Nasty Gal: On Betty Davis by Michael A. Gonzales @gonzomike @nucomme

soulhead_BettyDavis_MainImage

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the Black Rock Coalition (B.R.C.), an arts organization founded by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, writer/musician Greg Tate and filmmaker Konda Mason. Their mission is to educate the public on the contributions of colored folks in the pale-faced world of rock-n-roll, while also facilitating opportunities for those who do their thing on stage and in the studio.

Although Black folks definitely made significant and enduring contributions to the invention and ascendance of rock-n-roll, we have often been forced to prove that we’re good enough to actually play it. Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, Arthur Lee, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & the Family Stone, Phil Lynott, Bad Brains, Death, Ernie Isley, Brides of Funkenstein, LaBelle, Rotary Connection (featuring Minnie Riperton), Prince, Living Colour, AR Kane, Felice Rosser, Garland Jefferies, DK Dyson, Cindy Blackman and TV on the Radio be damned, all the Rocks Against Racism, Black Rock Coalitions and Afro Punks in the world won’t change narrow minds on the subject of race when it comes to rock-n-roll music.

Despite immersing myself in the B.R.C. during the mid 1980s by going to shows at C.B.G.B.’s, buying countless records from Sounds, a cool record shop on St. Marks, and writing articles about a few of my favorite bands including PBR Streetgang, Eye & I, JJ Jumpers and others, somehow it would take me another eleven years to discover rock diva Betty Davis. While listening to the advance of Joi’s wonderful, but never-released Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome in 1996, she covered the shattered glass declaration of “If I’m Lucky I Just Might Get Picked-Up,” and, after playing it over and over, I decided to do a little digging and go straight to the source.

Back in 1973, the former fashion model, friend of Hendrix and influential ex-wife of genius jazz trumpeter Miles Davis released her self-titled debut album. “She never had a hit record, so a lot of people don’t know who Betty Davis is,” Joi explains from her home in Los Angeles. “In her music, you can hear the passion and artistry as well as the complexity and discipline. But, most of all, there is also a sense of freedom in her music.” Beginning her musical career as a songwriter, she wrote “Uptown” for The Chambers Brothers and later penned some funky songs that the Commodores recorded for the demo that convinced Motown Records to sign them. However, when Motown founder Berry Gordy told Davis she’d need to relinquish the publishing rights to the label as well, she took the songs back and decided to record them herself.

Davis had been both model and muse to the legendary Miles, who she met in 1967 and married a year later. Her picture even appeared on the cover of his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro. It wasn’t until after their divorce that same year that Davis was able to step outside of her ex-husband’s musical shadow and do her own thing. Davis had helped Miles cross the threshold from cool jazz cat to space fusion cowboy by turning him on to what he described in his autobiography as the “avant-pop” of Hendrix and Sly Stone, bugged-out music that inspired his transition into an electric warrior. Soon thereafter, she began applying those lessons towards developing her own sound.

A groundbreaking earthquake of a woman with a powerful voice, Davis was as much of a force in the studio as she was on stage. Writing all of her own lyrics and humming grooves to the band that turned them into joyful noise, Betty teamed-up with former Sly Stone drummer Greg Errico, who produced the project. “The female recording artists at the time were nothing like her,” Errico said in 2011. He recruited Family Stone veteran bassist Larry Graham, a couple of Tower of Power horn players and Bay Area soul stirring backup singers The Pointer Sisters and future disco star Sylvester. On Betty Davis, you could hear a little Tina Turner in the raunchy eroticism of her voice, feel a little Sly in her sound, but fused into her own swag and brand new sonic bag.

