Betty Davis is a pop historian’s wet dream, and not just because of her lyrics’ raunchiness. Record collectors have long whispered her name with reverence, and why not? Her back story is irresistible. She’s been romantically linked to Jimi Hendrix, and her surname comes from a brief late-’60s marriage to Miles Davis. (She was born Betty Mabry, and Miles wrote “Mademoiselle Mabry,” from 1968’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, in her honor.) In Miles: The Autobiography, the trumpeter acknowledged Betty’s impact on his late-’60s wardrobe switch from pressed Italian suits to funkier gear, and he credits her with urging him to listen closely to Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown, auguring his shift to harder rhythms on albums like 1971’s Jack Johnson and 1972’s On the Corner.
Betty herself released three hard-edged rock-funk albums in the mid-’70s. Her self-titled 1973 debut featured backing by members of Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power, and the Pointer Sisters. Miles famously described her early records as precursors to the kind of frankly sexual pop that Madonna and Prince would spend the ‘80s riding to the bank. Recently, Seattle’s Light in the Attic Records put out impressively packaged remasters of Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different, which have garnered praise as overheated as Davis’ red-hot-mama persona.
For a long time, Davis’ music was obscure, though not difficult to find if you dug a little, thanks to a proliferation of bootlegs and compilations. Among them was 2005’s This Is It! on the Spanish label Vampisoul, which features the bulk of her three ‘70s albums. Two years ago, eager to hear the woman I’d read so many impressive things about, I snapped up a copy, put it on as soon as I got home, and discovered the biggest Betty Davis secret of all: Her music is a lot more fun to read about than listen to.
The main problem is Davis’ voice. She was, point blank, an awful singer: forced, pinched, tuneless, and—importantly for an artist so dependent upon persona— not especially convincing. She consistently over-gesticulated, zoomed around her minute range freely but with little real control, and growled and roared with a wearying constancy, even when she toned down the volume, as on the debut’s ” Anti Love Song.” Davis is often discussed as the predecessor to such latter-day tigresses as Lil’ Kim and Kelis, but as a vocalist the inheritor she most vividly foreshadows is Adam Sandler doing his Crazy One-Armed Man routine: “Now give me some caaannndy!”
Clearly, Davis’ wildcat vocal routine is part and parcel with her bad-girl persona. But all the hacking and swooping gets in the way of the dirty good stuff. “He Was a Big Freak,” from They Say I’m Different, is easily her most-written-about song—allegedly about Hendrix, though Davis has insisted otherwise. The opening lines, ” He was a big freak/ I used to beat him with a turquoise chain,” are so great that you might think they could carry the song all by themselves. (Judging from recent write-ups, it’s carried her entire output.) Too bad, though, about the song’s irritating little Morse-code guitar hook, and that Davis sings the title like she’s hocking a loogie at an umpire.
The vocals might matter less if the music were consistently inspired. But few of Davis’ grooves really stick. Partly you can blame the singer: Davis often ignored the beat entirely. It’s hardly a coincidence that her best songs are the ones where she locked in with the band, like the debut’s sharp hard-rock strut, ” Steppin’ in Her I. Miller Shoes,” and They Say I’m Different’s spirited, self-explanatory ” Don’t Call Her No Tramp.” But the albums themselves are largely mediocre. Sure, the bands play well, especially on the debut, which featured Sly & the Family Stone’s original rhythm section of drummer Greg Errico (who also produced) and bassist Larry Graham. (One of the album’s guitarists is also Neal Schon, who later founded the peerlessly God-awful Journey—can’t win ‘em all.) But when the songs themselves lack definition—when they wander like the mawkish acid-rock verses of “Git in There,” or just sound half-finished, like “Ooh Yeah”—you don’t blame the rhythm section.
Betty Davis forged an original combination of pluck and dirty-mindedness, and she knew how to turn a phrase. (A title from the second album: “Shoop-B-Doop and Cop Him.”) She took charge of her career and had a sharp visual sense (see the eye-popping Afro-glam get-ups on her album covers). And she certainly took chances with the blunt sexuality of her songwriting. But claims that her albums belong in the first rank of the funk pantheon are deluded. Such claims aren’t unprecedented, of course. Think of the mid-’90s vogue for exotica, fueled by CD reissues of forgotten kitsch by Esquivel and Les Baxter, or of R&B/rock guitarist Shuggie Otis, who in 1974 made a wan little album called Inspiration Information that was hailed as a lost masterwork by dint of a 2001 reissue on David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop. That Esquivel, Otis, and Davis became their seasons’ misguided icons of lost virtue isn’t something we should hold against them. Their tepid music, though, is something else.