In tribute to funk’n’soul trailblazing pioneer Betty Davis (July 26th 1945-February 9th 2022), we revisit an interview conducted by John Abbey in the summer of 1975 when the former wife of the legendary Miles Davis was charting her own unique course as a distinctive, one-of-a-kind artist whose work (frequently sampled) would impact a whole generation in the ’90s and beyond…
Betty Davis: Filthy But Funky
By John Abbey
It’s funny how some women are genteel yet others may be quite the opposite — yet still manage to retain their femininity. Rather like Tina Turner, who can hardly be pictured sipping tea with her smallest finger pointing at a ninety degree angle — yet that lady oozes womanhood. Maybe it’s the excitement that the mind conjures up, who knows? But the Tina Turners of this world are few and far between but I know of at least one other young lady who naturally has that charisma and her name is Betty Davis. No, not the actress of two decades ago but the twenty-nine year old lady from Durham, North Carolina, who married jazz genius Miles Davis. Right now, Betty is busy building her own career, though, and her recent signing to the Island label will certainly enhance her status.
Though Betty now lives in New York, she will happily acclaim her natural rough-and-ready style to the first twelve years of her life which she spent on her grandmother’s farm in Durham, North Carolina — where she was born, incidentally, on July 26, 1945. Some of the time was spent in nearby Greensboro but when she was twelve, the family moved to industrial Pittsburgh, where her father still holds a job as foreman in one of the city’s numerous steel mills. But the summers saw Betty heading south for the open country and Greensboro again. When she turned sixteen, Betty moved to New York to study apparel design at the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology. During the day, she would work as a shop assistant or secretary so that she could study most evenings.
But already Betty had started showing interest in the world of music. She recalls that it goes right back to her very early teens when she wrote a song she called “The Cake Of Love”. But it wasn’t until 1966 that she did anything positive about the God-given gift. She went down to the old Electric Circus club where the Chambers Brothers were headlining and presented them with a song that she had penned, entitled “Uptown In Harlem”. The brothers flipped over it and included it in their first album for Columbia and Betty’s name (Mabry, at the time, by the way) appeared on a record for the first time. At this point, though, the idea of becoming an entertainer couldn’t have been further from Betty’s mind and she started getting into modelling. She became particularly successful in this field, heading fashion shows and being featured in such leading magazines as Seventeen, Ebony and Glamour. But after a few months, Betty tired of modelling because she felt it wasn’t ‘real’ enough to satisfy her own impression of herself.
In 1968, though, Betty met and married Miles Davis. “He introduced himself to me, and it was quite a while before we started seeing each other,” Betty now recalls with a bit of a pert giggle. “He had a fiancee at the time and I was involved with somebody else but we became good friends. It must have been a good two years before we became involved with each other. I guess that marriage satisfied me because all I wanted to do at the time was be a good wife. It certainly made me content because I diverted all of my energy into Miles and forgot about my own career. That really lasted a year during which time we lived in New York. But Miles was away so often and he wanted me to always go with him. But I found the road too heavy to cope with and I tended to withdraw into a shell back at the apartment. Looking back, I guess I was too young to cope with that sort of a life.”
Betty continues, “But I developed during that time and certainly Miles helped me develop in terms of music. I learnt as much from Miles as Herbie Mann or John McLaughlin did. And I respected him as both a man and a musician. Today, we are very close and good friends and anything I need, I only have to ask Miles and it would be there. But, being an independent type of person, I determined to make it for myself. I knew that when the marriage broke up, I had to either make money for myself or find another old man who had some bread! I chose the first — I never even asked for alimony, that’s how independent I am! So I put everything into modelling and spent six wonderful months in New York before coming to London to model for another half year. I was one of the very first Black models to come to London so I did pretty good for myself. But, to be truthful, modelling isn’t my style — it meant going to parties and restaurants just to been seen and I am too introverted for that kind of life.”
It wasn’t until 1971 that Betty’s own musical career got under way. She arrived back in New York with the intention of taking some of the songs she had written in London to the Santana band. “I arrived in New York direct from London early in the evening and I went straight to the 5th Avenue hotel that Santana were staying at,” she reflects. “And some of the guys were hanging around the lobby and I learned that the group had broken up just that day! Just my luck! So I flew on to San Francisco and it was there that I was introduced to Michael Lang, who had been involved in the “Woodstock” movie. I remember the meeting — it was a Thanksgiving Dinner and I’ll always remember there was no turkey because the whole gang were vegetarians! Anyway, a lunch was set up and he liked my ideas and that’s how I joined Sunshine Records. The funny thing is that I really went there as a songwriter but Michael liked the way I sang my own songs so he said I should record them myself. And because of my connections, I was able to get some of the heaviest musicians on the West Coast for that album — Larry Graham plays bass for example; Gregg Errico, who is Sly’s drummer. We even used the Pointer Sisters for some of the background voices. At the time, they were singing with Dave Mason and Hugh Masekela introduced me to them because he was a close friend of theirs.”
Much of the material on that first album almost ended up though under a different guise. “That’s right,” Betty laughs. “I wrote some of the songs for the Commodores who had then just signed with Motown. In fact, it was “Game Is My Middle Name” that they used on their demo disc that convinced Motown to sign them and they cut “Walking Up The Road” on that same session. In fact, I flew down to Georgia to get to know the guys because they were all at Tuskeegie College down there. At that time, Motown wanted them but the group didn’t have any material of their own and the company had explained how the cream songs were always given to Stevie Wonder or the Supremes or whoever at the time and they would have to be patient and wait.”
But that album was before its time — way before its time! One track was entitled “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and it had one or two somewhat ‘suggestive’ lines in it. It was considered so bad that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) called Betty and suggested that she was a disgrace to her race! The song was banned in Detroit and considered in such bad taste in Kansas City that the local radio station there was picketed when they inadvertently played the track on the air. “But Miles always told me that if I was to stay honest in this business then I had better be prepared to suffer,” Betty explains in philosophical manner. “Americans are funny — they really have trouble dealing with reality. That’s one thing that I liked so much about Europe, they recognise something that’s real and even if they don’t agree, they at least show respect for other people’s opinions.”
A second album followed for Just Sunshine and it was a little more sober and therefore sold considerably better. Again the musicians list reads like a who’s who of the record industry but the company simply didn’t have the power to carry the product to its true potential. “Originally, I could have signed with both Columbia or Atlantic,” Betty points out. “But I could never have been given the creative freedom that I got with Michael. Sure, a bigger company may have been better geared to promote but at that particular point in my career, I felt that artistic freedom was far more important to me.”
Earlier this year, Ms. Davis joined Island Records and she has a single actually out and selling right now and an album is complete and ready for autumn release. And now for the good news, folks! Betty’s immediate plans include a proposed trip to Britain so what should we look forward to? “Well,” she gingerly began, “the show is very dirty! My mother came to one of my shows and was horrified — she asked me why I did it, why I went out of my way to be dirty? But that’s the only way I can do it — I put my whole heart and soul into what I’m doing and if I didn’t do it that way, I wouldn’t be able to do it at all. My concentration would break. I like to move about a lot on stage, dance around, you know. I guess that my country roots come out in me! Yes, I guess you could call my show…filthy!” As Betty’s second album states: “They Say I’m Different” and I don’t think that anyone will argue that point. All we can do now is wait for Betty’s arrival and back the old French adage…Vive le difference!