A woman who sang for the rest of us.
By Amanda Petrusich
As we mourn the passing of Betty Davis, we’re revisiting some of the pieces from our archive that celebrate her influence, including the following by Amanda Petrusich from our Fall 2007 issue, as well as funk innovator Joi Gilliam’s reflection from our Up South Music Issue. Davis’ “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him” also appears on the Up South Music Issue Sampler. Listen here.
On paper, New York Summers might not seem as nasty as Southern roasts, but everyone forgets that New Yorkers are required to move, to self-propel our damp, dirty, smoldering bodies onto piss-soaked subway platforms, shifting grocery bags from wrist to wrist, sidestepping rat dung, cramming onto buses, cramming into line at the bodega, half-limping up six flights of rickety wooden stairs.
Most of my days end with a collapse onto a hardwood floor, bangs pasted to my forehead, stripped down to gym shorts and a tube top, hugging a can of cream soda while the volume on my stereo—playing Betty Davis’s self-produced 1974 LP, They Say I’m Different— verges on un-neighborly. No matter how languidly I have arranged myself, nothing makes me feel more buttoned-up, but also more alert and alive, than when Betty Davis shakes out her sphere of miraculous brown hair, inhales, and hollers, “He was a Big Freak!,” the opening declaration in her song of the same name. The song swells and seeps, charges and retreats; it is euphoric.
Still, every time Betty Davis moves her lips apart to howl, I feel humiliated, small, and stupid—like I’ve maybe never said one true thing in my whole life. The confidence and conviction oozing from Davis’s voice is enough to make anyone feeble-mouthed; her sexuality is so self-contained and unbridled that it renders all others androgynous. Betty Davis makes me feel like a mound of bones, fleshless and dry.
Check out the mesmerizing “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” the opening track from her self-titled 1973 debut: Over a haze of raunchy organ and funk guitar, Davis squeals, “I said I’m wiggling my fanny/I want to dance/and I’m doing it, doing it!/This is my night out! ” while a boy with a yappy voice nods along, voicing his approval: “Ooooh man! Get down! Get down, hey!”
Betty ignores him, distracted by her own (self-created, self-realized) ecstasy. “I said I’m crazy, I’m wild/I said I’m nasty!” Betty mews.
“I can dig it, I know where you’re coming from,” the boy replies.
No one’s listening to him. Betty Davis’s pipes make all other elements—audience, backing band, record executive, DJ—extraneous. She sings about men without singing for men, without thinking about what men want, without giving a shit whether men—whether anyone—will like it. That, I decide, is the kind of freedom folks spend their whole lives fantasizing about.
This past spring, Light in the Attic Records reissued the first two of Betty Davis’’s three proper LPs (Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different), meaning Betty’s music began sneaking back into American stereos right around the cusp of June—the very moment when hot dogs and popsicles are declared proper food, air conditioners start drooling onto sidewalks, and no one feels like doing any work. Light in the Attic understands the mechanics of the summer jam: Betty Davis makes hot-weather music, suitable only for rolling around on your apartment floor, drinking cold liquids, and thinking about illicit things and your own shortcomings. Staring blankly at the ceiling, wiping trails of sweat from my upper lip, running the base of the can along my cheekbone, I feel restless, unfinished. Betty Davis reminds me, with each guttural, toe-curling yowl, of everything I can’t, or am too afraid, to do.
Critics and fans are reacting fast and hard to Davis’s return. Reissues of previously buried or overlooked funk and soul albums always kick up a bit of fuss in certain circles, and it helps that Davis’s story is preposterously conducive to mythmaking. Betty Davis— nee Betty Mabry—was born July 26, 1945, in or around Durham, North Carolina. At some point in the mid-1950s, her dad got a gig as a steelworker and shifted his family from their Carolina hog farm to just outside of Pittsburgh. At sixteen, she ditched Pennsylvania for New York City, living with an aunt, enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and frequenting the city’s thriving nightclub scene. Betty got a job at an uptown club called The Cellar, working as a hostess and DJ, and, eventually, recorded her first single, “The Cellar.” (Betty no longer remembers what year or on what label the track was released, just that it happened.) In late 1967 or early 1968, Betty, still writing music and modeling, met a trumpeter at a now-defunct jazz club at the corner of Thompson and Bleecker Streets, called The Village Gate. Betty Mabry was twenty-three; Miles Davis was forty-two. They married in September 1968. The relationship was doomed. They divorced one year later. She did not remarry.
Betty is frequently credited with inspiring Miles Davis’s famed late-’60s shift to harder, more electric sounds by changing his listening habits (Betty supposedly encouraged Miles to check out Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and, perhaps most important, Jimi Hendrix). And plenty still point to her and her friends as the impetus behind a transformation in Miles’s clothes (from staid suits to fringed vests). Miles featured Betty on the cover of 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro and included a track titled “Mademoiselle Mabry.” Before their marriage crumpled, Miles and Betty managed to briefly collabo rate in the studio: Betty recorded a handful of tracks; Miles produced. The album was never completed or released by Columbia Records, and in the liner notes to Betty Davis, Betty tells Oliver Wang that “[Miles] was really scared to release [the album] because he thought I would leave him.”
Accordingly, Betty Davis’s career didn’t properly launch until after her divorce: In 1972, Davis flew out to California and asked former Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico to produce a record for her. Errico assembled a stunning studio band, featuring guitarist Neal Schon (Santana, Journey), bassist Larry Graham (Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station), guitarist Doug Rodrigues (Voices of East Harlem), organist Hershall Kennedy, multi-instrumentalist Merl Saunders (the Grateful Dead), and a then-unknown trio called the Pointer Sisters (along with Kathi McDonald, Annie Sampson, and Patryce Banks) on backing vocals. Betty wrote and recorded eight tracks, and in 1973, Just Sunshine Records released Betty Davis. A year later, Betty returned to the studio, slapping together a new band (Merl Saunders and Hershall Kennedy were the only overlapping players) and, this time, she opted to produce—a relatively remarkable feat for a black woman in the early 1970s. They Say I’m Different appeared on Just Sunshine in 1974, and Betty and her band began to tour.
