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Bold Betty Davis 

In a rare interview, '70s funk goddess Betty Davis talks about growing up in North Carolina

click to enlarge The cover shot from Betty Davis' 1974 album, They Say I'm Different
  • The cover shot from Betty Davis' 1974 album, They Say I'm Different

When Betty Davis was making blues-gone-heavy funk records in the mid-'70s, unaware club owners often thought she and her band of cousins were going to play jazz. Davis, after all, married Miles Davis in 1968. The marriage was short, but it was an intensely creative time for them both. But after Betty and Miles split, she hopped between New York, San Francisco and a modeling stint in London. She found her own artistic identity early on, even if it's only just now finding the proper audience.

In 1972, Davis put together a band with the help of Greg Errico, former drummer for Sly and The Family Stone and innovator of the hi-hat and bass drum technique prevalent on the group's hits like "Dance to the Music" and "Stand." He was in the middle of a recording session, but—after her then-boyfriend and then-Santana percussionist Michael Carabello introduced the two—she made him an offer.

"That very day she told me she had this record deal, and asked if I would produce it," Errico remembers. "She knew what she wanted: funk, down and dirty funk."

Choosing Errico was very calculated. He had connections, and he built a band that included some of funk's architects: bassist Larry Graham of Sly and The Family Stone, Tower of Power's horns, Merl Saunders on piano and The Pointer Sisters doing background vocals. Neal Schon (Santana/Journey) played guitar, with Errico on drums and disco star Sylvester adding some vocals. Davis' unflinching charisma put her in the driver's seat, a very rare place for a black female performer at the time.

"It was pretty far ahead of what was status quo during the day," says Errico.

Far enough ahead, actually, that the NAACP protested her "If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up" and religious groups complained her records were downright dangerous. She was an anomaly, compared mostly to men like George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic family. But while Clinton was climbing out of a UFO into his band's cosmic slop, Davis was strutting, unchained, delivering lyrics where the woman retained power, and using that strength of sexual prowess like a weapon. Those traits shape Davis' first two records—1973's self-titled record and 1974's They Say I'm Different. Both were reissued last year by Light in the Attic Records. After years of bootlegged copies, it was the first time Davis received any royalties for her records since their original release.

So what makes this music worth revisiting almost 35 years after it was recorded? A large portion of Davis' groundbreaking appeal and attitude—and the funk music that supported both—reflects her Carolina past. She learned how to be herself in Reidsville.

Before she became Mrs. Davis or embarked on a self-made career of four innovative records, Betty Davis was Betty Mabry—born in Durham on July 26, 1945, and raised on a Reidsville farm with her grandmother until age 9. She enjoyed the simple pleasures of rural life, like her mother's and grandmother's cooking.

click to enlarge Davis' performance high kick
  • Davis' performance high kick

"I like Southern food, like cornbread, fried chicken and greens," she says from her home in Pittsburgh. Davis rarely does interviews, but she was interested in speaking to someone from the place she used to call home.

Incorporated in 1873 around a knoll overlooking the Troublesome Creek, in the center of Rockingham County, Reidsville depended largely on tobacco crops and farming. Music was a big part of life on the Mabry farm: While she did chores like feeding chickens in grade school, Davis often listened to her grandmother's extensive blues and jazz collection. She remembers Lightnin' Hopkins and Muddy Waters the most.

"She had been listening to music since she was a teenager," Davis remembers of "grandma." She often told Davis of the trip she made to see Ike and Tina Turner, a powerful piece of oral history that made an impression. Years later, Davis' music would be compared to Tina's ferocity, though her work ironically presaged Turner's own solo rise.

Davis left for Pittsburgh when her father got a job at a steel mill. At age 16, she jumped to New York, where her aunt lived, to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. She ended up meeting Miles there in 1966 in a jazz club, but she initially didn't even know who he was. While living in L.A. for a bit with some girlfriends after an intense romance with Miles, she met Hugh Masekela. He recorded her performing two songs. When she returned to New York, Miles proposed, but their marriage would only last a year. She became a fiery muse to Miles, often credited with introducing him to the rock world of Sly and The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix, resulting in his new direction into fusion (and it's said she advised him to change the title of his historic record of the time from Witches' Brew to the saucier Bitches' Brew). She's the striking visage on Miles' album Filles De Kilimanjaro, and the couple recorded a handful of unreleased songs, including an old Creem song, "Politician."

Davis received her first songwriting credit in New York for "Uptown" when the song landed on a 1967 Chambers Brothers record. In one of the many unconfirmed tales of Davis' career, she also wrote songs for the Commodores, only to be stripped of credit to the point that she opted out of the project completely. Her perseverance landed Davis offers from several streams of the music world. She was so independently minded and singular in her vision that she had an uncanny ability to turn down projects that didn't appeal to her.

But during Davis' busiest years, she'd still come back to visit Reidsville. "I would just eat and listen to music at my grandma's house," she says, "and we would go out shopping." Davis, the internationally successful model, liked a large department store in Reidsville.

Similarly, she would eventually turn back to her North Carolina cousins to play in her band. Her cousins—including a drummer, Nicky Neal, and a bassist, Larry Johnson—would stop by during her hometown visits. She would eventually meet their friends, Fred "Funki" Mills and guitarist Carlos Morales, who were busy sharpening their chops in the Reidsville and Greensboro area.

click to enlarge Davis' high reach
  • Davis' high reach

"I know they listened to Sly," Davis says, when describing her bond with them. Neal called Mills in 1974 and said Davis needed a band. Neal, Johnson and Mills had been pals since childhood, exploring music as teens with the support of their families. "We grew up together in Reidsville. Nicky's dad had a little club called the Teenage Club, and bought equipment for us to use," says Mills, a Vietnam veteran who still plays actively with the Durham-based group Sweet Dreams and works with youth music-education programs in the area. "His dad went in on a bus for us, and we used it to get to gigs." They would go on to record Davis' third record, Nasty Gal. Released in 1975, the album included an arrangement by Miles Davis of "You and I," where she wrote and sang of their relationship.

