Betty Davis Changed the Face of Funk. It's Time to Celebrate Her on Her Own Terms. | Music Essay | Indy Week
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Betty Davis Changed the Face of Funk. It's Time to Celebrate Her on Her Own Terms. 

She's been called funk itself: libidinous, formidable, and raw. She's the queen of self-possessed sexuality, a feminist cult hero, the lesser-known inspiration for Bitches Brew and one of the mothers of jazz fusion and Afrofuturism. But the person who really defines Betty Davis is Betty Davis herself—and that's what has made her so unforgettable for the last forty years.

She was born Betty Mabry in Durham in 1944, but many still don't know of her strong roots in the Triangle. It was here she sat listening to her grandmother's collection of blues records—B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and Elmore James—that inspired her deep love of blues and rock 'n' roll. It was in Durham, at twelve years old, that she wrote her first song, "I'm Going to Bake That Cake of Love," laying the foundation for her sex-forward future.

On Thursday, a piece of Betty will be back in Durham. Motorco hosts the Triangle premiere of the new documentary, They Say I'm Different: A Celebration of Funk Icon Betty Davis, followed by a performance from Davis's own original hand-picked backing band, Funk House, featuring Fred "Funki" Mills, Larry Johnson, Carlos Morales, Garry Percell, Nicky Neal, and vocalists Cedrina Shari' and Rachelle Neal.

The film and performance are a rare occasion to understand the now seventy-two-year-old Davis, who's been out of the music business since the early eighties. But director Phil Cox did his due diligence to catch up with the mysterious Davis, learning from her never-before-heard stories about her time as Jimi Hendrix's close friend, Miles Davis's wife, and as a funk pioneer in the seventies.

Davis's journey started when she relocated to New York City at sixteen, after a childhood spent in Durham and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her father worked in steel. In New York, she enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology, worked as a model, and also began hosting at a club called The Cellar. There, she rubbed shoulders with influential creative people of the day like Hendrix, Sly Stone, and eventually Miles Davis, who would become her husband.

It was Miles's gray suede shoes that first caught her eye, and the attraction was mutual. In September of 1968, the pair got married, marking a mutually creative but tumultuous time for the couple.

Meeting twenty-three-year-old Betty turned out to be one of the most important things for Miles Davis's career. With the days of cool jazz and Kind of Blue on the wane, forty-two-year-old Miles was losing his edge. It was Betty who helped him update his image and his sound—tossing his suits out for flowing fabrics and scarves, and introducing him to psychedelia of Hendrix and rhythmic power of James Brown. With her influence, Miles's uncanny, rock-jazz fusion album Bitches Brew came alive and went on to become one of the best-selling jazz albums in the world.

Miles had a profound impact on Betty too, who, despite making a substantial living from modeling, longed to be a musician. He encouraged her to sing and produced several of her sessions, namely a previously unreleased 1969 session unearthed and issued by Light in the Attic records in 2016 as Betty Davis: The Columbia Years. These sessions combined Hendrix's rhythm section of Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell with Miles's jazz comrades Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Larry Young, and is considered one of the lesser-known origin stories for jazz-rock fusion.

Miles's abuse drove Betty to leave him in 1969, but she quickly forged a path for herself with the newfound musical confidence and connections her marriage had nurtured. With her own impeccable ear for groove, she wrote and produced her own songs with her band, Funk House. She went on to release three albums with Funk House: 1973's explosive Betty Davis, 1974's fearless They Say I'm Different, and 1975's culmination of the two, Nasty Gal.

In her live performances too, Betty Davis was an earthquake of unbridled womanhood: doing the splits in her silver knee-high boots, her Afro high and wild, belting into the mic. She shrieked and gasped, "Talk trash to me, I'm yours, I'm over twenty-one," and, "You said I was an evil witch...you used to love my broom, honey," unabashedly fond of raunch. But then she'd turn around and croon sensitive ballads like, "You and I," highlighting her inimitable talent.

Too forward for its time, however, Nasty Gal struggled commercially. When she recorded a fourth album in 1976 called Is It Love or Desire, creative differences with her label kept it from being released. Afterward, Betty slid into reclusion, where she's been ever since.

In her wake, artists like Prince, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae have cited Davis as a major influence of modern music. Her music is being shuffled to the front of vinyl shelves, her style is being lauded in Vogue, and the in the modern zeitgeist of Trumpism-inspired "Nasty Women," her indomitable spirit is kept well in mind. As it goes, the affirmation of genius is a matter of timing, and Betty's time is finally here.

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