Since everyone is so excited about A Different World finding a NetFlix home, I thought I’d share this unpublished paper from my grad school days. It’s probably close to ten years old by now.
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 had no interest in being in an 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.
Now let me introduce you to a new character archetype that I’ve affectionately called – THE NOBLE NEGRO. I came up with this term when I started noticing a shift in the storytelling paradigm several years ago. I noticed this character showing up in stories who I would consider a second potential hero, equal to the hero or better in every way. And I find that this role is given to black actors or actors of color more than the hero role also.
Even those of us who love The Rolling Stones have to give a side eye to “Brown Sugar.” Listen closely to the lyrics: a fantasy about a slave master abusing his slaves. And “abusing” in this context is putting it mildly. The lyrics are disturbing enough, but they become even more so considering that the song was “inspired” by American-born model, actress, singer and dancer Marsha Hunt — the mother of Mick Jagger’s first child. However, to relegate Marsha Hunt as simply Jagger’s secret flame is not only an insult but also erases her legacy in pop culture.
Born on April 15, 1946, Marsha emigrated to the UK from Pennsylvania in the 1960s and became part of the swinging London scene when she left home at age 19. In 1967, she married Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine in order to prevent deportation. She first got widespread recognition from a now iconic image of a nude Marsha with a glorious afro. The promo for the stage musical Hair!, of which she was a performer, was supposed to be the cover image of Vogue magazine. However, it was relegated to the inside spread, so Marsha did not have the opportunity to make history as the first black woman on the cover of the magazine although she did become the first black woman to grace the cover of the UK publication Queen.
Even though she did not make the cover of Vogue, Marsha’s stage work garnered her lots of attention and she signed a record deal. By 1971, she released her first album Woman Child. Recorded over two years, the album blends rock and soul with blues and funk to make it one of the most distinct creations of the 1970s. The album includes two songs actually released in 1969, a cover of Dr. John’s “Walk on Gilded Splinters” (which she performed at the Isle of Wight Festival with her band White Trash in 1967) and the rock-fueled “Desdemona,” previously covered by the group John’s Children in 1967. The latter track was written by T.Rex’s Marc Bolan who also collaborated with Marsha on many other tracks on the album.
While the two were rumored to have had a torrid affair at the time, the music from this collaboration speaks for itself. The lyrics of “Desdemona” (“lift up your skirt and fly”) may have been a bit too racy for airplay, but it is a favorite among Marsha’s fans. Marsha also covered the track “Hot Rod Mama” as “Hot Rod Poppa,” another heavy rock outing from the album that was actually the B-side to the “Walk on Gilded Splinters” single. The flowery, spacey “Stacey Grove” also features Bolan’s touch, but Marsha provided the vocals for her album’s version.
However, none of these cuts compare to the ethereal quality of The Supremes’ cover “My World Is Empty Without You.” Marsha’s haunting vocals over strings and congas bring a nuance to the lyrics that the Motown version just doesn’t quite get. The track has a timeless quality that transcends anything from the late 60s and early 70s and definitely creates a departure from Bolan’s sound as well. The one track that comes close to equaling anything the two did together is the lazy but sublime “Hippy Gumbo,” which served as the B-side to the “Desdemona” single.
Woman Child also included covers of Paul Simon’s “Keep the Customer Satisfied” and The Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which provided the album’s finale in grand style. It would be another two years before Marsha released another album. However, 1973 brought one of her most beloved and enduring songs. “(Oh No! Not!) The Beast Day” takes it catchy refrains straight from the games little black girls (used to) play on the sidewalk and commit it to a funk-rock groove that had to come from the 70s but still sounds both ahead of its time and timeless.
Interestingly, “(Oh No! Not!) The Beast Day” was not featured on Marsha’s second album, released under her new band’s name Marsha Hunt’s 22. Attention! Marsha Hunt was not simply more of the same as Woman Child. The album had some of the eclectic mixture of styles as the previous effort, but still showcased Marsha’s style that would eventually begin to lean more heavily toward funk. “Baby John” is a rather affable tune with a deep groove while its B-side “Black Flower” finds Marsha in a duet on a rather striking ballad.
Attention! Marsha Hunt would be the only album Marsha released with Marsha Hunt’s 22. No doubt much of her focus went into raising her daughter Karis who was born in 1970. Furthermore, Marsha continued acting. Most fans remember her from an appearance in Dracula AD 1972. However, music was never far from her heart. She changed along with the times. By the time she released Marsha in 1977, she had turned to disco.
Marsha yielded a now classic disco cut “The Other Side of Midnight.” Around this time, Marsha also had a hit with a single not included on the album, “C’est La Vie.” New fans may have even discovered some of Marsha’s rock roots when a greatest hits compilation recharted “Keep the Customer Satisfied” with “Desdemona” as its B-side in 1977. Unfortunately, Marsha’s last official single, “May 77,” was also released that year.
Even though music is no longer Marsha’s primary outlet, she has remained busy and grown in status over the past 40 years. Many now associate her more with her stage work including a play by her daughter that she directed. However, Marsha has also established herself as a successful writer. Her book Repossessing Ernestine: A Granddaughter Uncovers the Secret History of Her American Family (1996) is a memoir that finds Marsha exploring the life of her grandmother Ernestine, committed to an asylum.
Ten years later, Marsha would continue her own story with Undefeated (2006) with the nearly 60 year old recreating the iconic pose that defined the 1960s. However, this photo was taken five weeks after Marsha underwent a mastectomy and refused to undergo reconstructive surgery. Both memoirs were critically acclaimed for Marsha’s lyrical writing style, a style that translated to her works of fiction Joy (1991), Free (1994) and Like Venus Fading (1998).
Even with her battles with cancer, Marsha continues to live life on her own terms. She is the embodiment of the manic carefree pixie girl, but ironically her work ethic made her an icon as she was the only Hair! cast member who would get up early enough for the publicity photo shoots. She had a bitter paternity battle with Mick Jagger and is glad he didn’t have a relationship with their daughter until she was nearly a teen, but she speaks fondly of Jagger as a person. Once known for her towering afro, she keeps her hair close crop after it grew back when her chemotherapy ended. History may want to relegate Marsha Hunt to her brief relationship with Jagger, but she is an icon in her own right with her contributions to rock and the arts.
Don’t agree with everything here, but there are a couple of good points.