Bringing her down-home North Carolina background to the world of funk, Betty Mabry spent a better part of the sixties trying to make it big in the music scene, while also modeling to pay the rent. She ran in the same crowds as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Hugh Masekela (who she dated), and she wrote her own songs, selling one to the Chambers Brothers, and then got a couple of singles on Capitol Records.
And then Miles Davis stepped in the picture. First as a whirlwind romance and marriage, then as a producer who was going to launch Betty Davis as the queen of funk (and refurbish his image in the process.) He had already dedicated two songs to her and put her on the cover of his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro. And now he was set to produce her solo debut.
That album is finally being released. Betty Davis: The Columbia Years 1968-1969 drops tomorrow. To hear Light in the Attic’s video press release above breathlessly tell it, “music fans have long debated the truth about one legendary session recorded in 1969 at Columbia’s 52nd Street Studios.” Personally I don’t know what was actually debated, but yes, Betty Davis recorded tracks for a funk album using members of Jimi Hendrix’s Experience band (Mitch Mitchell, drums) and his Band of Gypsies (Billy Cox, bass), along with guitarist John McLaughlin, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, Harvey Brooks on bass, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Larry Young on organ. Teo Macero co-produced with Miles Davis.
If this sounds like most of the band that went on to make Miles' Bitches Brew (a record title suggested by Betty), then you’re right. It could be seen as a session that got the wheels spinning in Miles’ mind about a new direction to take his own work. And it's that moment that so fascinates music fans.
Columbia passed on the Betty Davis album and buried it in its vaults. It would take four years until Betty Davis was able to get a solo album out on her own terms. That eponymous 1973 album and the two that followed were poor sellers, but earned cult status due to Betty Davis’ unabashed and unapologetic sexuality, feminism, and ferocity on stage—the same factors that scared radio operators and concert venues.
"She was the first Madonna, but Madonna was like Donny Osmond by comparison,” Carlos Santana once quipped about her.
The Light in the Attic site has very brief clips from the songs on the new release, but since they are all from the openings of the tracks, they give little indication of the funky stew to follow, from the Cream and Creedence Clearwater Revival covers ("Politician Man," "Born on the Bayou") to her own songs. The CD and LP package looks gorgeous of course, with liner notes and photos.
Davis retired from music after her fourth album went nowhere but she is still around, and, according to the Light in the Attic website, a documentary is in the works on this influential funky icon who needs rediscovering.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.