Brian J. Barr – “Betty Davis Is Back, Thanks to Seattle’s Light in the Attic” (2007)

October 7, 2009 at 7:36 pm (Miles Davis, Music, Reviews & Articles)


May 1, 2007 article from Seattle Weekly about 70s funk-rock (shoulda-been) superstar Betty Davis (the ex-Mrs. Miles Davis)…


Reviving the records of the long-lost soul diva may be the label’s most artful move.

She’s onstage wearing a negligee. Silver, dangly jewelry sparkles on her wrists and rests over the slope of her clavicle. Her long, mocha legs are wrapped tight in seductive hosiery. These legs are truly a sight: strong and lean and sultry. They burn. Their length is accentuated by a pair of ridiculously high-heeled, space-age go-go boots. To top it all off, her hair is poofed out in an afro the size of a small planet.

Men can’t take their eyes off of her; she reminds them of their insignificance. Women can’t either; she floods them with confidence. She’s strutting about the stage, pirouetting and spreading those legs so far apart, you think she’ll split in two. Splash her with water, and steam would no doubt rise up.

Then she sings: “I said if I’m in luck/I just might get picked up!” She’s not pleading for a date. No, this lyric is a challenge: Who’ll be man enough to take her home? The all-male band behind her is funky—pure psychedelic soul funk—and Betty, always the entertainer, has made them appear shirtless and oiled onstage. Smoking as they are, however, they just fade into the background. That wild woman dancing around is stealing the show.

“I said I’m crazy/I’m wild!”

No kidding.

That was Betty Davis in 1974, onstage at New York City’s Bottom Line. She was the embodiment of funk music and a true sex symbol, the forerunner to Madonna, Joi, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Macy Gray.. The list goes on to include the less obvious, such as electro shockstar Peaches and Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux. She has also been sampled by the likes of Ice Cube and Talib Kweli.

“Betty Davis is the funk,” says poet and rapper Saul Williams. “It’s not just that she’s sexy and the music is sexy, but she’s just so in the pocket! The notes she chose, the placement, to be able to dance around the music. Man, she killed that shit.”

“She’s a badass,” says Herrema. “She was so multi-talented, it seemed that she could do anything she wanted. Everything she did seemed so pure….Back then you had Funkadelic, you had Sly and the Family Stone and Cher all dressing in an over-the-top way. With Betty’s look, it was more the way she carried herself and presented herself.”

“She was the first Madonna,” says guitarist Carlos Santana. “But Madonna is more like Marie Osmond when compared to Betty Davis.”

She was sexually and musically ahead of her time, and at some point in the early ’80s, Davis disappeared. No, she didn’t disappear, she just got quiet. She is still very much alive at 62, but speaking to her via phone, it’s hard to believe she’s the same woman.

Q: You live in Pittsburgh now?
A: Yeah.
Q: Do you do any work down there?
A: No.
Q: Is your family still in Pittsburgh?
A: Yeah.
Q: Do you play music with anyone? Friends or relatives?
A: No.

As you can see, Davis is a tough one to pry open. She speaks in abrupt, one- or two-word sentences most of the time. She is distant, removed from the present moment, and ultimately very mysterious. It could be that she is just not used to talking with the media, considering I’m maybe the fourth or fifth person to interview her in 25 years. When I tell her it’s a true honor to speak with her, she responds with a spicy: “Mmm-hmm.”

It could be that she just doesn’t have much to say. But I find that hard to believe. She should be the ultimate source on the ’60s and ’70s. She was a friend and inspiration to Jimi Hendrix, hooking him up with the African American hipsters he wanted to identify with. She wrote songs for the Chambers Brothers (“Uptown [to Harlem]”). She recorded with Sly Stone’s backing group, hung out with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was intimate with jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, and, most notably, was married to the great Miles Davis, hence the surname. But not only was she married to Miles, she inspired him in much the same way she inspired Hendrix. As has been noted in biographies over the years, if it weren’t for young Betty Mabry making Miles wear hip clothes and attend psychedelic rock shows, there would be no In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew.

“She was like Oprah with her panels,” says Williams. “She was one of those black women who fused worlds. She saw two disparate minds and said, ‘You two need to work together.'”

