By late 1974, Betty Mabry Davis had two albums and countless shows under her belt. Her raunchy songs and outrageous live act had made her a critically acclaimed and controversial figure, but the big time remained elusive. Her ambitions had quickly outgrown her small but influential cult following. “I’ve had enough plaudits from within the business,”1 she told one music critic. “Now I want to reach out and get through to the people.” If she was in luck, she’d get picked up by one of the big labels, whose backing could make her the star she always knew she was. There was interest. A new deal seemed imminent. 1975 promised to be the year of Betty.
They say luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. And as far as preparation goes, Betty’s shot at fame was hard earned. Her two albums for Just Sunshine records, Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974), focused a lot of attention on her, but it was near constant touring that evolved her sound and perfected her bad girl image, paving the way for Nasty Gal. More than anything else, the road made her what she was. And so did her band.
Not content relying on musicians for hire, Betty knew she needed a band of her own to get closer to the sound she was after. In early 1974, Betty rounded up a crew of players whose abilities she knew and respected, and Funkhouse was born. It was as tight as family because, at its heart, it was family—drummer Nicky Neal and bassist Larry Johnson were first cousins from down home in North Carolina. Through her cousins she found the rest of her band, Fred Mills on keyboards and Carlos Morales on guitar. Childhood friends, Neal, Johnson and Mills had grown up playing in bands together. Neal’s dad helped give them their start, buying their first instruments, chipping in for a bus to carry their gear, and letting them sharpen their chops at the club he owned. By the time they hit the road with Betty, they had years of experience making the funkiest of music together on the Reidsville and Greensboro R&B scene.
Freedom, especially sexual freedom, was central to Betty’s musical identity. The critics took note. “She strides, struts and prances onstage, combining the earthiness of soul with the boldness of punk rock and the decadence of glitter, and the effect is mind blowing,” proclaimed Black Music in 1974. The New York Times agreed: “It is not customary to have a woman perform her own music so aggressively, outdoing the likes of Mick Jagger and Sly Stone at their own game.” For all her onstage abandon, Betty knew the risks in breaking the rules. “Women are supposed to scream for Mick Jagger and try to pull off a man’s clothes on the stage,”14 she told Gibbs in Penthouse. “But men are supposed to be in control on all levels. A lot of them might really want to jump up and pull off my clothes, but they know they aren’t supposed to. It makes ‘em feel weird and uptight.”
Having paid her dues on and off the road, her big break was finally just around the corner. In 1974, Blue Thumb, the distributor of her record label Just Sunshine, was acquired by ABC/Paramount. Her contract was up for grabs. Through the help of her then-lover Robert “Addicted To Love” Palmer, she landed a deal with Island. “I had a lot of offers,” Betty said at the time, “but I decided to go with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. They’d been the first to really get into reggae, the first to push blue-eyed soul in a big way with Traffic and the like. So, since I wanted to be a first as well, I decided to go with them.” Record exec Michael Lang, whose Just Sunshine label had signed Betty and released her first two albums, remembers letting her go: “She was beautiful and had amazingly long legs and a real arrogant, very independent flair. And she was doing music she believed in and didn’t care if nobody else was doing at the time. When Chris Blackwell at Island approached us to buy out Betty’s contract, we were open to it. We thought, here’s a shot for her to really be presented in the right way. Because Chris had a much bigger machine and had done this thing before, introducing the public to something new, with Bob Marley and reggae.”
Once at Island, Betty noticed a difference immediately. “The company was bigger and it was more structured…more organized,” she told Oliver Wang. “It was good.” Expectations and enthusiasm were running high on both sides. Vivien Goldman, who handled Betty’s PR at Island, remembers “...there was much excitement about the audacious, charming Miss Davis.” Island had big plans for her. Studio time was quickly booked to begin recording a new album. By May of 1975, Betty and her band were hard at work on Nasty Gal.
While the album’s production, writing and singing were almost exclusively credited to Betty, its success as an expression of her musical vision was due in no small part to the tightness she forged with her band on the road. As one reviewer noted at the time, “the mutual admiration that exists between singer and band is made entirely clear by what’s in the grooves.” Fred Mills told Black Music in 1976, “We’re into her style and we get freedom in the studio and on the stage.” Betty channeled that freedom. “I could go into a long spiritual rap about how I prepare to write and stuff,” Betty told one critic. “But really it just comes out. I put my insides into stuff I sing.” She told another critic: “The music itself, the recording and performing, is just something I can do. I don’t think about it, really.” It was all about feeling. Graham Central Station frontman and ex-Sly & The Family Stone bassist Larry Graham remembers how freely Betty would orchestrate things in the studio: “She didn’t play, but her mind, her body, her spirit would become an instrument that she used to get across to us what she was feeling, how she was flowing, and we’d catch that and roll with that and then we’d tell from her reaction if we were on the right track or not. If something hit her and she was feeling it, you would immediately see it. So our job was to try to move her. We were feeding off each other in that sense.”
