Trying To Get To You

Friday, May 18, 2007

Betty Davis

I love powerful and unabashedly sensual women, so discovering the music of Betty Davis has been a treat. Betty was a pioneer in the 60’s and 70’s – an untamable musical and cultural spirit who, according to Carlos Santana, “(She) was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis. Betty Davis was a real ferocious Black Panther woman. You couldn't tame Betty Davis.”

In 1968, at the age of 23, Betty Mabry married the then 46-year-old Miles Davis. He was smitten by her youth, beauty and sex appeal, and he quickly ended his marriage to actress Cicely Tyson to be with Betty. She quickly turned his life upside down, changing his sense of style by getting rid of the elegant suits he had worn for years and introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The result would be such groundbreaking albums such as Bitches Brew. Even Miles acknowledged the impact: “Betty was a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life. The marriage only lasted about a year, but that year was full of new things and surprises and helped point the way I was to go, both in my music and, in some ways, my lifestyle.”

After her marriage to Miles ended, Betty first concentrated on songwriting, writing songs for a new Detroit band called the Commodores (the songs got them signed to Motown, but Betty turned a Motown deal for herself down because Motown wanted too high a percentage of her). Then, after meeting T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, she became emboldened to become a recording artist in her own right.

Her music was a synthesis of funk and the hard rock of Hendrix and Sly, and beautiful, incredibly sexy and stylish, she created an unapologetic bad girl persona that was ahead of her time and a challenge for radio to play – too hard for black radio, and too black for white radio. According to writer John Ballon, “When a popular Detroit radio station played ‘If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,’ the lines list up with outraged callers; a bomb threat followed. Within days, she was blacklisted by the NAACP.” Betty recounted, “Bourgeois blacks find me very offensive. They’ve been programmed to think that black women who shake their asses are whorey. The NAACP called up the record company. They’re trying to stop me from making a living. They stopped all my airplay in Detroit.”

After recording four albums, Betty quit the business entirely, retreating to Pittsburgh. It is said that she is currently broke. Her first two albums, Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different were just re-released this past week - they are definitely worth checking out. Listening to them now, it’s obvious how influential she was, and as The New York Times wrote in in 1974, “Her recognition by most of the pop world will be a long time coming. For, like Bessie Smith and all those other dirty-blues singers of forty years ago, Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs; and Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognizes the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.”

Download: “Anti Love Song”
Buy Betty Davis at eMusic

Special thanks to John Ballon’s piece in the current issue of Waxpoetics.

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