THE GENIUS AND LEGACY OF BETTY DAVIS

illustration by Maggie Negrete

illustration by Maggie Negrete

Screen Shot 2016-11-18 at 2.08.58 PM.png

Betty Davis has been referred to as a muse, producer, performer, and provocateur. Her original records exist as prized, rare artifacts for the most committed collectors, her songs have been sampled in hip hop production, her style has been praised as an inspiration by iconic rock stars such as Grace Jones and Prince, and yet so many people are unfamiliar with her work, and almost all are unaware of the fact that she is a Pittsburgh native who has been living quietly in Homestead, PA (a predominantly African American, working-class, former mill town located on the edges of Pittsburgh) for the last 35 years.

The seventy-two-year old woman, who had once been married to jazz legend Miles Davis and best friends with rock icon Jimi Hendrix, returned back to her family’s home in Pittsburgh sometime in the early 1980s; a move which established her complete and utter disappearance from the music industry and the public eye. The only pictures of her are from her heyday (1973-1979), where she exudes raw sexuality and power - an unapologetic, combination of femininity and masculinity that seems to exist somewhere beyond racially and sexually coded genre boundaries. Seeing pictures of Betty Davis would cause any warm-blooded creature, no matter what space they occupy on the spectrum of sexuality, to fall weak at their knees. Her vibrational energy seems to transcends time and space as she allures you through black and white photos.

At the present moment, after the Seattle based record company Light In The Attic Records re-released all three of her studio albums and one previously un-released album in 2007, Betty exists as a cult figure. This status is due in large part to her consistent invisibility in both live footage and post-career appearances, but even more so is due to her extreme, electrifying performance practice during her heyday. It is a performance practice that exists without any live audio or video (available to the public at least), and yet, musicians, critics, and scholars are attempting to uncover Betty’s hybrid musical identity that continues to shift, stretch and surrender any fixed notions about the performance of race, gender, and genre. It is a type of performance that is now saturating mainstream music and pop culture, creating a space unlike any before where unconventional, sexually liberated female musicians can project a sound and aesthetic of performance feminism into the future. However, during Betty’s heyday, it was that very type of performance that caused her to be a marginalized and fall through the cracks of the music industry.

An extremely rare case in the music industry, having wrote, arranged, performed, and produced all of her own material without any direction, management, or musical training, Betty Davis is an unparalleled example of how a female with creative agency negotiates the dynamics of race, gender and genre in both music and culture industries. Born in 1944 to a working-class family in North Carolina, Betty grew up on her grandfather’s farm where she was introduced at a young age to the blues tradition of the rural Black American South. She moved to Pittsburgh when she was twelve years old, a consequence of her father finding work in the steel mills, but continued to visit her grandparent’s farm in the summers. It was within this blues tradition, and within the canon of blues artists, such as Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others, where Betty developed the foundation for her musical transmission, or training, and the inspiration for her musical style. This blues lineage exists most notably is her throaty style of singing, her love for simplicity in autobiographical lyrics, her absence of formal musical training, and her ability to compose, communicate, perform and produce all through bodily and vocal cues.

All of Betty’s lyrics exist in the first person and offer a striped down, autobiographical account of her personal desires and frustrations, utilizing an active, rather than passive voice. For the male artists who came out of this blues tradition, such was an admirable musical trait, but Betty’s voice was considered dangerous, both in how it sounded and in what it was saying. This double standard in the blues canon is summed up perfectly by a New York Times review of Betty Davis from 1974:

 

Her recognition by most of the pop world will be a long time coming. For, like Bessie Smith and all those other dirty-blues singers of forty years ago, Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs; and Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognizes the Bessie’s or the Bettys until they’re gone.

