Great inventors rarely go unpunished. Galileo got thumped by the Inquisition. Nikola Tesla was practically written out of history by his rival, Thomas Edison. And until Seattle imprint Light in the Attic saw fit to reissue her music, Betty Davis languished in obscurity. Luckily, deluxe new editions of her early '70s releases Betty Davis and They Say I'm Different finally promise to introduce Davis to audiences beyond the rare-groove set.
Davis was an original in every regard. On the cover of her first album, she rocks over-the-knee, silver lamé boots; her look for the Different sleeve is Funkadelic-goes-to–Paradise Island, complete with javelins. Musically, she fused funk, rock, soul, and blues. Her singing can hardly be called pretty, but it was a force to reckon with. Lyrically, songs like "If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up" and "Don't Call Her No Tramp" surpass then-conventional notions of sexual equality, while "Anti-Love Song" and "He Was a Big Freak" explicitly put male paramours in their place.
"In terms of point of view, and expressing ideas of identity and sexuality, these were really interesting lyrics," says Oliver Wang, who contributes extensive liner notes to the two reissues. "It wasn't what you would find someone like [James Brown lieutenants] Lyn Collins or Marva Whitney singing about."
"She was this force of personality, writing all her own songs, and eventually producing her own albums," Wang continues. "She's this fascinating aberration. She wasn't the mouthpiece for a male producer or songwriter, but an independent black female artist in the early 1970s."
Even before she cut albums, she was an inventor. Born Betty Mabry, the former fashion model earned her famous surname during a brief marriage to Miles Davis in the late '60s. He was her first big experiment. She introduced him to new music—Sly & the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix—and a new tailor.
Although Miles is dismissive of Betty in his autobiography, her contributions did not go unrecognized. "The people around [Miles]—Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana—will be the first ones to say, 'Yo, that whole Bitches Brew phase? That was Betty,'" confirms Wang.
Davis had already made inroads before she cut her debut LP, writing songs for the Chambers Brothers and the Commodores and recording two pop singles. But the difference between those early efforts and Betty Davis is night and day. "Someone who might have heard of Betty Mabry at that point, and then listened to her on that first album, would have been like, 'Oh my God, is this the same person?'" says Wang.
On Betty Davis, her sidemen and producer included members of Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, and Graham Central Station, plus Journey guitarist Neal Schon. Sylvester and the Pointer Sisters sang back-ups. On her second album, she assumed even more control, hiring a new band and overseeing production herself.
Yet Betty Davis, the unfettered wild woman, was also an invention. She ran in social circles with Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Marc Bolan, but is remembered by colleagues as a quiet individual who shied away from drugs and booze. "But in the studio and onstage, music really transformed her," says Wang.
Davis made one more album, Nasty Gal, released in 1975. After two different follow-ups were shelved, she retired. In part, theorizes Wang, she was a victim of her own independence. Because she sought to control every facet of her own career, she eschewed outside management. "She wanted to knock down the gates herself. But that's really hard for any artist to do, let alone a black female artist."
Nor was time on her side. Just a few years after Davis withdrew, musicians like Nona Hendryx and Grace Jones were completely overhauling notions of how black women should sound, look, and act. "If [Betty] had waited five years, and come out during the punk era, she would have killed it," insists Wang. Only now does the world finally seem ready for Davis. Whether they are aware of her work or not, pop stars like Kelis and Macy Gray embody the same fiery spirit she pioneered.
And maybe Davis—who lives quietly in Pennsylvania today—is ready for the world. "I have heard talk that she might get back into making music again, which I think would be great," Wang says. "Who knows if that is going to happen or not, but if she is even just entertaining the idea, that is really exciting news."