They Say She’s Different: Betty Davis

If music writers love one thing, it’s finding some “obscure” artist and thinking they’ve uncovered Tut’s tomb, especially when it comes to underrated black artists who displayed genius but were not as commercially successful as they should have been. Of these types of artists, Betty Mabry Davis ranks at the top of the list.

Her connection to Miles Davis is inevitable: she was his second wife, briefly married to him between 1968 and 1969, and graced the cover of his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro. In one of her rare interviews, Betty explains that Miles would get “physical” and she left the abusive relationship, yet she stayed in contact with him after dissolving the marriage. However, that short time she spent with Miles may have changed the trajectory of jazz before she went on to become the rock-funk pioneer for which she is now known.

Apparently, it was Betty who introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix. Miles was inspired to incorporate the modern sounds into his jazz after this fateful meeting. By 1970, Miles changed the entire landscape of jazz with an album that is now required listening for not only the jazz fan but the aspiring jazz aficionado with any type of “expertise” on the subject. That album: Bitches Brew.

Anyone with a keen eye can make the connection. In this case, “bitches” appears to be a grammatical error or quite possibly misdirection to deflect the true inspiration of one of the most important pop culture creations of the 20th century. However, those aware of the history speculate that Betty’s relationship with Jimi Hendrix may have been a factor in the brevity of her marriage, hence the thinly veiled shot at her contribution to the album.

Yet, Betty was so much more than the go-between for Miles and Jimi. Betty Davis’ experience with the music industry shows just how much black women have to fight for control in all aspects of their careers from the music to their stage presence. In a way, she was successful, but the fight may have cost music fans one of the most dynamic presences to have ever set foot in a studio and on the rock stage.

Betty actually recorded an album and continued to write songs after her marriage to Miles ended. Many of them ended up as tunes for The Commodores and played no small part in them getting a deal with Motown. However, her own “rock-oriented, progressive” album that she made with Miles before the split was lost. Columbia Records shelved the project, quite possibly at Miles’ request when the couple broke up.

Fortunately, Betty had become acquainted with the likes of Eric Clapton (with whom she was romantically linked and gave her the silver go-go boots she wore on her first album cover) and Marc Bolan who helped her navigate the waters of music publishing. In fact, Marc Bolan, who was also linked to Marsha Hunt and Gloria Jones, was the one to convince Betty to write her own songs and keep ownership of her work. Not only did she leave her Motown contract when she refused to give over the rights to her songs, but she also took back the ones she wrote for The Commodores. She took her talents to San Francisco where she began to forge her own style.

In addition to writing songs for herself, Betty also put together her own backing band. Her boyfriend at the time, Santana percussionist Michael Carabello, had just left Sly and the Family Stone. With him, she recruited another Family Stone member Larry Graham, the horn section from the Tower of Power and the Pointer Sisters to work on Betty’s first album.

Betty released her self-titled album in 1973. The first single, “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up,” predated the sexual autonomy and freedom of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” and proved to be ahead of its time with themes many contemporary artists cannot quite seem to master with the same conviction. This type of sexuality exuded itself through much of Betty’s music. “Anti-Love” song is not so much about a refusal to love than it is in being caught up in romantic notions that often confuses sexual attraction. Interestingly, some fans see the song as a metaphor for heroin addiction.

That sexual autonomy was found in other tracks including “Game Is My Middle Name” and “Steppin in Her I. Miller Shoes.” However, anyone who thinks Betty is all about sex with no substance needs to let go of that delusion. Betty was all about sex on her terms and defied any judgment for it.

Interestingly, the album also showed Betty’s softer, more reflective side with tracks such as “Walking up That Road” and “In the Meantime.” Despite her attitude toward sexual freedom, she also displays a vulnerability that comes with being alone. She even subdues that aggressive growl that colored much of her vocal style and made her a force.

Unfortunately, the album was not as much of a commercial success as it should not have been. Betty found herself straddling that no-man’s land that often hinders the success of black artists who do not conform to the mainstream’s expectations. She was seen, in fact, as too black for rock and too rock (or hard) for soul.

Yet she continued her unique brand of hard funk with her next album They Say I’m Different. The album cover denoted a bit of a change. Whereas on the first album Betty dons over-the-knee silver go-go boots with cut off shorts, she switches gears to a look now associated with AfroFuturism, her towering afro still in place. Her dismantling of sexual and gender conventions also stayed put right from the very first track “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him.”

