The career of legendary trumpeter Miles Davis could have gone in a very different direction in the late 1960s. Like other jazz musicians, he could have stuck to his old ways and become a “trad” nostalgia act. Instead, he started incorporating elements of psychedelic rock and funk into his music, resulting in such classic albums as Bitches Brew. A big reason for this was his turbulent but productive relationship with North Carolina-born singer Betty Mabry, who introduced him to such then-new musicians as Jimi Hendrix and Sly And The Family Stone. Davis’ marriage to Mabry only lasted a year, but that was enough to change his music permanently.
Under the name Betty Davis, Mabry recorded her own series of pioneering, sexually charged funk albums in the 1970s. Those albums never received the full support of the press or the public when they were new, but Mabry’s discography is ripe for rediscovery. On the eve of the singer’s 71st birthday, MTV has posted a highly intriguing article by Molly Lambert entitled “Betty Davis: A Cult Genius Revealed, Once Again.”
The piece is timed to coincide with the release of The Columbia Years 1968-1969, an archival compilation from Light In The Attic containing recordings from the sessions Davis and Mabry made during their eventful time together. “We hear how two titanic musical and artistic forces intersect,” Lambert writes, “and how it affected the work that came in the wake of their union.” Speaking of which, the singer had an impact that reached even beyond her collaborations with the volatile trumpeter. Lambert really builds a case for her entire discography and makes the reader want to check out those classic LPs from the Nixon/Ford/Carter years.
The pre-Madonna world was apparently not ready for a female singer this sexually explicit at the time, so albums like Nasty Gal became mere footnotes in music history. “Betty was lacerated for practicing the same type of sexually progressive stagecraft that made Mick Jagger a millionaire,” Lambert observes. But the good news is that those albums are still around, and they sound as great as ever today. As for a place to start, there’s the title track from They Say I’m Different, described by Lambert as “the perfect swamp-rock song John Fogerty has been trying to write his whole career.” Check it out.