Song for song, Nasty Gal is one of the most extreme funk-rock albums of the era. It takes equal parts inspiration from Hendrix and Sly. Heavy funk rhythms roll behind dominant lead guitar and Betty’s devastating vocals. She gives it up, alternating between sexy breathiness, moans, and full-throated screams. Here is a woman capable of projecting sex in a single scream, reveling out loud in the power of her beauty and sexuality.
Despite positive press, high hopes and big label backing, Nasty Gal was not a commercial success. Some thought Betty’s image was eclipsing her talent and stifling her artistic development. A reviewer in After Dark argued that, “the Davis spectacle is intriguing but does upstage the music. Somehow Betty has got to make her songs shake with the same maddening intensity as her pelvis.” Her record label grew concerned. As Goldman writes, “…her songs began to be obsessed with stating and reasserting her position. It was as if she had succumbed to and adopted tabloid values, agreeing that by virtue of being exuberant, sexual and confrontational, she was not just lusty, but ‘shocking,’ ‘outrageous’; and that her success depended on it.” “She could be difficult,” remembers Just Sunshine’s Michael Lang. “She definitely had her own ideas about the business and who she was and how she wanted to be dealt with. And she was very, very strong about her musical ideas.”
In the face of growing pressure from Island, Betty steadfastly refused to compromise. “I’m not planning to do anything about ‘cleaning’ my music up,” she told Black Music. “If you do something that’s purely creative, that’s coming from your insides, people may accept it and they may not. What I’m doing is really me and it’s honest. If I wanted to be commercial and get a Top 40 hit, I could. But I think there are enough commercial people out there already. I want to do something different and being creative is a big challenge whereas being commercial isn’t.” Too hard for black radio and too black for white, Betty’s music was apparently too original for its own good. Betty could care less, or so she claimed. “I’m very underground,” she told Andy Warhol’s Interview in 1975. “People who are into my music are not Middle America types.” But it wasn’t just mainstream white audiences that weren’t getting it. “Black people have always been very appropriate,” explains Ronald “Stozo” “Edwards. “What Betty did was too scary for most, and a lot of black folks wouldn’t come to the shows.” Betty agreed: “Too many people only recognize your talent after you’re dead when it don’t do you any real good. I knew Jimi Hendrix and it’s a shame that young blacks didn’t get into him until after he died, but that’s the kind of thing that happens a lot when you’re ahead of your time.”
Betty was an unclassifiable artist in an industry calibrated on sure things. Something had to change. Ultimately the executives at Island trusted their business instincts more than Betty’s creative vision. A power struggle ensued. It ended in a showdown between Betty and the music mogul. “The truth of it is that Chris Blackwell wanted to produce me,”46 she remembers. “I told him no.” Betty raged in High Society: “I fight for what’s honest. Take Island Records, who I’m not with any more. They wanted to cover up my legs and my hair. They said that on the next album I do, no legs…The music business is the sleaziest business in the world. They’ll look at you and tell you you’re great and (then) they’ll do something to try and stop you…Record companies will kill you.”
The split with Island marked the beginning of the end for Betty’s career. Her disillusionment came through in her February 1976 interview with Gallery: “Everybody’s fucked up emotionally—me and all the men I know…I don’t want to be hassled, can’t deal with stupid shit anymore because it will drive you crazy.” She sounded down but not out in an April 1976 interview in Jet, where she insisted, “My career is getting everything I have to give.”49 Yet six months later she had changed her tune, hinting strongly at retirement in High Society: “I can’t be shaking my ass for the rest of my life. I don’t want to die up there of a heart attack.” She despaired in Essence: “The business I’m in killed one of my friends (Jimi Hendrix). I saw what performing did to Miles…Those who don’t die physically, die emotionally. It’s hard to keep it together personally; you have to give yourself to the public in pieces and by the time you get through giving the pieces away, you don’t know who you are.”
In 1974, years before Betty’s career died, New York Times music critic Les Ledbeiter wrote the epitaph: “Her recognition by most of the pop world will be a long time coming. For, like Bessie Smith and all those other dirty-blues singers of 40 years ago, Miss Davis is trying to tell us something real and basic about our irrational needs; and Western civilization puts its highest premiums on conformity and rationality and rarely recognizes the Bessies or the Bettys until they’re gone.” By the early ‘80s Betty had vanished without a trace, retreating back to her family in Pennsylvania, shrouding herself in quiet oblivion. Today, Betty’s presence in the music world is limited to these few album reissues and to those who followed in her footsteps: Prince, Madonna and countless others. More than anything else, the rediscovery of her music has brought satisfaction back into her life: “It feels nice. You always want to get your recognition that’s due to you.”
Way ahead of her time, Betty Mabry Davis came and went with a thunderous roar; she was a musical extremist who paid the price for demanding too much from her audience.