolution of a truly mind-blowing personal style. She was a woman who knew how to dress, knew how to take an item of clothing and turn it in to something akin to a new skin.

“It came from being a model and knowing fashion and knowing what looked good,” says Davis of her innate sense of high style, “I liked Stephen Burrows, Norma Kamali. And I used to work for Halston.”

The newly mastered Light in The Attic re-releases feature an assortment of amazing photographs of Davis in full regalia – a kind of Nefertiti sex goddess look crossed with miniskirt haute couture. There were feathers and silver leather and an Afro that formed a soft, dark halo around huge doll eyes and a perfect mouth. There was lingerie as stage-wear and eyelashes brushing against black felt hat brim.

On Nasty Gal, Davis, in red sequined negligee, posed with knees spread wide – a blinding flash of white light beaming from between her legs; like a beacon beckoning toward ecstasy. With a group of like-minded female friends, Davis would make her way both backstage and into a various beds – bringing with her an unstoppable intellect and a thirst for experience and education.

“We had our share of men, that’s for sure,” she laughs, “We used to go to the same clubs and parties. I think our lust for life is what drew us together, wanting to experience it all.”

Part of that experience was the music of the moment – raw rock, the new waves of pyschedelia and jazz. Davis began delving back into her own music again in the mid Sixties, eventually writing and/or recording several singles, including the 1967 Chamber Brothers hit, “Uptown”. And in 1968, the 23-year-old Betty finally conquered the great Miles Davis, embarking on a quick, fiery, doomed romance that would mark of each of them indelibly.

Miles gave his young bride an intimate view into the inner workings of an incredible musical mind while at the same time leaving himself open to her influences. In turn Betty helped to redefined Miles’ style while simultaneously defining her own. Her experiences with him and others in her life would eventually become grist for an exotic, mesmerizing mill – Davis culling stories and images from reality and depositing them into the pump and thrust of her cavernous funk numbers.

“I wrote about friends of mine – I was inspired by the people around me,” she remembers, “’He Was A Big Freak’ wasn’t written specifically about Jimi Hendrix, but he liked turquoise a lot, so I got the line, ‘I used to beat him with a turquoise chain’”.

That line is classic Betty Davis, visually evocative and purely, unapologetically sexual. She delivers it with such a snarl you can almost see the sharp glint of her teeth. Eventually, this unabashed embrace of her own sweet vulgarity would slowly undermine Davis’ career. Despite critical acclaim and sold out shows, there was backlash on both sides of the fence – the new black middle class frowning on Betty’s ballsiness, uptight whites cowed by her courage.

Betty’s image began, slowly, to outweigh her music. The New York Times raved about her – saying she was “outdoing the likes of Mick Jagger and Sly Stone at their own game”, but they also conceded the lamentable fact that Betty’s overt sexuality was going to take audiences a long time to swallow. “Much of the shock and strong and con opinions…was caused, doubtless, because it’s not customary to have a woman perform her own music so aggressively.”

Davis herself admitted to Jet magazine in an early interview, “I’m very aggressive on stage and men usually don’t like aggressive woman. They usually like submissive women, or woman that pretend to be submissive.”

In 1975, Betty’s then lover, Robert Palmer, helped Davis facilitate a deal with Island Records. The label released Nasty Gal soon after and the results were mixed. Commercial success still eluded Betty, in large part because of her defiant embrace of herself – lasciviousness and all. Davis refused to hold herself back. When the label asked her to tone down, she told them where to stick it. She recorded a fourth album with Island in New Orleans, reputedly even down and dirtier than any of its predecessors. The label shelved it (Island still has never released it) and dropped Betty from its roster.

It would be three years before Davis released Crashin’ From Passion, another ill-fated album – it’s release tangled in shady business dealings for nearly 16 years. When Crashin’ finally saw the light of day, it was in the form of an illegal bootleg, setting the tone for Davis’ financial straits. With various fingers poking the pie, profits from her albums trickled painfully slowly down to Davis herself and the last twenty years have proven to be tight times. After her father’s death in the early 1980s, Davis left her home in England and returned to Pennsylvania, effectively abandoning everything of her former life, her recording career, her live performances, her persona.

With the release of her first two records however, Davis has experienced something of a catharsis. A flurry of critical acclaim and the resurrection of some her best work may mean she’ll finally be getting her due.

“ I’m writing again,” Davis admits, “ really progressive stuff. I’d like to have someone else record it, because I don’t have any plans to play live. But it does feels good to be working on things.”

Her reappearance is certain to inspire those who haven’t had the chance experience the exposed to the bone sound of a woman pushing herself to the far limits.  And her longtime fans, famous and otherwise, are welcoming her home.

“Betty Davis’ musical journey is inspirational to me in many ways,” says Talib Kweli, “Throughout her career, she remained pure in her art, and that in itself was too much for some of her peers. She influenced the greatest musicians of our time while she was their contemporary, and her legacy influenced a whole new generation of true artists. All respect to sister Betty Davis.”

That Davis was ahead of her time is an understatement. She stood completely outside her time – beyond the confines of easy categorization or mediocrity. The three albums she made reflect an ego as healthy and free from fear as any of the great musicians she knew and loved.

“Like so many brilliant women in music whose song of praise goes unsung, Betty Davis was and is a figure in the professional music landscape that deserves to be exalted,” says Joi, the Atlanta-based soul singer who frequently collaborates with Outkast, “ she has been the ultimate muse for so many men, so many genres of music…jazz, rock, soul, funk, r&b, punk. I’m so glad I have been influenced by her. Neither my life nor my music has been the same since.”

“I was brought up in the blues and the blues is a very pure art form,” says Davis thoughtfully, “So what happened was, being brought up on the blues and integrating that with people I was into in the 1970s – that’s how I came into myself.”

Davis now looks back at those recordings with a certain distant wisdom. After years of relative obscurity, she’s facing her former self with something like contentment. Despite the heat she took, the ups and long down of her career, it’s fairly obvious that if Betty Davis had the chance, she wouldn’t have done a thing differently.

“I look back on those records, not so much that they were a reflection of myself, but more of a representation of a time period. It feels good to be getting recognition, but in the end, the only advice I have is be true to your art form. And by that, I mean do what’s in your heart more so than what’s in your head.”

Originally Published in UK’s DAZED magazine

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