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Nasty gal: Betty Davis

The singer, whose sexually potent 70s funk blueprint virtually created its own genre, talks about her personal soul revolution

A truly emancipated woman is a rare find, but to discover a lady as free as Betty Davis amid the debauched misogyny of the early 70s music scene is like stumbling across an unknown species. While most of her contemporaries were standing by their men or feeling like natural women, Davis was moving full force towards her own destiny, making music that was nothing anyone could have suspected yet everything she wanted it to be.

To hear recordings from her heyday (1973’s self-titled debut, 1974’s "They Say I’m Different" and 1975’s "Nasty Gal"), is to experience female sexuality stripped back to its raw, throbbing core – a miasma of shuddering cries and feline growls set over the funkiest of progressive grinds. Davis’s speciality was deep bass, heavy beats and predatory vocals, a way of speaking/singing that slipped fluidly between sensual sadism and orgasmic glee. Basically, it was music made for fucking, made by someone who loved to fuck.

With Davis’s first two albums re-released by Seattle–based Light in the Attic Records, the white-hot spotlight has been turned back on… in more ways than one. For anyone who loves music, particularly balls-out no-holds-barred funk, these records are a true treat. Davis, along with musical collaborators like Sly Stone, drummer Larry Graham, and guitarist Neal Schon (later of Journey), virtually created her own genre – a sound that would go far beyond the intergalactic grooves of Parliament/Funkadelic or the liquid soul of Marvin Gaye.

Davis pushed funk straight into the bedroom, putting on satin sheets, pouring the champagne and adding a hot streak of S&M deviance. Her sound would eventually give messy musical birth to the cool sensuality of LL Cool J, to the sex-imp charms of Prince, and most recently, the raunchy, sweat-saturated beats of Peaches, who sings Davis’s praises with a true fan’s ardour. “Betty Davis was too hardcore for everyone when she recorded her amazing innovative funk albums,” Peaches says. “Now is the time for this true original explicit wild woman to be fully accepted and appreciated. She is the perfect icon to represent sexy powerful playful women.”

Peaches has a point. Listening to these early recordings, it’s no surprise to find that Davis was not only a myth, but a muse as well, providing inspiration for some of the most legendary musicians of her time, including pals Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix, boyfriend Eric Clapton and ex-husband Miles Davis. And Ms Betty knew how to give as good as she got. She was encouraged and inspired by Bolan and Hendrix, nurtured by Clapton.

As far as the famous ex–husband goes, Davis was, by all accounts, responsible for shaping the direction of his later career, pushing him, not so gently, into such incredible experiments as Filles de Kilimanjaro (which features Mrs Davis on the cover) and Bitches Brew. “Betty was a free spirit,” Miles wrote in his autobiography, “talented as a motherfucker.”

A story eventually imbued with some serious sequinned glamour, started with the most modest of beginnings. Davis, née Betty Mabry, grew up a steelworker’s daughter amid the soot and smokestacks of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Precocious, lovely, she was immersed in music early on, writing her first song at the tender age of 12.

“I remember listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Big Mama Thornton,” says Davis. “People like that. My mother was into the blues. There was always music around the house when I was growing up. As a kid, I started writing and as I grew older, it developed. Songs about little things like ‘Bake a Cake of Love’, funny little songs that eventually evolved into something bigger.”

After an early graduation, Davis relocated to New York and studied music, acting and fashion design before finding easy money as a hugely successful model for the agency Willhelmina. “When I was coming up, I didn’t start doing the music full-on until after I got married,” remembers Davis. “At first, I just did a lot of modelling, hung out and had a good time.”

With spreads in Elle, Glamour and Ebony, Davis integrated easily into the upper milieu of the age’s movers and shakers, developing a refined taste for high and fast living. Davis’s career would allow for not only good times and easy access to a variety of fascinating men, but also for the evolution of a truly mindblowing style. She was a woman who knew how to dress; knew how to take an item of clothing and turn it into something akin to a new skin.

“It came from being a model, and knowing fashion and knowing what looked good,” says Davis of her innate sense of high style. “I liked Stephen Burrows, Norma Kamali. And I used to work for Halston.”

“Betty was a free spirit, talented as a motherfucker” – Miles Davis

The newly mastered Light in the Attic re-releases feature an assortment of amazing photographs of Davis in full regalia – a kind of Nefertiti sex goddess look crossed with miniskirt haute couture. Feathers and silver leather abound, and an afro forms a soft dark halo around huge doll eyes and a perfect mouth. There was lingerie as stagewear, and eyelashes brushed against a black felt hat brim. On "Nasty Gal", Davis, in red-sequinned negligee, posed with knees spread wide; a blinding flash of white light beaming from between her legs like a beacon with the promise of ecstasy.

With a group of likeminded female friends, Davis would make her way both backstage and into various beds – bringing with her an unstoppable intellect and a thirst for experience and education. “We had our share of men, that’s for sure,” she laughs. “We used to go to the same clubs and parties. I think our lust for life is what drew us together, wanting to experience it all.”

