The Beautiful Dichotomy of Betty Davis: A Rare Conversation with the Elusive Mistress of Funk
“She doesn’t really do interviews, but I’ll add you to the list.”
That was where my initial request fell for an interview with the reclusive mistress of funk and former ex-wife of Miles Davis. The Seattle based indie label Light In The Attic, had just released Is It Love or Desire, Betty Davis’ fourth album, recorded in 1976 but never released, until now. I knew it was a long shot, but, dear reader, it’s always worth a try.
Besides that, the album was an interesting enough subject itself. Recorded in 1976 and shelved by Island records, the LP was that of legend: never bootlegged, never circulated. The master tapes sat somewhere amidst the dust, perhaps forsaken, perhaps forgotten, except to the intransigent crate diggers and diehard funkateers who searched for them in vain.
Then, almost miraculously and without warning, it arrived. As if from some sort of archeological excavation, the album was found, perfectly preserved after over thirty-three years. And there she was, the knock-out, drop dead-sexy rock ‘n’ soul revolutionary, who’s name was immortalized in not one but two Miles Davis titles and is perhaps more responsible for changing the face of music in the late 60s and early 70s than any other woman in the world, starring back at us with those big, brown doe-eyes one more time.
The cover of Is It Love or Desire, which is in fact the original cover intended for the album, stands in stark contrast to the soul-power-afro-naught triptych on the cover of the her first record. Gone are the metallic silver go-go boots (rumored to be a gift from one-time boyfriend Eric Clapton) now replaced by lace up leather heels and black thigh-high stockings, the unparalleled afro is hidden beneath a flower adorned, broad rimmed, straw hat. The hot pants are now a simple embroidered, lace dress. This is an evolved, refined and re-defined Betty Davis. She exudes a sensuality surpassed only by her confidence and she sports an uncompromising attitude, unmatched by any of her contemporary counterparts.
With only a handful of interviews in the past 30 years, the mystery around Betty Davis is as intimidating as it is enticing. So when, after a few follow up calls, I got the message that the interview was a go, the nerves set in. It didn’t help matters when our first phone call was canceled only 20 minutes before it was scheduled. But before I knew it, there I was having a conversation with the woman responsible for introducing Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix.
Insightful, shrewd, humble, yet self assured; affectionate, yet aloof, Betty was not your mother’s role model, but she should have been. Condemned by the NAACP and misunderstood by her record labels, many in the 70s seemed to miss the fact that, at her core, Betty was a blues singer-songwriter in the tradition of the sybaritic Victoria Spivey (another artist the history books have much neglected) or Bessie Smith.
“I see myself as a songwriter,” she muses. “I don’t think I am a great singer.”
We’ll have to disagree on that point!
“I think I’m more of a projector than a singer. I think I can sing what I write… Aretha Franklin can sing. Like on her early albums, that song she sang ‘Running Out of Fools’…. Sure you haven’t got the wrong number/You sure it’s me you wanna talk to tonight?/Everyone in town’s got your number/Everybody’s got you pegged right”
She relays the lyric with nuance and contemplation, only enhancing the fact that she’s a writer first.
J. Hayes: You’ve said before that the blues is where it started for you. We both came up in North Carolina listening to blues; Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, all that and from a young age. My 3 year old loves the blues now. He connects with it, seemingly on a very visceral level. He doesn’t know what they’re talking about obviously, but he feels it. What was it about the blues that captured your attention at such a young age?
Betty Davis: The rhythm and the simplicity. Someone like Lightnin’ Hopkins…it was just a guitar and voice. John Lee Hooker, his early records had just a bass and drums…
JH: …and often just a handful of words.
JH: Do you still listen to a lot of blues?
BD: I listen to a lot of Lightnin’ Hopkins. He’s my favorite!
JH: Does music play a big part in your life these days?
BD: Well, most since I’ve gotten older…I listen to music. The business has changed significantly. I listen to some contemporary things.
JH: Is there anyone in particular that piques your interest?
BD: No… Well there’s that song that Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sing. New York. [“Empire State of Mind”]
JH: Do you see your influence on any contemporary artists?
BD: [Long pause] Some songs I do, others I don’t… I don’t think they’ve got up to me yet.
JH: How true. Why do you think it’s taken folks so long?
BD: I think probably because they just didn’t get it. I think that for the time and the way music progresses, a lot of my things are blues oriented and they don’t really have any blues singers now.
JH: I think hip-hop in some respects is the closest thing to blues but even that is coming out of a different experience and speaking a different language. Do you think that perhaps, it’s something to do with the fact that your records are also pretty musically adventurous? It seems like you were even pushing what was being done in funk music at the time. We talk about the blues thing but on Is It Love or Desire I hear so many different things… There’s that quiet tune “When Romance Says Goodbye.” I don’t think people knew you could sing like that.
JH: That’s one of the crimes of that record not coming out in the 70s. I think it would have opened people up to more of what Betty Davis was about. As such a diverse and progressive artist, what are you feelings about where the industry is now?
