Fierce Ruling Diva
Betty Davis was different—three javelins/thigh-high silver boots/skycraper Afro/Egyptian-warrior-from-outer-space getup on her album cover different. And a whole lot more besides.
For decades, Davis' uniqueness was only known to rare-funk specialists and assiduous beat-diggers. But now, thanks to Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records, her eponymous 1973 debut LP and 1974's They Say I'm Different are available to the general public in gorgeously packaged vinyl and CDs with extensive liners, bonus tracks, rare photos and a frustratingly tightlipped interview with Davis.
Davis' is a familiar too-far-ahead-of-her-time tale, but the details of her career trajectory are extraordinary. Born in 1945, Davis became obsessed with music at an early age (she wrote her first song at 12). After spending her childhood in North Carolina, she moved to New York City at age 16 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to study apparel design. She soon moved into NYC's fashion beau monde and added model to her rsum. Along with her fellow boho-beauty girlfriends, Davis insinuated herself into the city's thriving music scene. She later landed a job at the Cellar as a hostess/MC/DJ, cut some indie-label singles that went nowhere and wrote the excellent soul number "Uptown," which appeared on the Chambers Brothers' 1967 LP The Time Has Come.
In Manhattan's heady milieu, Davis befriended Jimi Hendrix, but she became enthralled with jazz legend Miles Davis, whom she married in 1968. She also assumed the role of his muse and fashion director, updating his wardrobe and listening habits. Many observers credit Davis for turning Miles onto hip acid rock, funk and soul and inspiring him to create the fusion classic Bitches Brew. Their union ended in 1969, allegedly due to Miles' abusive treatment and irreconcilable conflicts between the couple's artistic ambitions.
Following the divorce, Davis moved to England, where she modeled and met high-profile musicians such as Marc Bolan and Eric Clapton, who encouraged her to record her own compositions—a rarity for female vocalists then. In 1972, she moved to the Bay Area, where her solo career accelerated. She became romantically involved with Santana percussionist Michael Carabello and found herself moving among members of Santana and Sly & the Family Stone. Davis enlisted bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico, who'd recently been canned by Sly, to work on her debut LP, along with the Pointer Sisters and future disco star Sylvester on backing vocals, ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon, Jerry Garcia collaborator Merl Saunders on clavinet, and others.
From album opener "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up" (which seems uncharacteristically passive, given the song's thrusting nature), Davis establishes her panther-like presence. Alternately sultry and threatening, Davis forges a brazen new sexy-mama lexicon, buttressed by tumescent funk backdrops so potent that birth control is advised while listening to it. Her voice isn't technically "good," but its cat-scratch-feverish, guttural yowls and raunchy purrs ideally suit her bawdy subject matter and XXX funk foundations.
The follow-up, They Say I'm Different (produced by Davis; almost unheard of for a woman in the '70s), abounds with sexily slouching funk vamps that contain both precoital tension and postcoital lollygagging; it's sparse, stalking and voracious. Like a lot of great funk, the songs are both uptight and loose. Davis' final LP, Nasty Gal, offers more solid funk and R&B, but lacks the intensity of the first two records. Davis reportedly cut two more albums (both confusingly titled Crashin' From Passion) that have never surfaced.
* * *
But let's return to that stunning first record. Errico, who drummed for Sly from 1967 to 1971, thus helping to catalyze one of the greatest funk machines ever, fondly remembers the producing and recording sessions for Betty Davis.
Greg Errico: Initially Betty seemed somewhat humble, but not shy, and she was focused, had a plan, knew just what she wanted. I didn't really know of her. I was recording in San Francisco, sometime in 1972, producing an album with Michael Carabello. He brought Betty by the studio to meet me. She asked if I would produce an album for her and that she had just signed a record deal with Michael Lang (creator/producer of Woodstock Music and Arts Festival). That same day she started talking to me about songs she had in her head and humming lines she was hearing—she had lyrics. Like I said, she had been working on this for a while.
OC Weekly: Was Davis putting on a persona in the studio or simply transferring her personality into her songs? She comes across as a larger-than-life figure.
Yes, Betty was in a lot of ways a "larger-than-life figure," as you put it. She did more or less transfer her personality into her songs in a performance sense. I mean, in her music, she was intense, but she had a very easygoing side, too.
Coming from Sly & the Family Stone, how did you find Davis' music in terms of compositional quality and degree of funkiness? Was it as challenging and satisfying as what you were doing with Sly?
Musically, it was easy for me to interpret. She wanted "funk"; she got funk. You ask if it was challenging. I think if I were not able to cast the musicians as I did, the record would have been very different. But that's what a producer does. It's like you pick or create just the right arrangements, studio, engineer, musicians and so on. You work and corroborate with the artist to create what you end up with! Betty did ask and considered much of my input. When it came to playing drums, I pretty much played what I wanted to play.
In retrospect, it's baffling why Davis didn't become a big star. Do you think it was a matter of her being too far ahead of her time, too sexually aggressive for the male-dominated music industry's idea of how a female artist should be?
Yes, I guess she was ahead of her time. Had she an organization behind her to support what she was trying to do, she most likely could have realized her persona in a bigger audience and a sustained career.
* * *
Following her father's death in the late '70s, Davis descended into a depressive state that derailed her music career. She's mostly lived a quiet life in Pennsylvania, dropping so far off the radar that even ASCAP couldn't locate her to pay royalties. The personality revealed in the interviews conducted by Oliver Wang and published in the reissues' booklets is that of a traumatized individual who's shut off most of her brain in order to dull a chronic ache. Davis refuses or is unable to explicate pertinent details about her music career, as well as discuss why she lost her creative drive. It's strange that someone who'd previously blazed with such ambition has faded into obscurity with no desire to flex those once supple artistic muscles.
The music industry never hesitates to stress female artists' sexuality in order to prime the financial pump (among other pumps), but only on its own terms. When someone like Betty Davis arises, a figure whose outsized abilities and ambitions matched her outrageously freaky persona, then execs start to fret about crossing some absurdly prudish line of decorum. The equal of more popular peers Tina Turner and Chaka Khan in terms of charisma and expressiveness, if not technique, Davis laid the groundwork for later dirty divas such as Macy Gray, Kelis and Peaches.
Fear of unfettered female sexuality and artistic autonomy has tainted the record biz for decades, though the reins have loosened somewhat since Davis' mid-'70s heyday. It's sad that these forces stifled Davis, but through hip-hop producers sampling her songs and Light in the Attic reissuing her best work, she is finally getting her due (and royalties). Oddly, she seems to be the one least excited about her own revival. Still (in)different after all these years. . . .
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.