Game Was Her Middle Name: Remembering Betty Davis

If anybody ever embodied the term “Black Girls Rock!,” the dearly departed funk-rock innovator was it

Rest in Peace, Betty Davis (Image: Light In The Attic Records)

Betty Davis occupied an interesting slot in Black music, ca. 1973-74.

At that point, black artists were starting to step out of their “designated roles” in different ways: musically, socially, lyrically, from the acid rock fantasies of Funkadelic to the jazzy overtures of Roberta Flack to the folky singer-songwriting of Bill Withers. Betty Davis came along in the middle of all this with a self-titled album on the Just Sunshine label. There she stood on the cover, in blue denim cutoffs, silver metallic platform boots, and a short-sleeved blouse tied at the waist. Massive Afro framing her face, and she’s grinning like she can’t believe what she’s getting away with.

Truth be told, these were the fashions of 1973; I’m sure even one or two sorority girls were walking around wearing similar clothing. The typical consumer might have seen the cover and figured this was another soul singer moaning about getting her heart broken. But then they’d flip the cover over and see the song titles: “Anti-Love Song.” “Steppin’ In Her I. Miller Shoes.” “Game Is My Middle Name.” Plus, there was the tune that was released as the first single: “If I’m In Luck, I Might Get Picked Up.” Even in those sexually frank times, that might have been too much to ask the Top 40 stations to play.

Truth be told, Betty Davis–born Betty Gray Mabry on July 26, 1945–was a rocker.

People look at her in the lineage of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Gladys Knight, Bettye LaVette, Candi Staton and others and wonder where she went wrong. She sang sexually explicit songs in a nasal voice that took Janis Joplin back to the hood and gave Sly Stone a female timbre. As a music journalist colleague of mine once noted, “she was no friend to the microphone.” But, if you buy a Betty Davis album expecting another gospel singer who went secular, you’re kind of missing the point.

 

AUDIO: Betty Mabry “Get Ready For Betty”

Musically, she was from the same rock-funk area as the Chambers Brothers, the Buddy Miles Express, Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. She evidently didn’t do much television; she might have been too much for teen-slanted shows like American Bandstand or Soul Train, but I can just see her cutting up on the late night rock shows like Midnight Special. If anything, she should have been marketed to the same audience who was going to see the New York Dolls and Lou Reed. That was even more of a niche market than soul, but at least that audience would have understood.

I don’t know if Ms. Davis ever played Max’s Kansas City, but that would have been the ideal place for her to showcase her thing, fusing the “black rock” sound of the day with the glam-rock aesthetic. Many were confused at the time, wondering exactly what the lady was trying to prove. But, the mere fact that she continues to be talked about and reissued, long after her LPs disappeared from the bargain bins, is a testament.

Born in Durham, NC and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, her striking good looks almost guaranteed her a spot as a top model in New York CIty. In 1964, she made her entree into music with a single on the DCP label entitled “Get Ready For Betty,” a tuff R&B grinder. A few years later, her song “Uptown” was recorded by the Chambers Brothers on their 1967 album, The Time Has Come.

The following year, she married jazz legend Miles Davis (they divorced in 1970). Betty exposed him to the new world of rock music, getting him to trade his Italian silk suits for fringes and leather pants, the Village Gate for the Fillmore East, and sleek jazz for the first stirrings of fusion. In return, Miles took her into the studio to record some sessions, ostensibly for Columbia.

Most of these tunes were never released until 2016, on an album entitled The Columbia Years 1968-1969. With an all-star band featuring Hugh Masekela, Wayne Shorter, Mitch Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and others, you can feel her vision slowly coalescing. This isn’t the intro to Betty you’d recommend to a newcomer, but if you are already familiar with her sound, it’s a fascinating look at a new sound on the way.

 

 

Betty’s artistic taste wasn’t unheard of. Tina Turner preceded Betty by a few years with the same sound, and got wilder with it as she founde herself playing to more white rock fans. Around the same time that Betty’s first album appeared, the first LP by Rufus hit the racks. Even though vocalist Chaka Khan sang lead on maybe half the songs, within a year she’d be promoted to being the main attraction. Her look and general aura was like a more socially acceptable version of what Betty Davis was up to. Bad ass and brassy, but not to the point where the censors were coming after her. The influence even spread over to Motown, where Yvonne Fair’s lone album expanded on Betty’s ideas, with mild commercial success. The title? The Bitch Is Black..

As for Betty, she released two more albums in the States (They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal, as well as two more that weren’t released until well after they were recorded). In the meantime, female artists from Madonna from Cardi B were a little more blunt about their sexuality while Betty took an extended hiatus. All but forgotten in the 80s, her name started being whispered again in the 90s, when 70s funk records became the retro music of the moment.

Chuck Eddy wrote up a Betty Davis album in Stairway To Hell, his list of classic heavy metal albums (and if you are familiar with Betty’s music at all, the prospect of her as a heavy metal singer isn’t very shocking). The albums were slowly reissued, leading to the inevitable question: where is Betty Davis when we need her? The 2017 documentary They Say I’m Different answered the question – she had quietly retired from the business. While she allowed her voice to tell the story, she declined to be filmed, choosing to be remembered the way she was, way back when.

This was the image we were left with when she passed away a few weeks ago at age 77. Despite her reluctance to be in the modern-day spotlight, her works more than speak for the lady.

If anybody ever embodied the term “black girls rock!,” Betty Davis was it.

 

 

 You May Also Like

James Porter

James Porter writes about rock & soul history. He is also a DJ on Chicago's WLUW.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *