Betty Davis - Biography
Betty Davis’ career was brief, but it burned with a white-hot intensity like few others, and it’s baffling that she is relegated to being a cult figure instead of a flat-out superstar. She had all of the requisite ingredients for fame: a fashion model’s regal looks and floor-to-ceiling legs; a supremely hip stance and intuitively prescient ear for music; a genuine gift as a songwriter; and an epically powerful voice that could blow Tina Turner off her feet. And when it comes to sexuality, Betty Davis has no equal, period. Madonna who? Please. Davis simply pounced on the subject of sex, attacking it with riotous wit, outrageous candor, free-spirited verve, and an uninhibited gusto that was guaranteed to keep her records off the airwaves, and away from the charts — and she couldn’t have cared less. Furthermore, she was one of the greatest catalysts in the history of modern music. Astride the moment where acid rock and jazz converged, she dated Jimi Hendrix and married Miles Davis, and it was she who turned Miles onto Hendrix and prompted Davis’ profoundly influential electric period. That’s Betty on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro, and Miles’ acid-jazz classic Bitches Brew was named for her. Really, the only conceivable reason that fame eluded Betty Davis is because her swaggering, cock-sure fusion of rock, soul, and funk was too far ahead of its time.
Davis’ eponymous debut still sounds vital and urgent. Betty Davis (1973 Just Sunshine Records) is an exhilarating romp, and Davis growls and hisses and shrieks her way through some amazing material, all of which she wrote herself. It writhes and grinds along with the best undulations of Sly and the Family Stone, and the brazen lyrics are not exactly demure. Tracks like “If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” “Anti Love Song,” “Ooh Yeah,” and “Game is My Middle Name,” leave little room for ambiguity: Betty Davis is ready to get her freak on. She’s backed by an all-star ensemble, including Larry Graham from the Family Stone, Neil Schon (who was Santana’s guitarist at the time and had yet to start Journey), disco diva Sylvester, and the Pointer Sisters. The follow-up was even more self-assertive, as Davis functioned as her own producer. They Say I’m Different (1974 Just Sunshine Records) is more keyboard driven that its predecessor, and the material is even more blunt, getting into S&M, three-ways, and streetwalking. Tracks like “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him” and “He Was a Big Freak” are what raised the ire of church groups, several of which picketed outside of Davis’ gigs in protest over her “loose morals.” She effectively addresses her detractors in the title track.
After They Say I’m Different, Davis drew the attention of Island Records founder and legendary starmaker, Chris Blackwell. Blackwell gave Davis complete artistic control over her next album, and she made the most of it. Nasty Gal (1975 Island) is a brilliant collection of songs, typically risqué with an impossibly funky groove. The band — Carlos Moralesis on guitar; Larry Johnson on bass; Fred Mills on keys; and Semmie "Nicky" Neal, Jr. on drums — sizzles with a raw, primal energy, and they completely nail the wicked, post-Sly, funk-rock, psychedelic throb. The title track, “Talkin’ Trash,” and “Dedicated to the Press” are all winners, and there’s even a surprise. Davis shines on “You and I,” a lovely R&B ballad, co-written with then-ex husband Miles and orchestrated by Gil Evans. Inexplicably, Nasty Gal was a commercial failure, despite Island’s complete support and Davis’ rigorous touring schedule. Ultimately, Nasty Gal probably suffered from being too innovative. It rocked too hard for the urban (read: black) charts, and it brought way too much funk to register on the pop (read: white) charts. Davis would retire from music, resurfacing briefly in the 1990s to record a mix of funk songs and R&B ballads. The results were eventually released in two different sequences, as Hangin’ Out in Hollywood (1995 Charly Records) and Crashin’ from Passion (1996 ZYX). Still, the 70s albums are where it’s at. Betty Davis’ career was brief, as was her marriage to Miles Davis, which lasted for only a year. In his autobiography, Miles admits he just couldn’t keep pace with her. She was too young. And too wild.