Whatever stories she has from the days she was fusing worlds are locked up tight inside her vault. It’s not as if she’s forgotten, however. She just doesn’t see the big deal. You can tell by how nonchalantly she rattles off the names of these aforementioned cats. Yet her records, like those of her late ex-husband, should be part of some major label’s legacy series and never out of print. But alas, there is no justice in the music business, and Davis lives alone, in an apartment outside of Pittsburgh, not doing much of anything. 

By now you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with Seattle. Well, if it weren’t for a couple of Eastsiders with shrewd business sense and great sets of ears, we probably wouldn’t be thinking of Betty Davis at all. Light in the Attic Records, based out of an office packed with records, discs, and posters facing Aurora Avenue, near Blue Video and the Thunderbird Motel, has been consistently smart in its choices, recalling the great early days of Sub Pop. The label is about to further its reputation in a couple of weeks when it reissues Davis’ first two albums, Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974), which were originally released by Just Sunshine Records and have been out of print since the ’70s.

Matt Sullivan and Josh Wright launched Light in the Attic in 2003 with This Is Madness, the 1971 album by the Last Poets, widely regarded as the first hip-hop group. But they didn’t just slap a vinyl transfer onto CD and throw it into a jewel case—the kind of approach you see from labels like Collector’s Choice (which releases the “20th Century Masters” series of artists like the Moody Blues and Donna Fargo). No, Light in the Attic wanted the world to realize how significant the Last Poets were. So, they hired Public Enemy’s Professor Griff to do the liner notes, and dug up original Rolling Stone ads for the record, which stated: “If you’re white, the record will scare the shit out of you. If you’re black, this record will scare the nigger out of you.”

“It was like a history project,” says Sullivan, 31, who’s got a toothy grin and a curly mop of hair recalling Bob Dylan circa New Morning. “Here was this band who had this incredible backstory. Nobody knew about them. We just thought why not make this something that people will keep and read and understand.”

“A lot of reissue labels will just throw out as many titles a year as possible,” says Wright, also 31, a tall, loping guy with a wily smile. “We really put a lot of tender care into each one.”

Sullivan and Wright won’t bother unless the music has soul, integrity, and cultural significance. That’s what led them to reissue albums by the likes of lite-psychedelia geniuses the Free Design, Bernard Purdie’s soundtrack to Lialeh (aka the first black porno flick, which features the classic “All Pink on the Inside”), and the soundtrack to Deep Throat, for which they scored liner notes by Ron Jeremy himself. They’ve even unearthed entire genres most people had no idea existed: Canadian soul, funk, and reggae (the Jamaica to Toronto compilation), and Seattle funk and soul (the invaluable Wheedle’s Groove compilation).

Being a label of Light in the Attic’s size has its obstacles, of course. For one, it’s often that the music they want to reissue is still owned by a major label. This is what happened with one of the first projects they sought out, Neil Young’s stoned recording On the Beach, which was owned by Reprise and later officially reissued in 2003.

“Financially, it’s not worth it for a major label to dig out the original master tapes for a run of 3,000–4,000 copies,” says Wright. Such was the case with Island, the major label that owns Davis’ last two albums, 1975’s Nasty Gal and the unreleased Crashin’ from the Passion. “Would’ve been great to reissue those,” says Wright. “But you get into all sorts of complicated licensing issues.”

Sullivan and Wright don’t stick to reissues exclusively, though. In the past two years, they’ve signed Austin psychedelic group the Black Angels and Tacoma hip-hop hedonists the Saturday Knights, acts that have incredible depth for being so green. The Black Angels write anti-war songs from the wholly American perspective of privileged middle-class white kids who’ve never been to war, and the Saturday Knights take hip-hop back to the days when Grandmaster Flash and the Clash were easy company, while maintaining a working-class party vibe.

Light in the Attic’s sales figures are just as impressive. According to Wright, the Black Angels’ Passover has sold more than 30,000 copies, and their reissue of Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time has sold about 40,000. Wheedle’s Groove is currently at more than 10,000 (not bad for a region-specific release), and Deep Throat at more than 15,000. Labels the size of Barsuk and Sub Pop consider it a success to sell 30,000 copies for a new artist.

