From the very first time I heard Betty Davis, she owned me. It might have been her voice — swinging from a deceptively seductive lilt to a jagged dagger in the blink of a bar. It might have been her music — a tidal force of funk, rock and blues that could spin you dizzy or drag you in deep. Mostly it was her attitude — as loud, black and proud as her Afro, lit by the spark of youth but powered by the fury of a woman scorned. She didn’t sing love songs, she sang anti-love songs, but even her whispered warnings about her cruelty and cattiness couldn‘t stop you from falling for her. In the space of a number, Davis could make you crawl, make you sweat, and before you knew it, game over — she’d foreclosed on you.
Apart from just the pure pleasure of her songs, hearing Davis was also a revelation, as she formed a crucial missing link in the lineage of funk‘s leading ladies. Though her three albums — Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974) and Nasty Gal (1975) — never propelled her to even the modest stardom shared by Jean Knight, Lyn Collins or Chaka Khan, now that the U.K.‘s MPC Ltd. has released all three on CD for the first time, Davis’ propers should come due. With her unabashed sexuality, flamboyant image and tortured vocals, she didn‘t just bridge Marva Whitney to Parlet, Nina Simone to the Brides of Funkenstein, she seems the likely inspiration behind recent funky femmes such as Macy Gray, Kelis and Joi. And unlike peers who served as female mouthpieces for male producers and songwriters like James Brown and George Clinton, Davis wrote and arranged every song on every album and produced the latter two herself.
Ironically, where Davis’ name has usually appeared is as a footnote. Born Betty Mabry, she took her surname from her one-year marriage to Miles Davis, 25 years her senior when they wed in 1968. Most jazz historians don‘t make much of the pairing between the jazz giant and the 23-year-old ex-model except to note her visage on Miles’ Filles de Kiliminjaro LP and cite her as the inspiration behind that album‘s “Mademoiselle Mabry.” What few credit, though, is that Betty was the one to introduce Miles to Jimi Hendrix, a relationship that would be integral to Miles’ explorations of jazz fusion on Bitches Brew and later albums.
Despite being a former first lady of jazz, Davis was more a child of the blues, a point she proudly pushes on the title track for They Say I‘m Different, name-checking everyone from Elmore James to Howlin’ Wolf to Big Mama Thornton. Her contribution was in taking the misery of the gutbucket blues and salving it with funk‘s cathartic energy, shaking out frustrations and fantasies in a tremble of slapping bass lines, serrated guitar riffs, jabbing drum breaks and her own scratchy voice. Where singers like Aretha Franklin or Roberta Flack emoted, Davis inflicted. Her song titles alone — “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” “Nasty Gal,” “Game Is My Middle Name” and “He Was a Big Freak” — made it clear that she wasn‘t penning Bacharach tunes. Unlike soul’s sentimentality over love, Davis trumpeted funk‘s sexual indulgences. She sang about lust, obsession and rapture, bragging about dressing up and pretty, gettin’ down and dirty, whipping you with her “turquoise chain” and leaving you begging for more.
But as the song title “Don‘t Call Her No Tramp” (from They Say) suggests, Davis was no raunchy tease — she also understood that love and sex formed a blurred line that anyone was in danger of slipping into, including herself. Arguably her greatest performance, the provocatively titled anthem “Anti Love Song” is from her first, eponymous album, and she’s irresistibly seductive when she purrs:
No, I don‘t want to love you
’cause I know how you are . . .
I know you could possess my body
I know you could make me crawl.
But in the blink of an eye, she turns the tables and you realize you‘ve lost to her again:
’Cause you know I could possess your body too
you know I could make you crawl
and just as hard as I’d fall for you
well, you‘d know you’d fall for me harder.
Truer words were never spoken.