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Who is Betty Davis?

March 29, 2010

Who is Betty Davis?

Jenkins, Joshua

Who is Betty Davis? – The life and impact of Funk’s forgotten singer

When Betty Davis’ self-titled debut album was released in 1973 it was everything but a commercial success.  The album featured an untamed vocal prowess from Davis over hard and funky grooves back by the then-unknown Pointer Sisters.  The album would spark the interest of industry insiders and underground music lovers.  This would allow Davis to continue recording but without much recognition for her musical genius.  Despite little national recognition, the bold and brassy funk singer would progressively gain a large following not only because of her outlandish stage shows and in-your-face lyrics but because her marital affiliation with jazz legend Miles Davis.

Betty Davis ultimately would make a name for herself as being a pioneer of over-the-top sexual liberation and Black feminism that has since inspired the likes of Madonna and Prince and found its way into samples on major label hip-hop records.  However, Davis’ large impact has rarely been traced and her influence has been quietly noticed causing the music industry at-large to deem her “forgotten” whilst also praising her musicality as being largely before her time.  Davis’ influence on female musicianship can be seen stylistically and musically in contemporary artists such as Madonna, Joi and Lady Gaga.  Davis, herself, sees her influence in the music industry today but critics recognize the lack of attribution and credit given to Davis for her impact.  While very few are discussing her legacy, most people contemporarily are just wondering, “Who is Betty Davis?”

Betty Davis was born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina.  Spending only ten years there, Davis eventually moved from the rural North Carolina area to the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Not one to stay in the same place for long, by her late teens she had relocated to New York City and was working as a model (eventually landing jobs with Seventeen, Ebony and Glamour magazines) and DJ (“Betty Davis Page”).  Developing an increasing interest in music, she began writing and received her first writing credit on the song “Uptown” by the Chambers Brothers when she was barely 20 years old (Bush par. 2).

It was not long after her writing debut that she met the famous and world renowned jazz musician Miles Davis who would influence and push her more towards a singing career.  She would equally influence him to make some the most creative music of his career by introducing him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The result was the album “Bitches Brew, “ an album that many critics call a complete deviation from Miles Davis’ previous works undoubtedly attributed to Betty Davis’ strong influence.  She would also appear on the cover of his album, “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” an album that contained a song written specifically for her.

Her marriage to Miles Davis would only last a year but she would remain close to him, musically and amicably amidst rumors of infidelity (Ballon par. 4).  She continued writing and eventually scored a deal with Just Sunshine Records that would allow her to begin recording towards a label distributed album.  She began recording what would be her first album, “Betty Davis” in the early 1970s.  Released in 1973, the album featured eight aggressive tracks that would ultimately re-enter the music world through hip-hop sampling at the end of the 20th century via artists such as Ice Cube, Redman and Godfather Don.  It was with her debut album that people would first see the siren that Davis was.  What would ideally become Davis’ lasting legacy would start as a mirage of afros, glitter, glam and grit paired with the musicality and gusto of an elderly blues singer wrapped into Davis’ petite and delicate frame.  Songs such as “Anti-Love Song” and “Game is My Middle Name” would defy gender norms that dominated the 1970s.   “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” a song from the same album, would lead the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to ban her from radio stations and call her a “disgrace to her race” (“Betty Davis, The Original Funky Bella,” par. 4).  Always a trendsetter, this type of national banning can still be seen in music with artists such as Madonna and Janet Jackson pushing the boundaries with performance and facing similar bans from National organizations.

It is to be assumed and has been alluded to that people were not sure how to internalize all that Davis was giving audiences with her music and her stage shows.  Davis was quoted as saying that her own race didn’t understand her.  “Bourgeois Blacks find me very offensive” she remarked ( “Betty Davis, The Original Funky Bella,” par. 4).  Davis’ vocals were intense and often times she would “wail like she was about to bite someone’s head off” (Klein, par. 6).  Always in control, it would be this type of musical exploration that would allow Davis to develop a unique type of feminism both in the studio and on the stage that was not yet seen.  Furthering this feminist’s “in control” mantra, Davis decided that she would take the reins and produce her musical follow-up solely by herself, something that was not often seen (Klein, par. 7).  The result was the ironically titled “They Say I’m Different” recorded and released in 1974.

The album furthered Davis’ individual feminist beliefs with songs such as “He Was a Big Freak.”  The song, rumored to be written about Sly Stone, contains racy lyrics such as “He was a big freak, I used to beat him with a turquoise chain.”  Songs such as this one would call more attention to Davis but audiences never truly caught on.  After another failed album, titled “Nasty Gal,” labels began to focus less on Davis and more on other artists and emerging musical trends such as Disco.  Giving in slightly, Davis recorded the Disco-influenced “Hanging Out in Hollywood” but it would eventually be shelved along with the album “Is It Love or Desire”(both of which have been released in various incarnations in the 2000s).

Davis grew increasingly frustrated with the industry and their inability to swallow her musical and stylistic ferocity.  She eventually left the music industry completely, retreating back to Pittsburgh where she has lived in relative isolation since the early 1980s.  Her studio albums have been re-released and all of her unreleased material has since been released to the masses.  However, for most, Davis’ re-releases are practically brand new to the listening public.

Davis paved the way for artists in ways that perhaps they are completely unaware of.  Musical legends call attention to the sexual and musical precursor that Davis was.  Carlos Santana recalls that “She was the first Madonna.  Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis. [She] was a real ferocious Black Panther woman” (“Betty, oh, Betty,” par. 3).  Miles Davis, in his autobiography, said “If Betty were singing today she’d be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman” (Klein, par. 4).   The impact of her music, style and attitude on the music industry has manifested itself over and over since her debut and gotten progressively more acceptable with each revolution.  Now, artists such as Lady Gaga and Janelle Monae, are praised for their eccentricity almost as equally as they are their musical capabilities.  When asked if Davis saw her influence on the contemporary musical world she replied, “Some songs I do, others I don’t… I don’t think they’ve got up to me yet.” (Hayes, par. 22).  Some are trying to catch up, while most are simply still waiting to be introduced to the force that is Betty Davis.

Works Cited

Ballon, John. “Betty Davis: Betty Davis.” AllAboutJazz.com. Web. 17 Feb. 2010. <http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=765&gt;.

“Betty, oh, Betty.” Light in the Attic Records. Web. 15 Feb. 2010. <http://www.lightintheattic.net/?cat=93&gt;.

“Betty Davis Page.” Soulwalking. Web. 16 Feb. 2010. <http://www.soulwalking.co.uk/Betty%20Davis.html&gt;.

“Betty Davis, The Original Funky Bella.” Afrobella. Web. 15 Feb. 2010. <http://www.afrobella.com/2007/07/31/afrobella-of-the-week-betty-davis-the-original-funky-bella/&gt;.

Bush, John. “Betty Davis Biography.” Allmusic. Web. 17 Feb. 2010. <http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:g9fuxqt5ldfe~T1&gt;.

Hayes, J. “The Beautiful Dichotomy of Betty Davis: A Rare Conversation with the Elusive Mistress of Funk.” No Depression. Web. 15 Feb. 2010. <http://www.nodepression.com/profiles/blogs/the-beautiful-dichotomy-of&gt;.

Klein, Joshua. “Album Reviews: Betty Davis: Betty Davis / They Say I’m Different.” Pitchfork. Web. 15 Feb. 2010. <http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/11903-betty-davis-they-say-im-different/&gt;.

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