Betty Davis: Seeing the Queen through different lenses
I remember the time I found Betty Davis’ music. I was 19 and in the second year of my graduation course. I became so fascinated with her bold style which included silver thigh-high boots, slips, fishnets, leather pants matching seethrough blouses with no bra, and glam rock leotards; and when Betty wrote the song “Don’t Call Her No Tramp”, she was ahead of her time, and also belonged to her own time, by claiming that her clothes did not define a woman’s worth. The 70s were advanced times in women’s rights and women were organizing their own forms of sexual revolution, but the issue is with who was ready to accept a black woman’s sexual revolution and Betty defined her own terms. Her songs appealed to me not only because they were essentially feminist, although Betty never identified as such, but also because everything else surrounding her music was cool: her band (The Pointer Sisters, her Funkhouse and other noted musicians); her iconic album covers that helped build her image as a funk goddess and the fact that at a certain point in her career, she produced and arranged her own albums, a landmark for black women in music— she started her experience in music working as a DJ and manager in a club called The Cellar, in NY, and would write Uptown (to Harlem) for the Chambers Brothers, which was a great success and that was essential for her to find her place in music.
In 2017, British filmmaker Philip Cox, had the golden opportunity to film a documentary on Betty’s career and also have her in it. I’m saying it’s a golden opportunity because, since the end of the 70s, Betty became reclusive for over two decades and also because she sadly passed away on February 9, 2022, at the age of 77. We are left with this relevant portrait of an artist who was crowned the Queen of Funk after an arduous battle that cost her mental health.
I had to present a project on any topic of my preference for one of my English classes in the second period and I chose to talk about 4 rock stars who helped shape modern women. I talked about Joan Jett, Patti Smith I decided to include Betty Davis. Not only do I think that Betty took funk music to another level, but she also took rock’n’roll. She challenged the expectations for black women in music. Roaring, growling to heavy funk bass and wah wah guitar pedals, saying lines like “I said I’m wigglin’ my fanny”, and in her performances, Betty would simulate sexual pleasure with her body expressions and her mic. Besides, her music was not purely funk-oriented. It was also rock and blues because rock’n’roll is also about mixing genres. But yeah, Betty Davis is undoubtedly the Funk Queen. She was inspired by both Bessie Smith and her close friend, legend Jimi Hendrix (her influences are honored in iconic songs such as F.U.N.K and They Say I’m Different). She met him through her friend and Jimi’s then-girlfriend, Devon Wilson. Betty would pen the song “Stepping in her I. Miller Shoes” to her for her debut self-titled album from 1973, released two years after Devon’s suicide, which had to do with the suffering from Jimi’s death. Betty writes a sensitive tribute and the title evokes both Devon’s sense of fashion, and Betty loved that in people, as well as Betty’s attempt to put herself in her friend’s shoes to tell her story and that she was more than what the world had her for: a groupie. So Betty was pretty much a feminist rock star not only when she was singing about her pleasure, but also when she sang about sisterhood between black women. In Cox’s They Say I’m Different, we have access to a rare short video of Betty performing the song. She’s wearing her famous sequined bra and shorts, which can also be seen in the few online pics of her performing. It was such a thrilling experience to finally see some footage of her. I had dreamt of this moment for years. Although it’s only a short clip, it confirms that her nasty gal stage persona impacts anyone in a matter of seconds. There is a really cool animated series called Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus which featured Betty’s story, and some of the interviews also appear in shorter lengths in the documentary, but I felt that the series, which is shorter than the documentary, this one being 53 minutes long, left much of the interesting stories about Betty out. For example, there was one guy that was so struck by Betty’s stage presence that literally fell backward.