 

Bessie Smith was a classic blues recording artist during the Race Records era, an era in themusic industry that was largely defined by Black female blues artists as they helped to transmit and usher in the Delta blues and R&B recordings that would become a huge success nationwide and open the door for black musicians outside of the world of vaudeville and minstrel shows. Classic blues women such as Bessie Smith, with their raunchy lyrical content and untraditional sexual life, are often remembered for their ability to drink and fight (like a man) just as much as they are for their musical innovation. While Bessie, and other classic blues artists, such as Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith, opened up an essential door for Black creative agency and entertainment, along with the nationwide success of the modern twentieth century record industry, they are rarely given appropriate prestige.

After graduating from high school in Pittsburgh, Betty moved to New York City where she studied fashion at the Fashion Institute of Technology and worked as a model, appearing in issues of Ebony, Glamour, and Seventeen magazines. She helped run a club in The Village called The Cellar, where she would often DJ and throw parties with a group of girls who referred to themselves as The Cosmic Ladies—a sort of local DIY feminist performance collective. It was

within this scene that she met musicians and artists such as The Chambers Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and Miles Davis. Before meeting Miles, however, and before considering the idea of singing herself, Betty wrote a song for The Chambers Brothers, a Black fusion group in their own right, entitled “Uptown in Harlem,” which appeared on the Black rock band’s debut album The Time Has Come (1967). This song secured Betty her first writing credit at the age of twenty-two. News of Betty’s writing ability traveled fast and she was offered a writing contract at Motown Records. She turned it down because she would not receive the artist control she deemed appropriate—a fierce cause Betty would never surrender. Her commitment to artistic control continued when she spent time in London, spending the majority of her time hanging out with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), and refused Eric Clapton’s request to produce her album.

It was during this time when she met, and in 1968, married jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. As historians and scholars of music are now explaining, her influence on him was significant.

Betty’s effect on Miles, which only took less than a year, transformed him both musically and culturally. Before Betty, Miles wore tailored suits and was unaware of the psychedelic rock music that was taking over the scene. Betty introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix and Sly from Sly and the Family Stone. After their marriage, Miles’ musical style was transformed from a 1950s cool jazz acoustic sound to a more electrified rock-based style that incorporated echo, reverb, multi tracking in-studio recordings and the use of his trumpet playing with a wah-wah pedal with amplification. Betty appeared as a literal muse on the cover of Miles’ 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, and as inspiration to the song “Mademoiselle Mabry,” a reworking of Hendrix’s “The Wind Cried Mary” (1967). Not only did Betty usher in such serious musical transformation for Miles, but she also convinced him to title his 1969 album Bitches Brew. Bitches Brew is considered to be one of the first jazz-fusion records and is revered among many to be a revolutionary jazz album. This collaboration is an excellent example of how Betty inspired and executed genre-bending even before she made music of her own. Betty’s marriage to Miles only lasted a year, but that was enough time for Betty to completely transform him and inspire a new experimental genre of jazz. Her muse-like relationship with Miles, and her friendship with Jimi Hendrix, was only the beginning of Betty’s journey as a pioneering innovator of pop music performance. It wasn’t until she teamed up with her own all-star band of musicians that Betty began to blend the blues, rock, psychedelic, funk and proto-punk components together to produce her fusion musical identity.

Beyond crafting her own fusion sound, Betty used the stage as a site to act out her liberation from race, gender and genre norms. She perceived her body and voice as a complement to the music and a space for resistance against notions of conformity and censorship that were so often put upon Black female bodies within the music industry during that time. The explicit language of “If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” (from her 1973 debut album) incited a response from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), who slandered Betty’s name and suggested that she was a disgrace to her race for her non-submissive womanhood and sexual freedom. Furthermore, some listeners were so uncomfortable with the straightforward representation of female desire without emotional attachment that the song was banned from radio play in Detroit, and a local radio station in Kansas City was picketed when they played the track on the air.