Light in the Attic treats the packaging like art, with old photos, articles, testimonials from contemporary artists, and liner notes that are either exhaustively researched (such as Lenny Kaye’s reportage for the reissue of In My Own Time) or hilarious (such as Ron Jeremy’s for Deep Throat).

“They impressed me because they seemed very tenacious, very dedicated,” says legendary Woodstock promoter Michael Lang. His label, Just Sunshine Records, which he ran in the early ’70s, was home to both Davis and Dalton, not to mention Billy Joel, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Copperhead, and Blue Cheer, among about 40 other artists. He was the gatekeeper Light in the Attic had to pass through for licensing rights to Dalton’s and Davis’ master tapes.

“A lot of people had approached me over the years about reissuing Betty’s records, and Karen’s,” Lang says. “But Light in the Attic won me over because of the work they put into the other records they did, the artwork; they were very thorough with their research and very knowledgeable of the past.”

He was also impressed with their relentlessness. Lang, while very affable, is still a wickedly busy man; he runs the Michael Lang Organization, which deals in event production and artist management. Sullivan, however, is not one to be deterred by another’s schedule.

“I think Michael Lang finally gave in because I just kept calling him and e-mailing him,” Sullivan laughs. “I just figure that these people are approached about stuff all the time. If one person calls one time, that’s not enough to get through. They’ll have to pick up the phone eventually.”

Sullivan first heard of Davis 10 years ago while reading U.K. music mags like Mojo and Uncut (“the usual suspects,” he calls them).

“I kept coming across her name all the time,” he says. “People would always mention Miles’ ex-wife and how she inspired Miles to do Bitches Brew and that she made her own records. I was just surprised no one really knew much about her. Karen [Dalton] I can understand, because she was kind of obscure. But Betty was this woman who crossed paths with so many influential people.”

By all accounts something happened to Davis that caused her to leave the business and the scene altogether. For a woman whom everyone describes as driven and determined, it seems odd that she would spend the past three decades sitting quietly in her hometown of Homestead, just outside of Pittsburgh.

“When I asked her what she’s been doing,” says Sullivan, “she just says ‘Not much.’ I asked if she had been watching television because the television was blaring in the background when I called. She just said, ‘Yeah, watching television.'”

I gently pressed her myself, with similar results.

Q: Have you been working anywhere?
A: Nope.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Not much.

“I just can’t imagine someone as determined and self-possessed as Betty just sitting in Pittsburgh watching life pass her by,” says Lang. “Something must’ve happened to her. It’s a mystery to me, but something intervened to make her the way she is today.”

Speculation abounds, of course. There were reports that she died of a drug overdose. “Not Betty,” says Lang assuredly. “It was rice cakes and mineral water for that girl.”

“I was around drugs a lot,” Davis told me. “They just never interested me. You’ve got to respect people’s values. People never forced me to take drugs, and I never told people to get off them.”

The most rational explanation for her silence is offered in music and culture writer Oliver Wang’s liner notes for the reissues: Shortly after her father died in 1980, she suffered a nervous breakdown that dimmed her creativity. Still, the nervous breakdown has never been confirmed.

Sullivan tracked down Davis’ brother—”one of those people who, when you call him, he lets the phone ring and ring, and then he picks up on, like, the 27th ring”—but even he couldn’t illuminate much about her current state. When I asked her, she was just as vague.

Q: What made you leave the business?
A: I made a record they wouldn’t put out.
Q: But you seemed so sure of yourself. I’m surprised you didn’t just take the record somewhere else, maybe hook up with some different session players.
A: Nobody wanted it.

Lang finds this hard to swallow. The Betty he knew, he says, would have found a way out of her contract with Island and taken the record to a willing label.

“That shit hurts, though,” says Williams, who had a similar experience when Sony refused to release one of his albums. “As an artist and performer, I can tell you that the year I spent in the fetal position on the couch is real. It was a million punches to my stomach. Luckily, I was able to keep going. I just had to realize that I couldn’t be so attached to my work. Nowadays, there’s a support system with MySpace, where fans can come tell you how much they like your shit regardless of the record company. But in her time, there wasn’t that support. Plus, for a woman, it’s even harder. You have these men telling you you’re supposed to be a certain way. I can just see her saying, ‘Fuck this. I prefer my sanity.'”