The B-side of that single, “He Was a Big Freak,” also took down gender conventions with her story of a man she used to beat “with a turquoise chain” and “lead him to the tip.” Betty has denied that the song is about her former husband. However, those same “scholars” who speculate about the target of the song also work themselves up over whether or not her song “Don’t Call Her No Tramp” is an answer to Miles’ Bitches Brew, especially since they also speculate that Betty had an affair with Jimi Hendrix during her marriage.

No matter who the song is about, “Don’t Call Her No Tramp” shuns those who slut-shame women who defy societal expectations of ladyhood and respectable womanhood. Her defense of women’s sexual freedom was ahead of its time and in its own way serves as a counterpart to the sexual dominance displayed in “He Was a Big Freak.” Betty would take it even further with her third studio album entitled Nasty Gal, particularly in tracks like “Gettin’ Kicked Off, Havin’ Fun” that demand sexual satisfaction.

Interestingly, the Nasty Gal cover photo is the one that finds Betty nearly reclined in a provocative pose while wearing a negligee and high heels. Not surprisingly, she offers more sexually charged lyrics over hard funk tracks like the title track and the male and female give and take with tracks like “Talkin Trash.” Many people like to point to the composition cowritten with ex-husband Miles “You and I” as a track showing Betty’s softer side. Indeed, it is something of an anomaly with deep contemplative lyrics about a man and woman unable to connect on a deeper level needed to make the relationship work. However, an album standout comes in the ode to funk, “F.U.N.K.” in which Betty pays homage to many contemporaries including Tina Turner. Yet, she still manages to end the album on a sensual note with “The Lone Ranger,” playing with double entendre and innuendo on a slow and slinky track. This one is a reworking of an earlier track “I’ll Take That Ride” that appears as a bonus track on the CD re-issue of her first album.

Like her previous efforts, Nasty Gal failed to become a commercial success, but Betty worked on another album in 1976, Crashin’ from Passion. However, the album failed to see the light of day in the 70s amidst Betty’s continued fight for control over her music in which she was pressured to give up rights and make other concessions. Crashin’ from Passion (re-issued as Hangin’ Out in Hollywood with what appears to be a different band than Betty’s backing band) would not see the light of day for nearly 20 years after many of its tracks like “No Good at Falling in Love” found their way into the underground bootleg scene.

In the meantime, Betty’s legend grew. She found her work among many creations from the 70s seen as obscure but heavily sampled among a generation of rappers who grew up listening to their parents’ LPs. The first compilation album, Anti Love — The Best of Betty Davis, was released in 1995 and introduced a new generation to Davis herself, not the samplings of the previous generation. This Is It! came in 2007.

Betty’s body of work has recently begun to gain traction again with reissues of her work by the Light in the Attic label. In 2009, the label also compiled some of the songs that bootleggers had been sharing for years in the Is It Love or Desire collection. Perhaps songs such as “Whorey Angel” in all their contradictions in playing with celebrating female sexuality while challenging it was just too much for the times.

Betty actually quit music in 1979 simply because she could not get a record deal. Her disenchantment is quite understandable. Artists who present similar challenges to the male-dominated industry including Imani Coppola, Ebony Bones, Res and Santigold have struggled for years to make their brands of genre-defying music their way with no compromises. Despite their talent, they fail to reach the success they deserve.

These days, Betty is intensely private, reclusive even. Every once in a while, some lucky music writer makes the big score and gets a telephone interview (she won’t do in-person interviews). However, each notes a discomfort in their interactions with Betty canceling many remaining interviews she agreed to do for the Light in the Attic reissues of her albums after speaking with the San Francisco Gate in 2007. She did other extensive interviews with in Indy Week in 2008 and No Depression in 2010, but Betty tends to remain quiet.

Needless to say all attempts to get her to return to music have failed. Artists such as Saul Williams have all but begged her to work with them, but she has turned down all invitations to get back in the studio. Yet we find remnants of Betty in a slew of black female artists who struggle to break the mold of black female representation whether or not they deal in sexuality. Without her, there would be no Kelis. No Missy Elliott. No Adina Howard. No Khia. No Trina. No Junglepussy. No Rihanna. No Lil Kim. No Janet Jackson. There would not even be the Beyoncé who could release an album in the middle of the night on her own terms and spark international conversations on black feminism.

Betty paved the way. Betty deserves her due. Because she was different, we can all be ourselves.