BD: I think music has changed so considerably. You have pop music, which was predominantly white music, but now it’s African-American music, really.
JH: Or some dilution of it.
BD: Yeah, it really is. And then you have rock music…but you don’t have any groups in it anymore.
JH: So, you seem to have a pretty even sense of the industry. Where did your disillusionment with the music business really come from and why do you think you decided to ultimately step away from the entertainment industry as a whole?
BD: In your life, when you’re an artist, or a musician or a singer, or a dancer or whatever, you have a time period normally. I think that was my time period really, when I did all those albums.
JH: Do you mean creatively or commercially?
BD: I mean creatively.
JH: Yeah, but you’re still singing and writing and being creative for yourself from what I’ve heard.
BD: Well, I still write but I don’t know at anytime what I am going to do with the material. I don’t know whether I’ll go back into the studio to record another album or whether I’ll give my music to someone else to record. See, when I got into the business, I started off as a writer.
JH: Before that you opened a club in New York City when you were just in your 20s, right?
BD: Yeah, when I was younger, in my teens, like 18, 19…
JH: Wow, now walk me through that ‘cause 18, 19 in New York now, you could not open a club.
BD: [Laughs] No.
JH: So, how did that come about and what was happening at your club?
BD: Well, I found an investor, and I knew a lot of girls… I used to go to the beach all the time, so I knew a lot of people. And, uh, so we didn’t have to go through a lot of licenses and stuff. It was a private club. You had to be a member to come. Lou Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] used to come to my club all the time. I had girls there that worked and danced.
JH: You were the DJ there, right?
JH: There’s an image: Betty Davis at 20 years old on the turntables! That must have been a sight to see!
BD: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.
JH: What was the time frame when the club was open?
BD: I don’t deal with time periods. I’m very bad with that.
JH: But this was prior to your records?
BD: Well, I had done a record called Get Ready for Betty. Don Costa produced it. He was a friend of my attorney at the time. That’s how I got to know him.
JH: It was a little bit more straight ahead than the records that came after it?
BD: Yeah, it was very straight compared to my other songs. “You Live, You Love and You Learn.” I recorded that, but this was after The Cellar. (That was the name of my club.)
JH: Did meeting and writing for the Chambers Brothers come out of your connections at The Cellar?
BD: No, they were playing at a club in New York called the Electric Circus. I went to hear them and they were terrific, so I said, “I’ve got a song for these guys.” I spoke to a couple of the brothers and told them I had a song for them. Dave Rubinson, who used to produce the Pointer Sisters, was producing the Chambers Brothers. I did the song [“Uptown to Harlem”] for them at the Electric Circus and they told Dave about me.
JH: That must have been a pretty big break as a writer for you?
BD: Yeah, that was good for me to do that.
JH: Did writing for the Commodores come out of that?
BD: No, the Commodores was later on. I couldn’t work out a deal with Motown. They wouldn’t give me my money. They wanted all of my publishing. So, my attorney couldn’t work anything out with them… That’s why they didn’t do any of my songs [on record]. I wrote up a whole album for them practically.
JH: But some of those songs made it on to your own records eventually, right?
BD: Yeah, practically all those songs on my first album.
JH: Oh, see that’s funkier than anything the Commodores ever did, you know that?!
[You can hear her smile…]
BD: If I had continued to work with them, they would have been really funky.
JH: Their loss. It’s interesting to see how artists change and grow, and one of the things that’s fascinating about your music is there is this snapshot. I mean, we’ve got these four records, in what? A four-year span, essentially. Whereas you have bands like the Commodores that started out mildly funky and then Lionel Richie moved into whatever he was doing in the 80s and now he’s got this adult contemporary status. So, it’s interesting to see an artist change over time. We got a taste of all these different sounds on your records but in a very short time frame. That being said, even in those few records there is a great deal of evolution. Are there things, musically, that you feel you haven’t explored or would still like to explore?
BD: [Quite for a moment, then laughs…] There are a few things… There’s a song I wrote called “A Little Bit Hot Tonight.” That’s one of the songs I’d like to record. I wrote it with a Japanese musician named Chimoto Suru. This was a while ago.
JH: So are you still writing with other artists, not just on your own?
JH: Because this last record, Is It Love or Desire was recorded in 1976, one thing we never saw was a Betty Davis disco record.
BD: No, I don’t record disco. [Laughs]
JH: No, I didn’t think so… It makes me think of Jimi Hendrix. There is so much speculation about what Jimi would have recorded next.
BD: He would have stayed in the same vein he was in.
JH: But in the late 70s I can only imagine the record company would have been pushing for him to put a disco beat behind something.
BD: I doubt if he would have done it.
JH: Maybe disco wouldn’t have happened if he stuck around.
BD: No, It would have happened, cause you have the Bee Gees you know. They put it out there.
JH: So, if we were lucky enough to hear a new Betty Davis record, would it sound essentially like the albums we already know?
