Afrobella of the Week: Betty Davis, The Original Funky Bella

I’m a day late and a dollar short with this post, bellas. Apologies if you clicked over yesterday and were disappointed. Mondays. Sometimes they hit you over the head harder than you expect. What can I say?

Funky is the watchword this week, y’all. This week will be all about funky makeup, funky music, funky hair, and funky afrobellas. Needless to say, the one and only Betty Mabry Davis is Afrobella of the Week. Can you dig it?

She’s often imitated, but there isn’t a contemporary funk, soul, or r&b singer today who can duplicate her style. The brazen sexuality, the futuristic outfits, the fro teased out-to-there, the bravado to go where few dare to go — Betty Davis in the Seventies has inspired contemporary artists including Erykah Badu, Joi, Missy Elliott, Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and electrosexy performer Peaches, who describes Davis as “the original in-control sexual powerhouse and a vocal inspiration” in a great feature in the June/July issue of Bust Magazine. In 1989, Miles Davis tried to explain her musical impact: “If Betty were singing today she be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis.”

In terms of her vocals and her lyrical content, Betty Davis was far ahead of the curve. Her goal was never to croon or coo or sing in a conventional sense. She growls. She snarls. She shrieks and wails. Betty Davis’s delivery is melodic but fierce. Her first album Betty Davis dropped in 1973 and featured musicians from Sly and the Family Stone, and backing vocals by The Pointer Sisters and Sylvester. It included songs with titles like “Steppin In Her I. Miller Shoes,” “Game is My Middle Name,” “Your Man, My Man,” and “If I’m in Luck, I Might Get Picked Up.” The suggestive lyrics of that song led it to be banned from radio, and the NAACP called Betty a disgrace to her race. The website A Deeper Shade of Soul sheds more light — “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.”

Most articles about Betty Davis start out with her romantic reputation. Small wonder. Betty’s love life in the Sixties and Seventies is the stuff of legend. At age 23 she married a then 46-year old Miles Davis, after all — and as anyone who’s read Miles can tell you, that couldn’t have been an easy coupling. (If you’ve never read Miles, put down whatever you’re reading this summer and get thee to a library. It’s an amazing, entertaining read, even if you don’t know a lot about jazz. He was just a wild, tell-it-like-it-is kinda dude). To prove what a strong, bad-ass kinda broad Betty Davis is, she is widely celebrated as one of Miles’ main influences in his electric period. She’s featured on the cover for Filles de Kilimanjaro, which also features a song for her called “Mademoiselle Mabry.” In turn, she introduced Miles to Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix. She helped to inspire Bitches’ Brew, one of the definitive jazz/rock fusion albums. It’s even alleged that it was Betty who insisted on the word “bitch” in the title.

Besides being married to Miles Davis for a year — from 1968 to 1969 — a rumored affair with Jimi Hendrix has followed Davis around, despite her numerous denials. Songs like “He Was a Big Freak,” from her second album, They Say I’m Different are rumored to be about Jimi. The song begins with her shrieking, “He was a big freak! I used to beat him with a turquoise chain!” Of course, Betty doesn’t help her case when she tells Bust magazine “It’s not about Jimi Hendrix… it’s not… but he sure wore a lot of turquoise.” Mmmm-hmm, Betty! She was never ashamed or afraid to state her desires. Click here to hear He Was a Big Freak and let me know what y’all think.

On Jesse Thorn’s The Sound of Young America podcast, she gave a great and lengthy interview that helps to put her reputation in subtle perspective. “I think in bed I was very passionate,” she says. You can practically hear her interviewer blush as he stammers, “Fair enough.” Hats off to Jesse Thorn for wringing such a long interview from such a recalcitrant interviewee.

The vagaries of the record industry and the sadness in her life drove her away from the spotlight. Betty Davis lost a lot of close friends in a short period of time. In Jesse Thorn’s interview, she explains that the death of her friend Devon Wilson.

“I was very sad because we were very close. I was very sad. Jimi had just died, and she died right after him. It was death right on top of death. When someone dies, you’ve got to do a lot of grieving. So I grieved a lot because they were dying and they were very young, you see,” she recalls.