A cross between sacred gospel wailer and sinful blues brawler, she didn’t just sing the lyrics, she screamed, yelped and shouted like a woman possessed, as her band played with aggressive power. Of course, surviving in America as a Black bohemian original doesn’t always translate to success or help pay the bills, but Davis wasn’t about to let anything stand in her way. She signed to the small label Just Sunshine Records, which released “If I’m Lucky…” as the first single. Rolling Stone magazine loved her, but reviewer Joe McEwen warned that Davis “…may be a shade too brazen and harsh for a wider audience.” He was right. Although the record didn’t do well commercially, it served as the perfect funky rock introduction to a badass broad who wanted to rock the boulevard, and rock it hard.

soulhead_BettyDavis_1

Few 1970s radio programmers or consumers of either race seemed interested in Davis’ fearless compositions that were too Black for white radio and too rock for R&B stations. But that didn’t stop her from making more cutting edge music. Within the next few years, Davis recorded three more albums including They Say I’m Different (1974) and, switching labels to Island Records, Nasty Gal (1975). In 1975, Robin Kate wrote, “With Betty Davis, although one shouldn’t predict her becoming a household name, she is certainly an extraordinary character worth keeping a watch on. Like Dory Previn, who just keeps getting on with her art until her time comes, so Betty Davis will emerge as a talking point once a few more barriers between social graces break down.”

On stage, Davis was just as uninhibited. After seeing her at the Bottom Line in 1974, writer Vernon Gibbs wrote, “THE FEEBLE-minded walk out in disgust when Betty Davis wiggles her tush at them, the weak-hearted go limp with despair while the lusty ready their sticks. Whatever the reaction, it was clear that Betty Davis’ New York appearance scandalized enough people to assure her success.” Davis’s last project was Is It Love or Desire, which she recorded for Island Records in 1976. It was shelved and released thirty-three years later in 2009. After the project was abandoned, the dynamo diva was discouraged enough to slip into hiding. Returning to her native Pennsylvania, she simply faded away from the music scene altogether.

soulhead_BettyDavis_5

Davis may never be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the influence she exerted on artists then (LaBelle, Prince) and now (Missy Elliott, Kelis) is undeniable, albeit not particularly profitable.  “The music industry can be a funny place and Betty just decided to move on,” said singer Nucomme Walker while chilling at a coffee shop in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. As a fan of jazz since she was a teenager in Texas, the performer – who was born the same year Davis split from the scene – discovered Davis while watching a documentary about Miles’ landmark record Kind of Blue.

“It was Carlos Santana who was talking about her. My husband downloaded some of her music for me that night and when I heard it I levitated out of the bed and started shaking my hips.” It was the summer of 2008 and the song was called “Lone Ranger.”  Laughing at the memory, Nucomme continues, “That song was sexy as hell. After that moment, I was hooked.” A few months later, she began developing, at least in her mind, Nucomme’s Multimedia Tribute: Betty’s Story as an introduction to this soulful/sexual artist, which she has done on and off since 2010.

“Most Black women pop singers during the ’70 were usually portrayed as creatures desperate for affection, not willing to have sex until they were married, but Betty Davis was atypical,” Nucomme explains. “She was more like, ‘No, I want my back blown out and I want you do it.’ Unlike most singers of her generation, Betty didn’t grow-up in the church, but she knew the blues.” However, the grand dilemma of most Black fem-rockers from Betty Davis to Mother’s Finest in the ‘70s to Black Rock Coalition bands Faith and Sophia’s Toy in the ‘80s to Joi and Cree Summer in the ‘90s to Res and Tamar Kali in the 2000s, has been that major labels might sign them, but then they later claim to not understand what to actually do with their projects. They might love the music, but are usually, so they claim, unsure how to market it. Many talented artists are then dropped, ignored or asked to compromise their sound by conforming to a more easily marketable template as a result.

soulhead_BettyDavis_3

Thankfully, the last few years have seen a surge in Betty Davis interest that includes her entire catalog being reissued by Light in the Attic, the tribute album Ooh Yea!: The Betty Davis Songbook from Mahalia Barnes & The Soul Mates featuring Joe Bonamassa that was released earlier this year, and a much-anticipated film documentary entitled Nasty Gal currently in production. Betty Davis may have failed to crossover to either side of soul or rock charts back in the 1970s, but decades later, her vibrant music is still here, inspiring others to never be afraid to wave their freak flag.

See Nucomme in “Brown Girls Burlesque presents Betty’s Story” August 13th at Joe’s Pub in New York City. More information here.

Related Articles