Let’s talk about Betty Davis.
No, not Bette Davis, the actress, aka the subject of Kim Carnes’ hit song.
I’m talking about Betty Davis, the mother of funk. Originally, she started out modeling in New York, where she met Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, foreshadowing to her future career in music. As gorgeous and buxom as she was, modeling did not entertain her. She eventually married world famous jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who dedicated an album after her (Witches Brew).
When she released her self-titled album in 1973, she took the world by storm. Heavy, sensual bass lines, guttoral singing, and overtly sexual lyrics – all of these are the antithesis of ladylike, especially in the 1970s. Now throw in the racial tension of the 1970s and you have a recipe for a commercial flop.
Yet, even with racism and sexism working against her, Davis managed to release one of the most prolific albums that paved the way for an entire genre of music. She paved the way for female musicians navigating a boy’s club genre. She paved the way for black women to express their sexuality through music, in a way that was authentic, and not a performative fantasy of record company executives.
Still, to this day, Davis proves to be a controversial figure of the 1970s. While some argue she’s a prolific figure, others say she was over-hyped – that her image did not match her voice. I’d agree, Davis was no Diana Ross, no Donna Summer, no Aretha Franklin. In fact, Davis used her voice in a way that was almost non-melodic. She was moreso growling than singing. But it is the passion and conviction in her voice, the way she sings about her sexual wants and desires in a bold, unabashed way that makes me overlook the aesthetics of her voice. While other female singers tend to take the coy approach, Davis tapped into the animalistic nature of sex and desire. She knew what she wanted and she made sure everyone in the room knew too.
Today, I leave you with Nasty Gal, which inspired Sophia Amoruso’s clothing line of the same name. Give it a listen. Whether you love her or hate her, it’s impossible to forget her.
Listen to the entire album Nasty Gal on: