She wailed electric: on Betty Davis

Michael A Gonzales looks back at the life and work of the uncategorisable songwriter, performer and producer

Betty Davis has long been a legend, that “voodoo chile” that her friend Jimi Hendrix sang about, even when very few folks knew her name. Riding a multicoloured wave of blaring guitars, booming bass and heavy drums, the singer-songwriter made Black magic music that straddled genres (rock, funk, soul and blues) while also contributing a beyond compare voice to the soundscape. On wild-styled songs “If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up”, “Nasty Gal” and “He Was a Big Freak”, she wailed, screamed, screeched and roared provocative lyrics that detailed one-night stands, sexual liberation and S&M loving men who didn’t mind being beaten with a turquoise chain. Though there were a few other rocking Black women on the scene during Betty Davis’s brief run as an album making artist from 1973–75 – namely LaBelle and Chaka Khan – Davis was rawer, raunchier and rhythmically on a different level.

“In Betty’s music, you can hear the passion and artistry as well as the complexity and discipline,” singer-songwriter Joi Gilliam told me in a 2015 interview for an online feature on Davis. In 1996, Gilliam covered “If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” on her brilliant, but unreleased Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome. “Most of all there is also a sense of freedom. Prior to hearing her, the only people I felt kindred to in that way was Minnie Riperton, LaBelle and Sade, but Betty Davis was the missing link. Listening to her voice, I felt as though I’d been adopted, but now I had found my natural soul mama.”

It wasn't until over a decade later, in 2007, that reissue champs Light In The Attic made Davis’s small catalogue available to the public, renewing interest in her personal brand of Black music that still sounds as cutting edge as it did damn near 50 years ago.

The 77 years old former performer Betty Davis died on 9 February in Homestead, Pennsylvania. Though she hadn’t recorded or performed since falling out with the industry at the end of the 1970s, when she retreated from the public eye and returned to Pennsylvania, she still had a cult following that continued to grow steadily. In 2017 the documentary Betty – They Say I’m Different, named after her second disc, was released to critical acclaim. That same year, her chapter in the HBO musical animated series Tales From The Tour Bus aired, and featured friends, collaborators and soul scholars Nelson George, Greg Tate and Vernon Gibbs riffing about her history and legacy.

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Betty Davis