A name on the guestlist of greatness, the former Betty Mabry had hip cachet in the ’60s, and has it again now. A model, a songwriter and a friend of both Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis (who she married), her trio of mid-1970s albums (Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal) established her as a powerful female performer. A cross between George Clinton and Bette Midler, she played sex music with no implied candlelit dinner, a hard and uncompromising funk in which she inhabited an aggressive, theatrically sexual persona. At the time, she outraged nearly everyone.
Hers is a story with some great records, a lot of interesting associations, and – possibly the most important factor – many years of unaccounted time, into which mystery and supposition has since enticingly poured. Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock remember her as charismatic, beautiful and vibrant, someone pushing at boundaries as Madonna and Grace Jones later would. An early single, a Phil Spector-style production called “Get Ready For Betty”, sketched out her early manifesto, warning women to “keep your fella under lock and key…”
These songs, recorded with boyfriend Hugh Masekela (’68, in LA) and a year later in New York with Miles Davis, find her in transition, almost precisely halfway between her vaguely spicy early soul and her later incarnation in silver hotpants. The fact that the sub-Dusty supper club strings of “Live, Love, Learn” was released as an A-side in 1968 in favour to its superior flip, the belting “It’s My Life” suggests there was some confusion over what precisely her proposition was. An interesting detail in this package is a Columbia Records memo which debates whether she should even be recorded again. “PS:” it concludes, a word of friendly advice, “Betty Mabry is now Mrs Miles Davis.”
Patriarchal career influence isn’t, perhaps, an easy fit into the narrative of an empowered woman writer/performer, but it is part of the story. Davis was a scenester, and her work so far had often reflected that sense of place. She had the previous year written “Uptown (To Harlem)”, rendered superbly by The Chambers Brothers, and in 1964 a single called “The Cellar”, about a club she hosted.
Here she hones her skills as a writer on place with the drawling “Down Home Girl”, and the self-explanatory “Hanging Out”, which nails her milieu and the mood of these recordings. Hendrix’s girlfriend Devon Wilson gets an administrative credit on the ’69 session, while the musicians (John McLaughlin, Larry Young, Mitch Mitchell et al) are a team of Miles/Jimi associates otherwise over-qualified for the basic R’n’B comping which is required of them.
There are nods towards the evolution of the feisty Betty persona here (“Ready, Willing & Able”). There are weirder covers (Creedence’s “Born On The Bayou”?), but it’s the Cream song “Politician Man” which really offers a foreshadowing of what is to come. On the talkback, Miles Davis is heard giving his wife some advice on how she might approach the performance. “Sing it just like that,” he says, in his unmistakable croak, “with the gum in your mouth an’ all, bitch…”
In the original version, as sung by an acne-scarred jazz bassist from Lanarkshire, “Politician” is a fairly heavy-handed piece of political satire. In it, the elected official of the title attempts to coerce a young woman into the backseat of his car in order that he may, nudge nudge, “show you what my politics are….” As sung by Betty Davis, it feels transformative, with Betty assuming again the predatory role – as if she is turning the tables on a sleazy politician on behalf of every harassed intern or junior researcher in history.
It clearly made an impression on Miles, who later recorded a number called “Backseat Betty” in honour of how she delivered the song. More importantly, it signposted how Betty Davis might channel her attitude and charisma in the future. She already talked it. In a few years she would walk it on completely her own terms.
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