Betty’s voice connects with a strong sense of autonomous, sporadic experimentation. There is a great sense that she is constantly experimenting with herself - her voice/body - to see what she could do. Unlike the majority of the other Black pop stars in the 1970s, Betty did not learn to sing in church, and there are no traces of gospel, jazz, or even soul in her melisma-free vocal attack. There is a very live action quality to the timbre(s), rhythm(s), and melodic contour(s) of her voice. There is a sense that Betty is consistently pushing her vocal abilities in a way which transcend ideas of quality and composition. She pushes her voice to the level of breaking point in almost every song, whether it is sounded through high-pitched shrieking screams (“He Was A Big Freak” 1974), which have been referred to as “post-punk,” or through the tight constraining of her mouth and breath in order to get softer dynamics (“Anti-Love Song” 1973).

Not only did Betty imbibe the free sexual voice/body in a more aggressive way than her so-called contemporaries (Tina Turner, Millie Jackson, Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle, Joyce Kennedy), there was also a sense that these other artists were performing out some masculinist script that a man presided over for performance value. The reality of this masculinist script that was held over the heads of other sexualized female performers is in direct contrast to Betty’s rare standing in the music industry, which allowed her to write, arrange, sing, produce and perform without the management or direction of anyone but herself. The absence of any such male dominating archetypes within Betty’s voice/body performance (whether it be a lead male singer or a manager-boyfriend) is precisely the type of control we see today from current female pop superstars. This lack of a male-leader archetype is not to suggest that there was nothing masculinist about Betty’s voice/body. On the contrary, there was an incredible feeling of masculinity that was generated from Betty’s performance, coexisting with her more obvious physical femininity. This conflation of gender performance was the fundamental attribute of Betty’s voice/body that made her audience feel uncomfortable and delivered a confused sensation. It was hard for her audience to swallow the fact that Betty was the masculine mind who came up with all of these explicit, kinky lyrics, and outrageous physical moves - that she was the only director of her voice/body.

Images of Betty performing often show her contorting her face in ways which remove any traditional feminine appeal that pop music artists were expected to oblige by. Images also show her tightening her throat and stretching her face muscles to capacity in order to produce a certain jarring timbre. Some photos even show her using her microphone as a prop to mimic a penis - legs in a deep squat and tongue out!

It was this type of liberated performance that caused her audiences to be left “shocked and spellbound” as one critic explains:

 

"While on stage and facing her right, she kicked her right leg up in the air should- high. She brought it back down, placed it in front of her, and pivoted on her left foot. She was then facing the audience straddle-legged. In this position, she moved her hips jerkily from side to side as she eased her straight torso closer and closer to the floor. She stopped when her hips were one foot above the floorboards. Then she began to move her hips in and out, talking about 'Who's going to give me some tonight?"

 

The reviewer goes on to explain the audience’s reaction: “Upon seeing her, her dancing and long strides would have freaked you out. The audience sat practically through her entire performance, spellbound and shocked.”

The consistent and ever-shifting level of curiosity and intensity that Betty brought to the studio as a producer, and to the stage as a performer, is the very thing that current artists striv for in their experimentation of musical identity. While other artists performing during Betty’s time relied heavily on lyrical narrative and aesthetic style to exude a sense of curious intensity that crossed genre lines, Betty’s voice/body stood alone in its exhausting exploration of timbre, volume, and attack. Even Betty didn’t consider herself a “singer,” saying this in a 1975 interview: “I consider myself more of a projector. I’m into sound. I’ll work my voice a thousand different ways. I’m into making my voice work with the rhythm track. Whatever I feel I’m getting from the rhythm track I’ll do it with my voice.” exemplifies this idea of the “singer as projector” as well as the song “Game Is My Middle Name” (1973). Midway through, she and her background singers engage in a series of vocalizations that act as an audible anticipation to the raw-throated experiments of punk rock. More than merely for its sonic quality, these vocalizations can be heard as “punk” in the sense that the screaming, squeezing and stretching vocals are in no way concerned with vocal quality or technique, but rather are created in order to get an idea across, or to attack the listener with the lyrics. Betty and the backup singers repeat the lines, “Whatever you want to play, I said I’ll play it with you, Game is my middle name,” as they rupture the song’s groove in order to explore, or project, vocal sound. The line is first sung in a low register by backup singer Sylvester, a transgendered female performer who had a solo disco career with the hit “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” in 1978. The Pointer Singers, a famous disco trio, then take the line up the octave increasing the volume and intensity. Finally, Betty enters, attacking the notes to her voice’s breaking point. It is this continual and experimental shifting in sound that allowed for Betty’s voice and body to converge as one singular, raw and revelatory entity. It was a voice/body that was untamed by genre boundaries, racial uplift politics, traditional gender norms of masculine/feminine, and perhaps most importantly, a dominant male figure.

