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Fierce Ruling Mama 

Once too hot to handle, Betty Davis' freaky funk is ripe for rediscovery.

In the '70s, Betty Davis cultivated a potent sexual persona.
  • In the '70s, Betty Davis cultivated a potent sexual persona.

Betty Davis was different: Egyptian-warrior-from-outer-space-getup-on-her-album-cover different. And a whole lot more besides.

For decades, Davis' uniqueness was known only to rare funk specialists and assiduous beat diggers. But now, thanks to Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records, her self-titled 1973 debut LP and 1974's They Say I'm Different are available to the general public in gorgeously packaged vinyl and CDs, with extensive liner notes, bonus tracks, rare photos, and a frustratingly tight-lipped interview with Davis.

Davis' is a familiar too-far-ahead-of-her-time tale, but the details of her career trajectory are extraordinary. Born in 1945, she became obsessed with music at an early age, writing her first song at age 12. After spending her childhood in North Carolina, she moved to New York City at age 16 to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.

She soon moved into N.Y.C.'s fashion elite and added modeling to her résumé. Along with her fellow boho-beauty girlfriends, Davis insinuated herself into the city's thriving music scene. She cut some indie-label singles that went nowhere, and wrote the excellent soul number "Uptown," which appeared on the Chambers Brothers' 1967 LP The Time Has Come.

In Manhattan's heady milieu, Davis befriended Jimi Hendrix, but it was jazz legend Miles Davis who enthralled her, and the two married in 1968. She also assumed the role of his muse and fashion director, updating his wardrobe and listening habits. Many observers credit Davis with turning Miles on to hip acid rock, funk, and soul, while inspiring him to create the fusion classic Bitches Brew. Their union ended in 1969, allegedly because of Miles' abusive treatment and differing artistic ambitions.

Following the divorce, Davis relocated to England, where she modeled and met such high-profile musicians as Marc Bolan and Eric Clapton, who encouraged her to record her own compositions (a rarity for female vocalists then).

In 1972, she moved to the Bay Area, where her solo career accelerated. While moving among members of both Santana and Sly & the Family Stone, she became romantically involved with Santana percussionist Michael Carabello. For her debut LP, Davis enlisted two SFS alums, bassist Larry Graham and drummer Greg Errico (both of whom Sly had recently canned), along with the Pointer Sisters, future disco star Sylvester, ex-Santana guitarist Neal Schon, and Jerry Garcia collaborator and clavinet player Merl Saunders.

From the album's opener, "If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up," Davis establishes her pantherlike presence. Alternately sultry and threatening, Davis brazenly forges a new sexy-mama lexicon, buttressed by tumescent funk backdrops so potent that birth control is advised while listening to it. Her voice isn't technically "good," but her guttural yowls and raunchy purrs suit her bawdy subject matter and XXX funk foundations.

The follow-up, They Say I'm Different (produced by Davis -- almost unheard of for a woman in the '70s), abounds with sexy funk vamps that contain both precoital tension and post-coital lollygagging; it's sparse, stalking, and voracious. Like a lot of great funk, the songs are both uptight and loose.

Davis' final LP, 1975's Nasty Gal, offers more solid funk and R&B, but lacks the intensity of the first two records. Davis reportedly cut two more albums (both confusingly titled Crashin' From Passion) that have never surfaced.

Following her father's death in the late '70s, Davis descended into a depression that derailed her music career. She has mostly lived a quiet life in Pennsylvania, dropping so far off the radar that even ASCAP couldn't locate her to pay royalties.

The personality revealed in the interviews conducted by Oliver Wang and published in the reissues' booklets is that of a traumatized artist who has shut off most of her brain to dull a chronic ache. Davis refuses or is unable to explain important details about her music career, or discuss why she lost her creative drive. It's strange that someone who had previously blazed with such ambition faded into obscurity with no desire to flex those once-supple artistic muscles.

The music industry never hesitates to stress female artists' sexuality in order to prime the financial pump (among other pumps), but it only does so on its terms. When someone like Betty Davis arises -- a figure whose outsized abilities and ambitions matched her outrageously freaky persona -- execs start to fret about crossing some absurdly prudish line of decorum. The equal of more popular peers Tina Turner and Chaka Khan -- at least in terms of charisma and expressiveness, if not technique -- Davis laid the groundwork for later dirty divas such as Macy Gray, Kelis, and Peaches.

Fear of unfettered female sexuality and artistic autonomy has tainted the record biz for decades, though the reins have loosened somewhat since Davis' mid-'70s heyday. It's sad that these forces stifled Davis, but through hip-hop producers sampling her songs and Light in the Attic reissuing her best work, she is finally getting her due -- and royalties. Oddly, she seems to be the one least excited about her own revival.

Inscrutably indifferent after all these years . . .

More by Dave Segal

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