The view of history paced by geniuses and great, reality-shaping individuals is often very cruel to the supporting cast, especially when they are women. Consider Betty Davis, who is best known in many circles as merely Miles Davis'second wife. For nearly thirty years her relative obscurity has belied the very tangible influence she had on the ever-evolving sounds of '70s funk, jazz and rock.
Of course, it's easy to get hung up on the Davis part of that name. Betty's first encounter with Miles in the later '60s is still shrouded in mystery. The sexy version of the story (recounted in Wax Poetics) casts her in a “sheer custom-made mini-dress,” stomping up to Davis'door, uninvited, handing him her card and assuring him that she'd be back once he disposed of his then-current girl of the minute. She herself claims it was merely a shared drink after one of his shows at the Village Gate. Whatever the particulars, a quicksilver courtship ensued and the two were married in 1968. Her face graced the cover of Miles'Filles De Kilimanjaro, released that year.
But Betty's influence was far greater than anyone knew. It was almost as though Miles was Betty's muse, and not the other way around. Miles may have been as rough-and-tumble a jazzman as ever skulked the Earth, but in Betty's freer circles the style of jazz still seemed square. While they were together she introduced him to what was going on across the way — the liberated soul of a Jimi Hendrix solo or the freaky rainbow coalition of Sly and the Family Stone. Miles started matching Betty's hip dress; in the studio, he started noodling around with electric rock motifs on a project called Witches Brew — she suggested the name-change Bitches Brew.
By 1969 the marriage was in shambles. There were rumors of an affair with Hendrix; there remains chatter about jealousy and abuse. Perhaps this is what necessarily happens when two effervescent souls meet, and neither relents. She returned to making music, penning songs for the Chambers Brothers and the Commodores. Briefly decamping to England, Davis befriended Marc Bolan, who encouraged her to record her own songs. She returned to the Bay Area and assembled a band consisting of past and future members of Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, Journey, Tower of Power and the Pointer Sisters.
The result was Betty Davis, released in 1973 on the modest Just Sunshine label. A trio of Bettys strapped in silver, thigh-high moon boots adorns the cover. A savage riff powered “If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” a raspy, raunchy mission statement of sorts. Slinking along with Larry Graham's bass-line, Davis sounded like nothing else around — it was erotic without seeming trashy, skillfully executed but flippant toward the proper life. The wobbling barroom funk of “Anti Love Song” would become one of Davis'signature tunes, a confident blast from a woman never scorned. Any doubters could be referred to “Game Is My Middle Name” and Betty's screechy dare, “Whatever you want to play, I said I'll play it with you.”
Listening to her albums today it is clear why so many people wanted to stand alongside Betty Davis. There is something infinitely thrilling about a person so uncompromising — we hope we can learn how one becomes that strong ourselves. In her music one hears an entire tradition of the outlaw who stands for something — it threads through her super fans Rick James and Ice Cube, modern-day icons like ?uestlove and the Roots, Erykah and Kelis, or anyone who has ever been inspired by the idea that jazz, rock and funk could coexist. It's odd and sad to think that her original sin was merely one of being different.