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Among '70s Funk aficionados, Betty Davis is something of a Fakahatchee Orchid: truly rare, exquisite, and without peer. That so little has been known about her for so long only adds to the mystique of this former wife of Miles Davis, who produced a series of albums so radical and, indescribable that they still have the power to tingle today, some thirty years hence. Sly Stone? Tina Turner? Funkadelic? Chaka Khan? Rick James? Prince? Me'shell Ndegeochello? Macy Gray? There are elements of all these artists in Betty Davis, some of whom might have influenced her, but most of whom followed. And still, Davis surpasses all, creating a sound as adventurous and singular in R&B as The Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth did in rock. Critically praised in her time, but commercially obscure, Davis' albums sold for pennies in the decade or so after their release, and then-seemingly overnight-began trading for 100x as much, or more.
Though various versions of the four albums Davis completed have been available on CD in recent years, these Light In The Attic releases are significant for being the first reissues taken from the original master tapes, and including full musician credits, extensive liner notes by funkologist Oliver Wang, rare pics, and unreleased bonus cuts. Whew.
As Wang's notes detail, North Carolina native Betty Mabry came to New York City via Pittsburgh at 16 to study design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was the early '60s, and she was drawn to the vibrant folk scene before becoming the compere of a hip uptown disco The Cellar--which was also the title of her first single, produced through a connection with Cellar dweller Lou Courtney. That led to another single under the aegis of arranger/producer Don Costa (neither, of course, were hits). Fast forward a couple of years and Betty, always the Quintessence of Hip” (to quote one of her later songs), was making time in the East Village's place-to-be, the Electric Circus, where she hooked up with house band The Chambers Brothers, who recorded her song Uptown (To Harlem)” on the Time Has Come Today album. It was her first taste of musical success, but-in a pattern that would repeat itself later - Betty decided to shift gears back into the fashion world, becoming the black face of Wilhelmina models (with the goods to back it up).
Almost immediately, Betty returned to music when she met Miles Davis (20 years her elder) at the Village Gate and became enamored even before knowing who he was. Their affair was sidetracked when Betty decamped to Los Angeles in '68, meeting Hugh Masekela, who produced another single for Mabry. When she returned to New York, Betty and Miles reunited, he proposed marriage, and they began production on an album for Columbia with such impressive players as Wayne Shorter, Billy Cox and Tony Williams, but the recordings would never be released. Nevertheless, Miles obviously respected Betty creatively: beyond putting her on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro and writing Mademoiselle Mabry” for her, his groundbreaking Bitches Brew is considered to be an homage to Betty and her circle of friends, who introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix, and to the funk of James Brown and Sly Stone.
Probably owing to Miles' violent tendencies, their marriage dissolved within a year, and Betty returned to songwriting (supposedly writing the demos that got the Commodores signed to Motown) before returning to modeling in '71, moving to London, and meeting Marc Bolan. She had another romantic relationship, with Santana percussionist Michael Carabello, who brought her to San Francisco and introduced her to the indie label Just Sunshine, which was willing to let Betty Davis do what she wanted to do musically without interference or manipulation.
To her credit, Davis' album covers and song titles promised everything the contents delivered, with Davis in sky-high afro, sassy hot pants and thigh-high silver boots on her debut, and some sort of post-Egyptian space leotard on her second. Couple that with song titles like If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” Game Is My Middle Name,” He Was A Big Freak,” and Don't Call Her No Tramp,” and you have a pretty edgy statement, even in the age of Ziggy-era Bowie, KISS, and Parliament. Davis' music was not for the lighthearted, then or now. Her vocals are beyond-Tina Turner gutteral, sometimes screeching, sometimes bluesy, and the cast of top-notch players she assembled behind her (including Larry Graham, Anita Pointer, Patryce Banks, Sylvester, Neal Schon, Merl Saunders, and Pete Sears on the first, Greg Errico-produced, album) fire up a fierce funk-rock stew that still stings.
Despite the care in these repackagings, it's unfortunate that none of her '60s recordings were included, assuming if they survive. 1973's Betty Davis includes three great unreleased cuts, circa '74, presumably so that four generally superfluous '73 versions of 1974's They say I'm Different tracks could be included with that disc. If only for curiosity's sake, it would be great if Light In The Attic could compile her early work with the best of her latter three albums for a sequel.
Betty left the music biz as the '80s arrived, virtually vanishing into obscurity before culture was able to catch up with her. In a way, that's a small tragedy. But her best work, preserved in amber, is so strong that no further attempts could embellish them.