Betty Davis cares not for your notions of respectability
It really is an injustice that Betty Davis (born Betty Mabry) is perceived primarily as Miles Davis’ “muse”—that’s her photo on his Filles De Kilimanjaro album and that record’s “Mademoiselle Mabry” is a tribute to Betty, obviously—rather than an artist in her own right. This is not to say she didn’t have a huge hand in the trajectory of his work. Bitches Brew would not have been Bitches Brew had she not introduced Miles to the music of JImi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and she says that she convinced him to change the original title from “Witches Brew.”
After her divorce from Miles, Betty recorded two albums in the early 70s with crack backing musicians like Larry Graham, Merl Saunders (Grateful Dead, Bonnie Raitt), Neal Schon (Santana/Journey) and members of Graham Central Station, Tower of Power, even the young Pointer Sisters singing back-up. Davis was the original “nasty gal” creating the blueprint for suggestive “outrageousness” well-trod by today’s female chart toppers.
Her 1973 self-titled debut, for example, featured “Your Man My Man,” a wholesome little ditty about… sharing:
He’s your man, my man
it’s all the same ‘cause you need him
you please him when he’s there
I free him, I release him, when he’s here.
The follow-up, 1974’s They Say I’m Different, featured her as a gorgeous afro’d Ziggy Stardust-type on the album cover and the trademark slinky funk sound and lascivious lyrical content does not disappoint. Her third album, aptly named Nasty Gal, is also amazing, but none of Betty’s records ever really got the credit they deserved, and her fourth record, Is It Love or Desire? was shelved until 2009 (although this material was bootlegged twice.)
In his autobiography, her ex-husband wrote:
“If Betty were singing today she would be something like Madonna, something like Prince only as a woman.”
There’s very little press record of Betty’s career floating around—her highly sexual music and live shows earned her boycotts and radio censorship from the NAACP and church leaders. She didn’t get a lot of public relations opportunities, and I highly recommend you listen to the below track, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” to understand why—it makes “Your Man My Man” sound downright subtle:
I said if I’m in luck I just might get picked up
I said I’m vampin’ trampin’ you can call it what you wanna
I said I’m wigglin’ my fanny (“Ooooh”)
I want you dancing I’m a movin’ it movin’ it (“Man, I’ma take her home, man”)
Try not to pass out
The parentheticals are the voices of her very appreciative male counterparts, by the way.
In stark contrast to her delightfully dirty persona is the audio below, from a 1974 radio interview promoting They Say I’m Different, one of the rare documents of her career you can find on the Internet. Davis is warm and charming, but… modest here. As the DJ attempts to draw out a little bit of her infamous sexual persona, she’s not having it, keeping decorous manners right up until she drops a coy, “I love to be loved… by a lot of people.” (There is a more recent interview with Betty Davis from The Sound of Young America podcast in 2009)