Too wild for husband Miles Davis*, too rock for black radio in 1973, too intelligent to carry on working as a model, too funky for white radio in 1973, too raunchy for 1973 full stop. Betty Davis really was a woman out of time. Her debut LP Betty Davis is a hell of an LP, it hits with all the subtlety and finesse of a fairground-booth pugilist. I mean check out the front cover and there she is in your face sporting cut-offs, silver thigh-length space boots (Gene Simmons was clearly watching) and the mother of all ‘fros; Betty Davis ain’t messing.
The pedigree of the band is pretty out there too, various members of Sly & The Family Stone, The Pointer Sisters on backing vocals (backing vocals!), various members of Santana’s band – including a pre-Journey Neal Schon – it really is just stellar. But this is definitely no vanity LP, no well-connected dilettante with a good address book, this is for real, just listen to Betty Davis growl, spit and purr her way through this LP – she needed to make Betty Davis.
Opening cut ‘If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked’ is just astonishing, it really is – it astonished me tonight and I knew what was coming! Larry Graham’s bass, Doug Rodrigues’ guitar and Hershell Kennedy’s organ, particularly that organ, just lay down a filthy groove and then Betty Davis’ voice just hits you; Christ she’s feral!
I said if I’m in luck I just might get picked up
I said I’m fishin’ trick and you can call it what you want then
I said I’m wigglin’ my fanny (Ha ha, Oh Man, Get down)
I’m raunchy dancing I’m a doin’ it doin’ it (Get down)
This is my night out
So all you lady haters don’t be cruel to me
Don’t you crush my velvet don’t you ruffle my feathers neither
I said I’m crazy I’m Wild
I said I’m nasty
Say you will for a little while
Say you will
Say you will
Just listen to the way she sings the word ‘wild’… wow, there’s a whole world of pleasure and pain in that one word right there. Despite the title of the song this is no passive ode to male fantasy, this is a woman heading for you full-on like a truck, all headlights blazing. Like I said, wow.
And I think that was her downfall really, the thing that put the brakes on her career (I’ve not heard them but her other two 70’s LPs are supposed to be every bit as good). The music industry is a very inclusive one, somehow it can find it in its’ heart not to discriminate and will always welcome beautiful, raunchy women dressed in semi-fetish gear**, but even today (with rare exceptions) only as an adjunct to male fantasies. Check out Rhianna, Beyonce, Aguilera etc etc for all their talk of empowerment and ease with their own sexuality they know their markets too well and even if they are selling to other women, there’s precious little rocking the boat going on. There’s none of that in Betty Davis, she’s out for her own kicks and if she has to burn your conventions and/or your happy home down to the ground (‘Your Man is my Man’) to get them, then so be it. Whether you see it as a world not willing to accept that kind of free-spirited female sexuality for reasons of patriarchal conspiracy, or just the prevailing social mores of 1973, doesn’t ultimately matter – it did for her. Check out the lyrics to ‘Anti Love Song’,
Cause I know you like to be in charge
well with me, you know you couldn’t control me dontcha?
Cause you know I’d make you drop your guard
I’d have eaten your ego
I’d make you pocket your pride
just as hard as I’d be loving you
you know you’d be loving me harder
Check out the cover again, there’s no sultry sex-kitten posing, pouting and preening going on there, she’s having far too much fun dressing up, real belly laughs; I get a very real sense that she knows just how ridiculous the whole thing is and that just puts the icing on the cake for me.
I won’t do the whole song-by-song thang here, but just check out the titles: Anti Love Song, Your Man My Man, Game is my Middle Name^. You don’t need to know a lot more about their contents than that, an exception is ‘Steppin in Her I.Miller Shoes’ which tells the tale of a girl coming to grief in the entertainment industry, written about Devon Wilson the subject of the Hendrix track ‘Angel’. The playing and singing is as uniformly excellent as you have the right to expect with this line up; Neal Schon’s achingly funky guitar on ‘Walkin Up The Road’ being one highlight for me.
The only criticism I’d make is that Betty Davis could do with a second gear, there’s not a bad track here at all but it is all a bit one-paced and my funk glands tend to sieze up halfway through the second side. I’m nitpicking though, this is an utterly excellent LP and there should be one in every home, minimum.
P.S – I would like to point out that I spared you my Betty Davis’ thighs, Kim Carnes-related pun. Just so you know.
*far be it for 1537 to repeat the (denied) tittle-tattle that Betty Davis had an affair with Hendrix, but she definitely introduced him, and Sly Stone, to Miles Davis and in so doing set the seeds for Bitches Brew and allegedly persuaded Miles not to call it Witches Brew.
**thank God there’s somewhere for all those poor under-appreciated sex goddesses to hang out.
^ironically I have in fact now changed my middle name from Adam to ‘Game is my middle name’ to appear far cooler and hipper than I really am – it looks great on my driving license.