Life on the road with Davis was different: Mills describes himself as a guy from a small town, and here he was meeting some of his heroes while traveling the world.

Some people saw Betty narrowly as Miles' ex-wife. She kept in touch with Miles, even though they'd been divorced for the better part of a decade: "He was a funny guy," says Mills, recalling Miles joking with him, giving him advice on how the band should play parts, or asking about where exactly she was at any given time. "He would call and be looking for her, 'Where is she, I know she's back there.' With relationships like that then, you were still in touch a lot."

Mills says the band's music was highly rehearsed and its presentation was immaculate. It was her obsession. All of their dance moves were prepared in advance: "She would never let me wear a shirt on stage," Mills told Oliver Wang in the reissue liner notes of Davis' second album, They Say I'm Different. "Before every gig, I'd have to go into the dressing room and she would put baby oil all over my body." The rest of the men in the band often remained shirtless. At initial shows, some of the crowd might get scared off, but those who got it wanted to be up front.

Davis went her own way in a male-dominated industry, exhibiting flair as a conceptual performer: From her trademark silver boots (which she credits to former boyfriend Eric Clapton) to her sheer negligees, Davis made statements. "They all go hand in hand, really," she says. "When you're an artist, you're a part of everything you do."

Davis' songs explored the nuances of not seeking the affections of a man (rumored to be Miles Davis) in "Anti Love Song," about defending sexual freedom and people of the streets in "Don't Call Her No Tramp." The title track from They Say I'm Different references "hogs, getting off, humping," and "He Was a Big Freak" explores reversing sexual dominance roles when Davis sings about controlling her suitor: "I used to beat him with my turquoise chain."

click to enlarge Davis back by her North Carolina-based band and her backup singers, "The Ladies"
  • Davis back by her North Carolina-based band and her backup singers, "The Ladies"

Both of those references stem from Davis' North Carolina past: "I remember slopping the hogs in the morning and they'd be gettin' off humpin' to John Lee Hooker," she says. She patiently repeats those loaded words, which had been garbled over the phone call from Pittsburgh. "They'd be gettin' off havin' sex ... the hogs." She just laughs. She also remembers getting a whipping with a sunflower once.

She was a proto-feminist in the music business, not willing to put up with sexual discrimination, but unafraid of her own sexuality. "Betty had this complex, that if anything went wrong, if she was a man, it wouldn't go that way...," says Mills. It seemed nothing could hold her back: gender, race, the sexual mores of the day. That is, until Davis flipped her powerful switch to its off position.

Dismay followed when Davis' seemingly unconquerable drive stopped in 1979. She had never been a large commercial success, and she disappeared from the scene after Island Records didn't pick up her fourth record, Crashin' from Passion, which she was recording with Neal, Johnson, Mills and Morales in a live-in studio in Bogalusa, La.

Davis says she quit the business simply because she couldn't get a record deal: "I just had my time, and figured my time was over, ya know?" Her mother and grandmother had died, so she moved back to Pittsburgh. She had partly grown up there, and her brother Henry was a postman in town. It was a welcoming home base for her.

Many companies contacted Errico over the years, looking for leads on Davis, offering documentary films and all kinds of deals. When he finally spoke with her, she "wanted none of it." That self-titled debut, he says, "always stayed like an underground cult thing, people always knew about it." Between crate diggers and the Internet, word spread. It was finally to be her time again. John Ballon, who has written extensively on Davis, found her in Pittsburgh, and convinced her to let Light in the Attic reissue the discs, which provided her overdue royalties.

click to enlarge Beautiful and strong
  • Beautiful and strong

"Good music finds its way," Errico says.

While Davis maintained a private life, her bandmates from North Carolina continued and succeeded: Morales played on Julian Lennon's solo album. Mills played in Chops, who became the horn section for The Police, and he played on The Rolling Stones' Undercover.

As Mills recounts the wide-eyed wonder he experienced as a Reidsville native suddenly surrounded by stars like Sly or the Stones, he speaks to how Davis' life down South crept into her work. Davis, like her cousins, was a real person from a real small Southern town. The reasons "they" said she was different has everything to do with her Southern upbringing: "Because I eat chitlins, but I can't help it I was born and raised on 'em," she sang. Her great-grandma didn't like the foxtrot. She liked jazz and blues. She liked moonshine, strong and pure. The funk and frankness in Davis' music grew from tough roots. Davis was "different" to the cosmopolitan crowd surrounding her in the fashion and rock music industries. She grew up in the North Carolina countryside listening to strong blues music and surrounded by stronger women.

Her talk about love and sex—using both the blues' innuendo and direct sexual come-ons—loosened the moral strictures for female performers. Mills notes she predated Labelle or Prince associate Apollonia; Prince himself must've listened and seen her unfettered energy. Unquestionably, her music found its way into pop culture, and several artists have rapped over her tunes. Ice Cube has said she was "a G for real," and De La Soul's Prince Paul has called her music "pure uncut funk." Maybe Carlos Santana's oft-quoted, but apt, line about Davis puts her in the proper pop-star category she deserves: "She was the first Madonna," Santana has said, "But Madonna is more like Marie Osmond when compared to Betty Davis."

Betty Davis should have always been a funk super-heroine. Maybe now she can see the credit due her legacy.

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