The documentary is relevant because it features Betty herself in a rare appearance after more than 30 years, but its constant use of animal and nature symbolism to express Betty’s rise and fall does not appeal to a new audience who is not familiar with her story. The documentary is intimate to a point that it was made for those who were looking forward to seeing her after such a long time and it can be disappointing, at first, to see that she didn’t want to be fully filmed and that only after some time, we realize it’s not her voice narrating the movie. However, if Betty wanted to be understood back then when she did what she did, why couldn’t we respect her now when she didn’t want to be seen? The peak of the documentary is when she’s looking at the camera when the narrator speaks of her father’s death. Her frightened look is nothing like the defiant one from her heydays, and a look was enough for us to understand that her grief really weighed on her for the rest of her life. Both works feature the same interview with model and Betty’s friend, Winona Williams — both were signed with Wilhelmina modeling agency — but it’s only in the animated series that we learn that after her father died, Betty became very depressed and went through a series of delicate episodes such as throwing her belongings in the pool and thinking she was being stalked. We really don’t know if Betty was diagnosed with a mental illness, but this breaks the stigma that black women are supposed to handle everything once no one is there to take care of them. Betty was left alone.
Most of Betty’s sexual songs are said to be about her ex-husband, the late jazz musician, Miles Davis. Well, she didn’t know who he was when they met, he was already considered a legend at the time they were together, and when she was considered a groupie taking advantage for sleeping with him, this shows how a woman’s agency is something she has to work hard to prove to others, and while Betty played a huge role in Miles’ jazz fusion era, as she introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and to vibrant outfits of the era, Miles featured her on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro, and dedicated two of its songs to her. In 2016, the label Light In The Attic released ‘The Columbia Years 1968–1969’, Betty’s shelved album which was produced by Miles and features Jimi Hendrix’s band on instruments. Despite being an excellent album with my favorite ‘Down Home Girl’, you can hear Miles’ voice at the end of one of the takes telling her how to sing a song. It would be only in her solo career that she would find her real thing. The marriage didn’t last long and although Betty kept his last name, her real name is Betty Gray Mabry, Miles would spread the rumor that they broke up because she had cheated on him with Hendrix and that he wasn’t easy to be controlled. He wrote about this in his famous autobiography and for many, Betty was more known as Miles’ wild ex-wife and a cheater than for her music and her contribution to his. In a rare 2007 interview, Betty said she was angry at Miles for spreading the rumor and that they actually broke up because of his violent temper.
In Cox’s documentary, she says that she didn’t tell anyone about his violent attitude at the time and in the series, Winona says that people were saying that Betty had a breakdown at the end of the 70s because she didn’t accept she was no longer his wife. Both works are really necessary to put an end to the idea that Betty was Miles’ shadow. But Miles’ rumor is still more credited than Betty’s truth. As she puts it perfectly in ‘Nasty Gal’: You dragged my name in the mud, all over town. Betty had her own to tell her own story.
When white men from Island records told Betty that if she wanted to make some money, she would have to clean up her act as it is sung in one of her best tracks, ‘Stars Starve, you know’ from her fourth album, Is It Love or Desire? it was her final attempt to say loud and clear that she couldn’t be tamed. She continues and also calls out Miles Davis for not understanding why things came easily to him and not her. “I should have been born a man”. The song not only tackles gender issues but also class and race ones. I think it’s an essential song to understand why this album was shelved and, only being released in 2009 and why Davis was dropped from the label. She would record her final record, the disco music-oriented Crashin’ from Passion aka Hangin’ Out in Hollywood, with Martha Reeves and the Point Sisters. In 1980, she would perform her final shows in Japan and reveal in the documentary that while there, she learned much from two monks, but the information is too vague. After listening to Betty’s discography, reading about her, and watching the films on her, one can conclude that music was the tool she found to vocalize not only her pleasure but also her pain. And that too much pain overcame her pleasure which she couldn’t vocalize in the same “in your face” attitude as before. If Betty could manage to stay so many years in silence, we have to listen to her the way she wanted us to. We can love the badass diva from the Tales from the tour bus and also the woman who stepped off the diva’s shoes from the documentary. But her expertise as a composer, producer and funk lover never wilted as she worked on her final track with Danielle Maggio, released in 2019. We live in an era where we are more accepting of a woman’s multifaceted stories and we are telling them through humanized lens. I’m glad Betty knew she was loved by many before she died. Not many black women artists had the same chance. Her legacy lives on.
Seven months ago, I recorded a special edition for my radio show ‘Cidade das Mulheres’ honoring Betty Davis’ career. Since I’m Brazilian and the radio station is also from Brazil, the show is run in Portuguese. Besides writing, I also like vocalizing stories of women in Arts. You can listen to this edition here.
This article was also published in Portuguese. Click here.