Get Ready For Betty Davis – the Original Queen of Funk
A new biopic has been made on the life and music of this 1970s Funk icon, and The Mook can’t wait for it’s Liverpool showing on Monday.
To your true Funk fan, the name ‘Betty Davis‘ is an evocative one.
It conjures up strong flavours of a singular moment in time – of a transitional point in culture as the 1960s flowed into the 1970s, as boundaries were blurred and musical forms melted into one another, and as the optimistic, opiatic psychedelia of the hippie movement morphed into something darker but perhaps more honest, more sinuous and primal.
Hers is a name that evokes images of irrepressible black, feminine power – of a woman who, long before Janelle, before Chaka, before Millie Jackson – was the original Queen of Funk. Betty Davis is an icon of goddess energy and sexual liberation, and this sensibility (indeed, sensuality) infuses her music, which can only be described as Funk at its rawest and horniest.
Although her discography has not always been highly rated by the critics, some have found her music “limited” and lacking in the subtlety of other more “refined” musicians. But those In-The-Know will tell you that Funk is what Funk does; and that, above all else, Funk is defined by its attitude, at least if George Clinton is to be believed (and he would know). And it is Betty‘s take-no-prisoners attitude that marks her out for special mention in the annals of Funk music.
Simply put, she is magnificent.
Married for just a single year to tumultuous (and self-confessedly abusive) jazz legend Miles Davis, Betty left a lasting imprint on music.
Miles‘ own style changed dramatically after Betty introduced him to Funk and other forms of popular music that were emerging from Black America’s creative melting pot. She certainly blew even his fiercely unconventional mind with the sheer force of her personality and her uninhibited sexuality. She was also rumoured to have had of an affair with Jimi Hendrix, at least according to a jealous Miles, although she has always denied any such hook-up.
Regardless of the truth of things, she certainly introduced the two musical greats to one another, who talked of collaborating on an album; and many music fans have long dreamt of with quickened pulses and fluttering eyelids of what may have been had Jimi not died prematurely just a few months later.
But Betty was never the woman to fall under any man’s shadow, even men as great as these; and it is her own music on which her legend is truly built. Hers is a cosmos of unashamedly primal, lustful, growling, lioness vocals laid over throbbing rhythm tracks powered by some of the most highly regarded Funk musicians of all time.
Her album line-up included Sly and the Family Stone alumni and Graham Central Station members Larry Graham – universally-recognised pioneer of slap bass, and weirdly Drake‘s uncle – and Greg Errico, hippie drummer extraordinaire. Although some early material has been recovered in later years from the 1960s, hers is a name and music that will be forever linked to the of the early 1970s, the era of the purest Funk music, before it began to be sanitised in a flurry of cocaine and polyester and disco balls.
People speak the names of James Brown, of Sly Stone, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins in a reverential timbre; and rightly so.
But some of us speak the name of Betty Davis in equally hushed and tremulous tones. In some ways, amongst those of us who consider ourselves her acolytes, she has become more mythologised even than these better-known male peers, because despite her bombastic nature, she is something of a mysterious, even mercurial figure. Under-appreciated in her own time, Betty pretty much disappeared after releasing her third album, 1975’s Nasty Gal; and she has been largely sidelined from the story of Funk, becoming an unexpected if transformative discovery for those who have encountered her music in later years.
Who is the woman behind the music? Where did she come from? Why did she disappear so abruptly? And what has she been up to since her heyday?
Thankfully, there’s a fresh opportunity to answer these questions, and to meet and learn about this remarkable woman, courtesy of accomplished documentary film-maker Phil Cox. His biopic They Say I’m Different (named after Betty‘s 1974 album of the same name) is now on global release and will be coming to Liverpool’s Picturehouse at FACT on Monday (6th August).
Cox has spent a year getting to know the reclusive Funk legend and interviewing her on her life and career. His finished work is set to be a rare treat for Funk fans and music aficionados of all types, complete as it is with rare footage, reconstructions, and artwork from the late but very great (and sorely missed) London-based P. Funk artist Jon Daniel.
All-in-all, Cox‘s movie seems set to be a fascinating insight into a woman, artist and performer sui generis. This is a movie that a lot of us have wanted to see for a very long time, and a relatively limited release schedule is further reason to pick up a ticket.
Betty Davis‘ music and attitude represents a fearlessness, a raw and unbridled selfhood, an unrestrained sexuality and potency. I for one can’t wait to find out about the person behind the music, the woman behind the myth; and to fall in love with her all over again.
They Say I’m Different is showing at Liverpool’s Picturehouse at FACT on Monday 6th August 2018.