Unless you're a fan of the deep, hardcore funk, you've likely never heard of a woman named Betty Mabry Davis. Which is a shame because Davis not only was the inspiration behind Miles Davis' 70s jazz-fusion sound, but she was a creative force in her own right and broke ground in music for women to be independent creatives, to be in charge of their sexuality, and to just be in charge of their badassery.
When I first heard of Betty, I was still an undergrad student at Georgia State University and I was rocking out in my parents' kitchen to Joi's "If I'm In Luck I Might Just Get Picked Up" from her amazing Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome album. At the time I thought the hard-rocking, saucy, guitar-fueled sex anthem came directly from the modern funk queen that is Joi herself. But my father, who was cooking up a saucy dish of his own, stopped me mid-song and informed me, to my surprise, that Joi was just the soul daughter of the original queen of funk. "Hey! She copied Betty Davis!" he said. I turned around to him and said "who is that?!" My dad repeated that name that sounded so old and foreign to me and after seeing the look of confusion still on my face, he proceeded to walk me to the hallway closet where he kept his immaculate collection of old records and pulled out Betty's eponymous debut album.
Listening to her for the first time, I found myself bombarded with a furious feminine roar that I just wasn't used to. Less so of a singer, and more so a creative entity, Betty growled, roared, screeched and seductively sing-talked on the record over 70s funk rhythms and riffs that this late 80s baby just wasn't used to. Betty's voice went against everything I was taught by the media, the radio, and my years of being an R&B fan about what black women should sound like on wax. She seemed like a wild woman whose songs defied the constructs and dams of R&B and Soul and flooded themselves with Rock, Funk and the edgiest of the Blues. In short, Betty was....different. And I didn't think I was ready for that kind of strange flavor in my ear.
As the days went on though, I found myself seeking out this strange sound from Betty more and more. It got to the point where I was pulling out that old record every day and playing in my parents' living room and my father watched on as he'd converted his youngest son into a fan of one of his musical favs. From that point on, I went on a ferocious search to find out everything I could about Betty and to hear every piece of music of hers that I could get my hands on. I was hooked and I wanted more and I wanted the world around me to know of her too.
What I ended up discovering was that Betty was a small town girl who grew up to become an it-girl and club host in NYC who parlayed her connections into a job as a songwriter in the music world, her first major credit being "Uptown (To Harlem)" for the Chambers Brothers. Betty also became a successful model, posing for the likes of Ebony and Cosmopolitan, and walking the runway for the likes of Halston. After giving up her strut on the runway, Betty befriended the likes of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, and she also ended up meeting and marrying Jazz icon Miles Davis. Betty's relationship with Miles was transformative for the icon, whose sound completely changed after meeting. However, the marriage was lasted only a year, thanks to Miles' violent temper, and Betty struck out on her own to follow her musical dreams.
Betty went on to write and co-produce/produce, something unheard of for women back then, three albums in the early 70s: Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different, and Nasty Gal. Betty quickly became an underground hit and toured the world to packed venues. Her staged shows even gained comparisons to the top male rock stars of the 70s and it seemed like Betty was finally living the life she dreamt of.
However, things all that glitters isn't gold and Betty's career had its own sufferings. For one, her provocative lyrics and empowered sexual image left her banned from some clubs and radio stations and she even received bomb threats from angry critics. Also, her albums weren't commercial successes and when she sent in a fourth album, Is it Love Or Desire, to her label at the time, they decided to shelve the project (it wouldn't see the light of day till 2009) and pushing for her to soften her image and relinquish control of her writing and production to paid writers and producers.
After failed studio sessions, Betty quietly walked away from the industry and fans have heard little to nothing from her over the past 30 years.
But now Betty is finally ready to talk and tell her story. And thanks to filmmakers Phil Cox and Damon Smith, Betty's story can finally be seen by the masses as they're currently working on the first-ever biopic on the reclusive singer-songwriter, Nasty Gal: The Many Lives of Funk Singer Betty Davis. Betty has even decided to share her story rights with the film's production company, Native Voice Films, and will appear on camera for the first time in decades as a part of the project.
“Although I’ve been silent for a long time,” said Davis in a press release for the film, “I feel it’s important to help shape my legacy while I’m alive by returning my story and music to people who will value it and learn from it. I am excited to be a part of this project and hope it finds the support it needs.”
The filmmakers also reveal that the film will use an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction to tell Betty's story.
"Although substantially based on vital present-day testimonies from Betty's closest confidantes, we will tell this story using never-before-seen archive, interviews, and fact-based, cinematic reconstructions performed by a high-profile actress/music personality and scripted with Betty’s own words. Within the film there will be moments of a large-scale, professionally produced Betty Davis tribute concert in her hometown of Pittsburgh, performed by members of her ’70s bands, legendary contemporary artists, and many of the interviewees in the film. This benefit concert, whose proceeds will go to help Betty herself, we hope will be the first time that Betty shows herself to the public again," reads the film's indiegogo page.
“We are honoured to be collaborating with Betty on her life story,” said directors Phil Cox and Damon Smith. “She is a larger-than-life global icon whose influence on music and fashion is indelible, from Prince to Erykah Badu, and her celebration onscreen is long overdue. We intend to make this film in the same unapologetically independent spirit in which Betty conducted her professional life, long before it was hip for a woman to be completely in charge.”
However, production on the film and concert aren't done yet and the filmmakers need help from fans to see the project all the way through. Nasty Gal is seeking to raise $65,000 on Indiegogo by November 10 to cover archive and music licensing and support principal photography for the feature-length film when it goes into production later this fall.
Please help this film to see the light of day and contribute to its indiegogo page. Also visit the film's Facebook page, which like the indiegogo page, features several photos, videos and factoids about Betty.
Freelance Journalist, storyteller and blogger for 50 Shades of BLACK