- “She Was Too Black for Rock and Too Hard for Soul”: (Re)discovering the Musical Career of Betty Mabry Davis
Betty Mabry Davis is an artist whose name has gone unheralded as a pioneer in the annals of funk and rock. Most writing on these musical genres has traditionally placed male artists like Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton (of Parliament-Funkadelic), and bassist Larry Graham as trendsetters in the shaping of a funk rock music sensibility. During the heyday of these artists, it was Betty Mabry Davis who meshed both musical styles equally well. However, her contribution as a pioneer of funk rock was eclipsed by her contemporaries. I was first made aware of Betty Mabry Davis via Miles Davis’s autobiographical sketch (M. Davis 1990). Here, he describes his second wife, Betty Mabry, who was then twenty-three-years old, nearly half his age. Upon seeing her, Miles Davis was initially captivated by Mabry’s beauty, and he chose her as the face to grace his album Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). Among the five tracks on the album was “Mademoiselle Mabry,” composed by Miles as a salute to his soon-to-be wife. In September with Filles de Kilimanjaro was released, Betty Mabry and Miles Davis were married and she became his second wife, thus acquiring his last name, Davis. However, Miles Davis would soon realize that his wife was more than a pretty face. She was a gifted musician who became his muse: [End Page 35]
I had met a beautiful young singer and songwriter named Betty Mabry, whose picture is on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro (1968). . . . Betty was a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life. She introduced me to the music of Jimi Hendrix—and to Jimi Hendrix himself—and other black rock music and musicians. She knew Sly Stone and all those guys, and she was great herself. If Betty were singing today she’d be something like Madonna; something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis. She was just ahead of her time.(M. Davis 1990, 290)
Although their marriage was short lived, Betty Davis stepped beyond the shadows of her well-known ex-husband and became a reigning funk rock diva during the 1970s. Her voice resembled a belter, a style that fitted neatly into the rhythmic grooves or “pockets” of any hard-driving funk rock band of the time. Capitalizing on her successful career as a fashion model, Betty Davis’s signature outfits included fishnet stockings, thigh-high leather boots or high-heeled shoes, hot pants or teddylike wear, a quasi-cosmic-like or Amazon-woman-warrior look, and she donned a big Afro hairdo, as seen on her first three albums: Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, and Nasty Gal.1 While there is no stage performance footage of Davis to date, just by her album covers and musical performance alone she undoubtedly exploited the erotic. However, Betty Davis was by no means just a physical presence. Unlike funk rock women performers during her time, she also succeeded in songwriting, composing, and arranging, and she owned her music publishing company. Between 1973 and 1979, Betty Davis recorded five studio albums: Betty Davis (Just Sunshine, 1973), They Say I’m Different (Just Sunshine, 1974), Nasty Gal (Island Records, 1975), Is It Love or Desire (Island Records, 1976), and Crashin’ from Passion (ZYX Music, 1979). Disillusioned by the politics of the music industry and her refusal to compromise, Betty Davis then retreated from public view, but on her own terms.
Within the last few years, there has been a growing interest in the music of Betty Davis. In spring 2007, she appeared on the cover of the music vintage trade magazine Wax Poetics. The Seattle-based independent label of vintage classics, Light in the Attic, rereleased her first three albums and, for the first time, released her fourth album, Is It Love or Desire (B. Davis 2009b). Some of her music from her early years is sampled by hip-hop artists from Ice Cube and Method Man to Redman...