Part of that experience was the music of the moment – raw rock, the new waves of pyschedelia and jazz. Davis began delving back into her own music again in the mid–60s, eventually writing and recording several singles, including the 1967 Chamber Brothers hit “Uptown”. And in 1968, the 23-year-old finally conquered the great Miles Davis, embarking on a quick, fiery, doomed romance that would indelibly mark each of them. Miles gave his young bride an intimate view of the inner workings of an incredible musical mind at the same time as leaving himself open to her influences. In turn, Betty helped to redefine Miles’s style while simultaneously defining her own.

Betty onstage, 1974 Images courtesy of Light In The Attic

Her experiences with him and others in her life would eventually become the grist for an exotic, mesmerising mill – Davis culling stories and images from reality and depositing them into the pump and thrust of her cavernous funk numbers. “I wrote about friends of mine – I was inspired by the people around me,” she remembers. “‘He Was a Big Freak’ wasn’t written specifically about Jimi, but he liked turquoise a lot, so I got the line ‘I used to beat him with a turquoise chain’.”

That line is classic Davis – visually evocative and purely, unapologetically, sexual. She delivers it with such a snarl that you can almost see the sharp glint of her teeth. Eventually, this unabashed embrace of her own sweet vulgarity would slowly undermine Davis’s career. Despite critical acclaim and sold-out shows, there was a backlash on both sides of the fence – the new black middle-class frowned upon her ballsiness, uptight whites cowed by her courage. The singer’s image began, slowly, to outweigh her music.

The New York Times raved about her – saying she was “outdoing the likes of Mick Jagger and Sly Stone at their own game”, but they also conceded the lamentable fact that Davis’s overt sexuality was going to take audiences a long time to swallow. “Much of the shock and strong and con opinions… were caused, doubtless, because it’s not customary to have a woman perform her own music so aggressively.” Davis herself admitted in an early interview with Jet magazine: “I’m very aggressive on stage, and men usually don’t like aggressive woman. They usually like submissive women, or woman that pretend to be submissive.”

Images courtesy of Light In The Attic

In 1975, Davis’s then lover, Robert Palmer, helped her facilitate a deal with Island Records. The label released "Nasty Gal" soon after and the results were mixed. Commercial success still eluded Davis, in large part because of her defiant embrace of herself – lasciviousness and all. She refused to hold back. When the label asked her to tone down, she told them where to stick it. She recorded a fourth album with Island in New Orleans, reputedly even down and dirtier than its predecessors. The label shelved it (it was never released) and dropped Davis from its roster.

It would be three years before Davis released Crashin’ From Passion; another ill-fated album, its release was tangled in shady business dealings for nearly 16 years. When Crashin’ finally saw the light of day, it was in the form of an illegal bootleg, setting the tone for Davis’s future financial straits. With various fingers poking in the pie, profits from her albums trickled painfully slowly down to Davis herself, and the last 20 years have proven to be tight times.

After her father’s death in the early 80s, Davis returned to Pennsylvania, effectively abandoning everything of her former life, her recording career, her live performances, her persona. With the re-release of her first two records, however, Davis has experienced something of a catharsis. A flurry of critical acclaim and the resurrection of some her best work may mean she will finally be getting her due. “I’m writing again,” Davis admits, “really progressive stuff. I’d like to have someone else record it, because I don’t have any plans to play live. But it does feel good to be working on things.”

Her reappearance is certain to inspire those who haven’t had the chance to experience the exposed-to-the-bone sound of a woman pushing herself to the limit. And her longtime fans, famous and otherwise, are welcoming her home. “Betty’s musical journey is inspirational in many ways,” says Talib Kweli. “Throughout her career, she remained pure in her art, and that in itself was too much for some of her peers. She influenced the greatest musicians of our time while she was their contemporary, and her legacy influenced a whole new generation of true artists. All respect to sister Betty.”

To say that Davis was ahead of her time would be an understatement. She stood completely outside her time – beyond the confines of easy categorisation or mediocrity. The three albums she made reflect an ego as healthy and free from fear as any of the great musicians she knew and loved.

Images courtesy of Light In The Attic

“Like so many brilliant women in music whose song of praise goes unsung, Betty was, and is, an artist who deserves to be exalted,” says Joi, the Atlanta-based singer who collaborates with Outkast. “She’s been the ultimate muse for so many men, so many genres of music... jazz, rock, soul, funk, R&B, punk. I’m so glad I’ve been influenced by her. Neither my life nor my music has been the same since.”

“I was brought up with the blues, and the blues is a very pure art form,” says Davis, thoughtfully. “Being brought up on the blues and integrating that with people I was into in the 1970s, that’s how I came into myself.” Davis now reflects on those recordings with a certain distant wisdom.

After years of relative obscurity, she’s facing her former self with something like contentment. Despite the heat she took, the ups and long down of her career, it’s fairly obvious that if Betty Davis had the chance, she wouldn’t have done a thing differently. “I look back on those records, not so much as if they were a reflection of myself, but more of a representation of a time period. It feels good to be getting recognition, but in the end, the only advice I have is be true to your artform. And by that, I mean do what’s in your heart more so than what’s in your head.”