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Betty Davis iTunes Tracks

Betty Davis

Inspired by BESSIE SMITH, TINA TURNER and JANIS JOPLIN, and cut from the same threadbare cloth as MILLIE JACKSON, CHAKA KHAN and LaBELLE, the feisty and flamboyant funk-soul mistress BETTY DAVIS worked her socks off – and a bit more besides – in her attempt to sex-up the mid-70s soul scene. Betty was married, very briefly, to jazz icon MILES DAVIS (in the late 60s), a man who became seriously influenced by her sojourn into the psychedelic soul-rock world of JIMI HENDRIX and SLY STONE; Miles put Betty on the front cover of his “Filles de Kilimanjaro” LP of early ’69 and dedicated a track, `Mademoiselle Mabry’, to his unruly better-half – it was no coincidence that his classic LPs “In A Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” followed soon afterwards.
Born Betty Mabry, July 26, 1944 (or 1945), Durham, North Carolina, USA, she was raised in Pittsburgh, PA, but on leaving school she enrolled in New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. The early-to-mid 60s had witnessed the Greenwich Village scene move with the times, and becoming a hipster model (for Seventeen, Ebony and Glamour), and a regular at the arty, uptown Cellar Club, Betty built ties with the likes of the aforementioned HENDRIX and STONE. By 1964, she’d performed her first song, `The Cellar’, at the venue, and with the help of soulster Lou Courtney (at DCP International Records), Mabry dispatched the single, `Get Ready For Betty’.
In 1967, having already scribed `Uptown (To Harlem)’ for The CHAMBERS BROTHERS, Betty dated HUGH MASEKELA, who duly allocated time in the studio at Columbia Records for sessions that included a one-off single, `Live, Love, Learn’ (b/w `It’s My Life’). Moving from one legendary jazz trumpeter to t’other; this time MILES DAVIS (whom she married in September ’68), Betty returned to the studio for both Columbia and Atlantic Records. Miles couldn’t quite keep up with somebody 20-odd years his junior, and citing an alleged affair with JIMI HENDRIX (an accusation she strenuously denied), the pair divorced approximately a year later, leaving the out-of-sorts singer free to pursue her modelling career in London.
On her return to the States and armed with several songs to entice an uninterested CARLOS SANTANA, she instead roped in musicians from the West Coast; mainly drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham (both of SLY & THE FAMILY STONE), keyboardist Merl Saunders, guitarists Neal Schon and Doug Rodriguez, back-up singers The POINTER SISTERS and SYLVESTER, plus others, to enhance her eponymous LP for Just Sunshine Records, BETTY DAVIS (1973) {*9}. A raunchy and visceral set that went unnoticed by everyone who hadn’t witnessed her untamed, scantily-clad stage performances, the screeching soulstress oozed sensuality and seduction on shapely soul-funk semi-classics, `If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up’, `Walkin’ Up The Road’, `Anti Love Song’, `Game Is My Middle Name’ and ones-that-got-away (singles-wise), `Steppin In Her I. Miller Shoes’ and `Ooh Yea’.
It’s the belief of many, that, if she’d secured a better homespun deal and one overseas in the UK, she’d have made it bigger. Okay, she sounded like TINA TURNER’s younger sis, but with Ike’s ex-wife out of the picture in her well-deserved hiatus, DAVIS should’ve stepped into her thigh-length boots. 1974’s THEY SAY I’M DIFFERENT {*8} was another classic LP; swept under the proverbial rug of music history. The opening tracks (released as a double-A side): `He Was A Big Freak’ / `Shoo-B-Doop And Cop Him’ set the pace, an aggressive pace funked to the max and definitely not in a silent way. The fact that several of her corresponding gigs were cancelled to appease the religious “moral majority”, stood her in good stead among the funk community, who were in jaw-dropping awe of her insinuating songs about prostitution a la `Don’t Call Her No Tramp’ and `Your Mama Wants You Back’. And accompanied by relatively unknowns Cordell Dudley (guitar) and Larry Johnson (bass) plus a handful of organists; among them the aforementioned Saunders, the single `Git In There’ (backed by the title track), should’ve crossed over from the R&B charts.
If she didn’t have much a friend in Jesus (at least in the minds of the hypocritical bible-punchers outside her sparse concerts), she did have a friend in ROBERT PALMER, who suggested the funky lady to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records via a buy-up of Just Sunshine. In 1975, BETTY DAVIS was `Talkin Trash’ (at least in song) on her third stunning set, NASTY GAL {*8}. One of the pieces, `You And I’, was a composition she’d penned with ex-hubby Miles, but it was in street funk anthems such as `Dedicated To The Press’, `Shut Off The Light’, `This Is It’ and the title track, that delivered for her and her Funk House back-up band.
Over the course of the next four years, Betty continued in her quest to get her funk out, however, aborted sessions in 1976 and 1979 – that later appeared as exploitation sets – left her with no option but to give pop music the heave-ho. Betty retired and subsequently lived in Homestead, PA. Like equally forgotten acts that suffered poor sales in their heyday, DAVIS was the subject of a 2017 documentary, entitled “They Say I’m Different”.
© MC Strong/MCS Oct2019

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