Cult heroes: Betty Davis – blistering funk pioneer and fearless female artist

Betty Davis Album

It’s early 1969, and Miles Davis is in transition.

Later in the year he will cut In a Silent Way, marking a giant step forward into electric music, a fusion sound that will win him a new audience among hippies and longhairs. His latest album, Filles De Kilimanjaro, is a signpost to what will follow: still mostly acoustic, but possessed of a restless itch. Its sleeve is a powerful, psychedelic double-image, fusing two photographs of a captivating young woman staring down the camera lens. Her name is Betty Mabry, and she is very much responsible for pointing Miles towards the future.

She’s a model, a scenester, a DJ/hostess at hip Greenwich Village nightclub The Cellar (where she partied with the likes of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix), and a songwriter and recording artist in her own right – her tune Uptown featured on the Chambers Brothers’ 1967 LP The Time Has Come, and she’d released an overlooked single, Get Ready For Betty, in 1964. Four years later, Mabry signed a contract with Columbia Records, cutting a single, Live, Love and Learn, produced by her then-boyfriend, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Music was infinitely more interesting to Mabry than modelling, but it was Miles Davis’s sense of style that first attracted her to him; indeed, she didn’t even know he was a musician when she caught sight of his dapper grey suede shoes at the Village Gate, one night in 1967.

By 1969, Mabry and Davis were married, an intense and short-lived union brought to an end by Davis’s violent temper; he admitted, even as he produced sessions for a mooted album in 1969, that he feared she would leave him if she became a star. He was jealous of her friendship with Jimi Hendrix, believing the pair to be lovers, even as she tried to organise a creative collaboration between the two geniuses. Hendrix died before those plans could come to fruition, but his influence (and that of Sly Stone, and indeed the whole late-60s psychedelic funk vanguard) can be heard on Miles Davis’s albums from 1970’s Bitches Brew onwards. But perhaps the defining influence on those recordings was Mabry herself; she’d introduced Miles to the new sound, encouraged him to explore it himself. And he encouraged her to make her own music, even if the recorded tracks are only now escaping the archives.

Produced by Miles, and featuring appearances from Miles collaborators such as guitarist John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea (along with Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell), those tracks – finally released by Light in the Attic as Betty Davis: The Columbia Years 1968-1969 – have been trailed as the missing link between Hendrix and electric Miles. They aren’t; the savvy funk of Betty’s covers of Cream’s Politician and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Born on the Bayou, and her own Hangin’ Out, are fine funk-rock, but never groundbreaking. The music she made several years later, however, is another case entirely.

Listen to Betty Davis’s album They Say I’m Different.

Even though they’d long since split, Betty kept the Davis name for her 1970s output, and it sounded as if she’d also taken Miles’ infamously croaky larynx with her. Across three albums – 1973’s Betty Davis, 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal – Davis roared, growled and rasped, her voice like erotic sandpaper, making Janis Joplin sound like Dionne Warwick. The vision borne out by those albums – raw and heavy funk, with Betty bringing a bold, liberated and unabashed carnality to the fore – was entirely her own, however. “I wanted my music to be taken seriously,” she said later, underlining that she never wanted to operate in her ex-husband’s shadow. “I wasn’t going to turn into a Yoko Ono or a Linda McCartney.”

Betty’s music was years ahead of its time, and her forthrightness and sexually explicit lyrics might have made even Millie Jackson blush. The opening track to her debut, If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up sets out her stall in its first few lines, Betty out for the night and hoping to get lucky: “I’m fishin’ trick, and you can call it what you want.” You Won’t See Me in the Morning put a sly spin on Chip Taylor’s mawkish Angel of the Morning: Betty’s not promising she won’t hassle last night’s beau in the morning, she’s warning that she’ll be gone by sun-up, “if you don’t do it do it to me right.” By the following year’s He Was a Big Freak, she was essaying an S&M relationship, which many have perceived as a comment on her time with Miles: “I’d get him off with my turquoise chain / I used to whip him, I used to beat him,” she snarls, before adding, “Oh, he used to dig it.”

Betty’s shameless sense of her own transgression only made the sin sweeter. Dedicated to the Press, on the Nasty Gal album, was addressed to all who feigned dismay at her explicit lyrics and brazen sexuality, at her outlandish garb, and it’s not just the monstrous bass riff that makes it one of Betty’s finest tracks. “They say I stick out my tongue quite lecherously!” she growls, with mock affront. “Well I don’t know what they’re talking about / I just can’t seem to keep my tongue in my mouth!” Don’t Call Her No Tramp, meanwhile, made explicit the feminist thrust beneath her funk: listeners had no problem with male funk stars letting their libido off the chain, and Betty wasn’t about to tolerate a double-standard in this regard (an outraged NAACP, on the other hand, demanded black radio boycott the song; “I’m coloured and they’re stopping my advancement!” Betty replied.)

These three albums remain thrilling, often hilarious and occasionally moving (Anti Love Song, off Betty Davis, is a rare moment of vulnerability and an acknowledgement that even Betty sometimes struggled to negotiate the sexual landscape, though it retains the erotic charge present in all Betty’s music). Funk cognoscenti willingly signed up to give her voice blisteringly groovy backing – check the credits and you’ll find the Family Stone’s Larry Graham and Greg Errico, Santana/Journey’s Neal Schon and even the Pointer Sisters. But Betty’s music never quite crossed over – perhaps too shocking, too ahead of its time, too much for a female artist to get away with. After recording a fourth album, Island Records refused to release it, and she “lost interest” in music and her career, retreating to Philadelphia and her family, living a reclusive life and giving few interviews.

Listen to Don’t Call Her No Tramp by Betty Davis.

“Betty Davis was too hardcore for everyone when she recorded her amazing, innovative funk albums,” said Peaches several years ago, as those albums were being rediscovered by a new generation. Betty herself realised she was a hard-sell in those days, admitting to Jet magazine: “I’m very aggressive on stage, and men usually don’t like aggressive woman. They usually like submissive women, or women that pretend to be submissive.”

The times have finally caught up with Betty Davis, who paved the way for generations of explicit, empowered and fearless female artists that have followed (you can hear Betty in the music of Erykah Badu, Missy Elliott and many more), and whose importance is finally being recognised. There may have been “nasty gals” before Betty Davis, but none went this far this early, or made records as unique as these.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stevie Chick, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 26th July 2016 13.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010