The world of female fronted, sexually explicit pop music has come a long way since Betty first freaked out her audiences, leaving them “shocked and spellbound.” In 2007, Betty appeared on the cover of WaxPoetics with the title, “Liberated Funk” -a transcendent category which I’m sure she would have appreciated while producing and performing her music in the 1970s, a category which has since seeped its way into the mainstream style of pop music that has swept the country. As a Teaching Assistant in the Music Department at the University of Pittsburgh, I use Betty as a case study to talk about the politics of race, gender, and genre in the music industry and in pop culture at large. My students, most of whom were born after 1995 and believe feminism was invented by Beyoncé, are hard to shock. Who can blame them after growing up in a post-9/11 world where the identity politics of race and gender are being continually pushed toward the limits of fluidity (!) by pop artists, while their individual instant access screens are saturated with explicit images and sounds of sexuality that would cause our foremothers to gag on their radical Women’s Lib agenda. However, Betty continues to shock and intrigue them. She has even made appearances in their final semester project—a (digital) mixtape complete with liner notes! Suddenly, students who consider the Spice Girls and TLC to be “old timey,” are adding Betty to their imagined lineage of feminist pop music.

In late 2012, after intensive research, two filmmakers discovered Betty Davis living in Pittsburgh. After several months of conversation, she began to trust the filmmakers with telling her story. The result is a documentary currently in progress, entitled Nasty Gal: The Many Lives of Funk Queen Betty Davis, set to come out sometime in 2017. Not only is a documentary being made to unearth the fusion artist from the shadows and deliver her her proper dues as revolutionary female producer and performer, but a tribute concert is also set to take place in Pittsburgh sometime in fall 2016. The concert is set to feature several musicians who worked with Betty, as well as musicians who knew and were inspired by her. The music director is Greg Errico of Sly & The Family Stone! It is still unclear if Betty herself will be present at the Tribute Concert. The only thing that is truly known is that Betty is ready to have her story told and gain the respect she deserves as a pioneering fusion musician and a Founding Mother of post-soul genre-bending. As that New York Times reviewer from 1974 professed: Betty’s recognition would be “a long time coming,” because Western society “rarely recognizes the Bessie’s or the Betty’s until they’re gone.” Luckily for us, Betty is not gone.

For more information on the upcoming documentary and tribute concert ~ www.nastygalmovie.com
----------

1 Cited in A Deeper Shade of Soul Blog, May 18, 2007, http://www.adeepershadeofsoul.blogspit.com/2007/05/betty-davis.html. (Originally cited in The New York Times, 1974), emphasis mine. 

2 Betty’s all-star line up of musicians consisted of a uniquely crafted sound, which mixed West Coast funk, psychedelic rock, gospel, soul, and disco artists. These artists included drummer Greg Errico (Sly & The Family Stone), bassist Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone, Graham Central Station) guitarist Neal Schon (Santana, Journey), guitarist Doug Rodrigues (Santana), organist Hershall Kennedy (Graham Central Station), trumpeter Greg Adams (Tower of Power), trombonist Mic Gillette (Tower of Power), saxophonist Skip Mesquit (Tower of Power), percussionist and backup singer Patryce Banks (Graham Central Station), backup singing group The Pointer Sisters, and backup singer Sylvester.

3 Althea Fonville, “A Taste of Betty Davis,” New Pittsburgh Courier, 1974.

4 Ibid. emphasis mine.

5 “Nominated New Female Vocalist of the Year,” Los Angeles Sentinel (1934-2005); Nov 20, 1975