Betty Davis recorded four official albums — Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, Nasty Gal, and Hangin’ Out In Hollywood, which was recorded in 1979 and released in 1995. At 62 years old, Betty’s started to creep back into the media radar. She still lives in relative seclusion in Pittsburgh, but Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records has reissued her two most influential records.

In the end of that Jesse Thorn interview, she says that she still writes funky songs and she hopes they’ll be recorded by someone else. She also watches MTV. “It’s changed incredibly, the music industry. There aren’t a lot of groups doing songs anymore. There aren’t a lot of solo artists who aren’t doing hip hop or rap.” Maybe that’s what the music industry needs right now — a swift, hard kick in the butt by someone like Betty Davis. I don’t know about you all, but I miss the funk. Hats off to Betty Davis for laying the foundation down so thick and so right.

It’s apparently almost impossible to find an actual VIDEO of Betty Davis. There’s a few tribute videos featuring still photos on YouTube, so here’s one of those. This is “If I’m In Luck, I Might Get Picked Up.”

Congratulations, Betty! You’re Afrobella of the Week!

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Comments

  1. Yes! I’m so glad you featured Betty Davis, and I love that she’s starting to get attention. They just did an article about her in Bust magazine last month.

    I love your site!

  2. Great post! There was also a big feature on Betty in Wax Poetic magazine. When I get my hands on a scanner, I’ll send it on over :)

  3. Awesome pick! I was in the music store last weekend listening to the 2 re-issued albums and decided I needed to learn everything I could about Betty. I LOVE her vibe. Thanks!

  4. Wow, she is one funky, raw, outrageously sexy Bella! Joi reminds me of her quite a bit.

    ~T~

  5. byrdparker says:

    love her ! At 7 that was my song , those boots that fro …. brings back memories. Grew up on bitches brew , miles davis is the friend in my head …
    Good post.

  6. Bella I’ve been hearing a lot about her lately. Many up and coming musicans and indie darlings have been saying things about her. I think that it is important that we know about people like Davis, who are an important part of African-American culture/history but were/are not “acceptable” per NAACP crowd or . Thanks again Bella, and I will continue to enjoy reading your blog.

  7. I only became hip to Betty Davis recently and from what I have read and heard of her, she seemed like a fierce, ahead-of-her-time diva. You can mos def see her influence in subtle ways on artists like Joi, Erykah Badu, and Kelis–all chicks who are a bit left of center with unique approaches to music. Rock on, Ms. Betty!

  8. Betty’s music is way too wild for me — and I usually prefer songs that have a melody — but I am fond of the track “Lone Ranger” from the ‘Nasty Gal’ CD. I admire Davis for the part she played in reshaping the image of the black female singer.

    Joi (Gilliam) is her modern-day counterpart and the only artist who could be legitimately compared to Davis. Sorry Erykah and Kelis, but if you have top 10 R&B hits and they play your videos on MTV you are NOT an iconoclast.

  9. I love, love, love to see sistas who are really and truly free and confident express themselves with intelligence and sexuality. Many times or in recent times we really only get to see the sexuality and the intelligence is suppressed. Also, her afro was fierce and I’m slowly working towards one just like it.

  10. Black Honey says:

    Thanks for this host Bella. I collect pictures of women with naturals (as encouragement in my hair journey) and I had a picture of Miss Betty and I had no idea who she was. What an interesting life she’s led. That interview on the Sound of Young America was a fool. It’s been my pinion, anyone that reluctant to talk has skeletons in closet. Can you imagine her secrets?

    I hope she writes an autobiography.

  11. I heard this song on a sample tape over 10 years ago and it was recorded by Joi; I don’t think that album ever came out. I didn’t know that Joi was doing a cover of a song orginally recorded by this great lady@ Thanks for the education – will definitely check out this liivng legend.

  12. im sooo late on this…any way i think she’s great i love the way she sounds and ur right Bella we need that sound today. damn i love her hair!

  13. When I was in college…she was my idol. I downloaded her albums about a year ago-brought back some FIERCE memories.

  14. An interesting discussion is worth comment. I believe that you need to write extra on this subject, it may not be a taboo subject however usually people are not sufficient to speak on such topics. To the next. Cheers

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