Davis’s enviable fashion sense led to some outrageous stage getups, and she demanded eye-popping style of her band as well, reportedly requiring that her male backers perform shirtless and slathered in baby oil. Davis was impossibly beautiful, trawling onstage in negligee, bracelets, and heels: sexualized, fearless, proud. Soon after, Davis was approached by Island Records’ Chris Blackwell, and in 1975 Island released Nasty Gal, her third LP. Nasty Gal was Davis’s weakest effort, packed with retreads and failed rock experiments; Davis recorded another LP, Crashin’ from Passion, which was never released, although plenty of the players involved continue to claim it was Betty’s finest achievement. In 1979, Betty recorded one more record, also titled Crashin’ from Passion, but again couldn’t convince a label to release it. Throughout the 1990s, the material was leaked and distributed—fairly widely—on bootleg. Thus, after churning out three commercial LPs and two complete-but-unreleased records, Betty Davis retired from the music industry.
Twenty-five years later, it required some dogged detective work by Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan and Josh Wright to locate Betty outside of Pittsburgh, where she currently lives. Sullivan and Wright eventually tracked her down through John Ballon, the Davis fan who, several years ago, scoured reams of gov ernment documents to locate Davis and arrange for ASCAP to pay her the $40,000 in royalties she was owed (the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, the nonprofit organization that monitors copy right use and compensation, had been unable to find Betty). Now, to support the reissue effort, Davis has agreed to participate in a few press interviews. Chris Estey, the label’s publicist, sets a date and time.
I’m not so much intimidated by Betty Davis as I am terrified. My shakes aren’t eased by reading the short stack of interviews Davis has done in the last three months: journalists go out of their way to bemoan (in print) her curt, one-word responses, calling Davis “dis tant, removed from the present moment,” lamenting how she “refuses or is unable to explicate pertinent details about her music career,” occasionally noting that she barely tolerates conversation. Several speculate about “what happened” to transform a gregarious, outrageous performer into a terse, uninterested sixty-two-year-old woman; all point out the striking disconnect between her onstage and offstage demeanor. Author and music critic Jeff Chang admits that Davis sort of hung up on him.
The first three times we’re scheduled to talk, Betty gets headaches and cancels; Estey gently warns me that it might happen again. While I do believe Davis is unwell, I also get how it might be uncomfortable for her to obligingly relive the 1970s, especially considering that some of her pals and associates never made it out alive: Davis’s best friend and Hendrix’s girlfriend, Devon Wilson, died mysteriously in 1971, supposedly tumbling off the roof of the Hotel Chelsea (Hendrix himself asphyxiated on his own vomit one year earlier).
I also understand how she might not want to participate in her own mythology, at least as it’s being written today. Although almost all of Betty’s press has been both sincere and positive, I still fret that she gets marginalized, not only because she’s an African-American woman who sings about sex, but because she’s repeatedly skewered by the toxic wife/muse/behind-every-great-man axis. It’s impossible to find any writing about Davis that fails to concurrently mention a whole bunch of boys, and Betty’s personal, professional, and romantic links to a variety of famous men (everyone from Marc Bolan to Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela to, above all, her late ex-husband) mean that some folks will always presume she was some sort of groupie, while others will understand her only as a sidebar to a bigger, better story—a story—about men playing instruments.
I finally reach Betty on the telephone. She is sweet, reserved, cautious. She tells me she watches Total Request Live on MTV and likes Usher. She thinks hip-hop is “valid.” Her family is nearby.
I suck in a lungful of air and ask her if it was hard to be an African-American high-fashion model in the early 1960s. I ask her if it was hard to convince a record label to let her write, perform, and produce her own material, if it was hard to be a woman in an industry notoriously controlled by men, if it was hard to have her ex-husband always mentioned in her biography, as if her marriage was as salient and admirable as her other accomplishments.
“No,” Davis replies, voice flat.
I exhale. I squirm. I paw through my notes.
I ask her to elaborate on why her recording sessions with Miles were shelved. She doesn’t know why. I tell her I dig how she requested that her male bandmates oil themselves up before every performance, how they glisten in photographs, bright with alien sheen. She says it never happened. I ask her what she thinks about when she sings. “I’d just like for my voice to work with the rhythm track.” I ask her how she responded when she first learned her records were being reissued. “I thought it was very good news.” Is she happy with the releases? “Yeah.” Does she still write music? “I still write.” Would she release another album? “I’m thinking about it.” Have labels approached her? “No. Not yet.” Does she record herself at home? “I use two tape machines. I vocally put down the melodies, and then I put the instruments on the tape.” Are there other vocalists that she admires? “No.”
We go on like this for thirty excruciating minutes. Just as other writers have noted, there is an obvious dichotomy between Betty Davis’s outrageous onstage/recorded persona and the careful, introverted woman on the other end of my phone line—a divide that says more about art than any soundbite Davis could ever coo into a telephone receiver. It’s obvious to me, now, that singing—not life, not the last forty years—was transformative for Betty Davis, and who she was when she scooted onstage or curled into a microphone has little or nothing to do with who she is kitchen, listening as I nervously recite the forty-six questions I’ve scribbled onto a yellow legal pad. It is tremendously relieving to me (in the most selfish way possible) that Betty Davis does not conduct her life with the unchecked fervor so present in her songs. It means it is possible for the rest of us.