BD: Yeah it would have my same feel. When you’re an artist, you can record and record and record but your feeling doesn’t change. When you’re a true artist your feeling doesn’t change.
JH: I think that’s true, even with Miles Davis. The sound of his trumpet changed but the sound of his song didn’t. He was a blues player too, really.
BD: Miles was very progressive though.
JH: But it seems at the core there was still that blues thing that runs through your music, the simplicity. Do you think?
BD: I don’t know.
JH: Well, how would you compare what it is that’s progressive in your music verses his?
BD: Well, he was much more intricate that I am. My music is much more simple.
JH: But Betty, the thing is, people can’t do what you do… It really is inimitable in the true sense of the word. Sure there is a simplicity, but that simplicity is sometimes the hardest thing to capture.
JH: We were talking about John Lee Hooker earlier. Who can do John Lee Hooker but John Lee Hooker. It’s one chord and maybe three words. You know what I’m saying?
[We both erupt in laughter.]
BD: That’s true, that’s true.
JH: You talked earlier about the idea of “your time,” which I can see, but it’s interesting to see how positive the response is to your music now.
BD: I know, I am very surprised by that. That surprises me!
JH: Why does that surprise you?
BD: It just does because I didn’t think it would last this long. I mean, I thought I’d be heard but I didn’t think I would last this long.
JH: Longevity or success is a funny thing to define. Do you feel successful?
BD: For what I did, I think I’m successful.
JH: I guess success is ultimately if you can look back and be pleased with what you’ve accomplished.
BD: With your work, yeah… Yeah.
JH: Since you left the industry what do you fill your days with?
BD: I watch the soaps, I watch the food network…
[She loves Ina Garten.]
JH: Do you cook as well?
BD: I can cook, but I don’t cook great soul food or anything. I can cook pasta and stuff like that. I learned that from Miles.
JH: Is there anything that you feel you still need to do artistically?
BD: No, I’d like to continue doing my music.
JH: Let’s talk a little about this newly released record Is It Love or Desire. It’s really amazing to me it’s the culmination of the work that preceded it. And in terms of the musicians, you’ve got Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown on there.
BD: Yeah, yeah!
JH: How did that come about?
BD: We were recording and I wanted to use a violin player and they told me about him.
JH: And who better. Were you familiar with him?
BD: No, but they told me he was really good, so I asked the engineer to invite him down to the studio to hear the song. He knew Miles, so I put him on the phone with Miles. They were talking and stuff. So, he did it. I t was really nice of him to do it.
JH: One of the things that’s so great about the record is that it challenges the audience. Just when the listener thought they knew what the “Betty Davis Sound” was, all of a sudden there are all these new layers. There’s a bit of a Funkadelic influence on there as well with the layered vocals on “Whorey Angel.”
JH: Your cousin is playing bass and doing backing vocals on this record and the few preceding it, and the band is comprised of several other relatives. Did they play a significant role in the sound or was it merely them manifesting a sound that was already there in your head?
BD: Well, I did all the arrangements and stuff, but of course their influence was there.
JH: Was your whole family musical?
BD: Yes, my mother’s sister’s kids. My cousins…we listened to a lot of music when I was growing up. My grandmother’s house, my mother’s house…
JH: You had a typical “Gospel on Sundays” house too. Did any of that play a role in your music later on?
BD: No, we listened to a radio station that did all Gospel music on Sundays and, um, I’ve written a couple of Gospel songs but I’ve never recorded them.
JH: Now there’s an intriguing record! One thing that I just wanted to mention because of the stigma that gets attached to the 70s and funk music and musicians, etc., is that you were never really involved in drinking and drugs and such.
JH: Unfortunately, it’s not the norm but one thing I hope people take away from your story, is that it’s not a necessary part of the experience. You really are a role model from the business side of things to the respect you had for your way of life. How did you avoid it all?
BD: Well, I was really into my body, being healthy. All my friends did drugs and stuff but I was too into my body.
JH: And because of it we still have you around today.
When I ask Betty about the future she gives a contemplative pause.
“I don’t really know,” she drawls. “When you write you don’t think about what people want to hear or anything like that, you just write. If the songs are liked or how they’re perceived, you have nothing to do with that.”
With the release of Is It Love or Desire, at long last, I am confident it’s only a matter of time before people will be scrambling for the next thing from the bold, yet subtle, sweet, yet ever so funky, beautiful dichotomy that is Betty Davis.
“Well, we’ll see,” she says. “Goodnight.”
Goodnight Betty, where ever you are. I’ll be sleeping with my fingers crossed.
Live Well & Listen Closely,
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
and become a fan on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/J-Hayes-music-writer/161850300225
images courtesy of Tiny Human and Light In The Attic
special thanks to Ms. Betty Davis, Ever Kipp at Tiny Human, Matt Sullivan at Light In The Attic, Kyla Fairchild at No Depression, and my editor Kellee Webb.