When she got quiet, Davis cut off all contact with her previous life. No one had seen her or been able to track her down. Light in the Attic knew it could license the records through Just Sunshine, but getting Davis involved and letting her know she’d be getting royalties would prove a bit more difficult. Not even Lang knew how to get in touch with her. However, a few years ago, a Davis fan named John Ballon, who operates the music Web site, discovered that she was owed publishing royalties of up to $40,000.

“[Ballon’s] not a label guy,” says Sullivan. “He’s a music fan, but he’s not into it for the money. He was the only person able to track her down, and he had to dig through a bunch of tax records and stuff to find her.”

Ballon got in touch with Davis and told her who he was, convinced her he wasn’t a swindler, and arranged to have her publishing company, ASCAP, pay up the 40 grand she was owed. According to Ballon, ASCAP was not paying her the royalties because they couldn’t find her. Light in the Attic hooked up with Ballon through Lang, and through Ballon was able to convince Davis that these reissues would be done the right way.

“He called her for us and told her we were legit,” says Sullivan. “He explained how we wanted her to make royalties off of these records, and said we’d done a good job with all the other reissues we did. Of course, the financial thing was great for her.”

Davis had received proper royalties when her records were initially released by Just Sunshine, says Sullivan. But she didn’t receive anything when her records were widely bootlegged in the ’90s.

Still, Davis wanted little to do with these reissues. She agreed to be interviewed by Wang for the liner notes and by a handful of other journalists, but other than that, she had no hand in the process. She offered up no photos, no old press clippings, and no contacts.

“I just thought it’d be better if they handled it,” she says.

By the look of the finished products, Davis was right. The reissues of Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different are two of the most solid reissues the label has handled. The digipak cases are stuffed with 30-page booklets with photos of her and Miles, old ads from her modeling days, and Wang’s essay detailing almost every known fact of her life. The covers feature embossed logos, and given the fact that these are the first reissues of hers culled from the original master tapes, the sound is pristine.

In the liner notes and testimonials, much is made of her sexuality, her persona, and her forthrightness. She is bold and beautiful, for sure, but what these reissues really prove is that she was a musical force to be reckoned with.

Her self-titled debut is a perfectly paced funk album. With backing by drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham (both Sly Stone alums), the album locks into a tight groove that never lets up. Davis emerges from the middle of the groove, her husky voice cooing, purring the words. She doesn’t so much sing as she prowls about the rhythm. She teases you with a mix of wanting and needing. Sometimes she growls; other times she whispers in your ear. All the while, the crunchy Bay Area funk of her backing group keeps the sexual tension teetering right on the verge.

With her follow-up, They Say I’m Different, the template is still the same, but there is a space-blues element at work. The sexual tension she toyed with on her debut is pushed to the brink with “He Was a Big Freak.” She screeches those words, followed by the admission “I used to beat him with a turquoise chain.” Indeed, it is the first S&M funk song.

Both albums are closed by slower, sensual soul numbers, “In the Meantime” and “Special People,” on which she displays a vulnerability and tenderness. They are stunning vocal performances which reveal that she was about more than shock and eroticism. “I thought Betty Davis’ vocals were like an instrument,” says Herrema. “She wasn’t trying to show off any virtuosity. They just came from the gut and take up so much cool space around the song.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can hear her influence over generations of female performers. There is the rasp of Macy Gray, the sultry Southern storytelling of Joi, the stoic pride of Lauryn Hill, and, of course, the forthright sexuality of Madonna.

With these reissues, Light in the Attic will introduce Betty Davis to a whole generation that has been raised on those women but never knew there was a pioneer for them. It’s also an audience that is used to a culture choked with unoriginal followers, not trendsetters. Today’s divas are cardboard cutouts when stood up next to Davis.

It’s hard to tell whether Davis is excited by a possible revival of her career. She is well aware that young artists have sampled her songs (“I get the ASCAP statements”), and that music fans like myself are excited that her records are being reissued (“Yeah, I’m aware”). It may come as a surprise to some that she has continued writing songs all these years. Some have speculated that the reason she has remained so quiet and hidden is that she renounced her career as sinful. But Davis told me in an assured voice: “I’ve never stopped doing my music, ever since I was a little girl. I’ll always be doing my music.”

She tells me how she sings them into a tape recorder, adding bass, drums, and guitar sounds with her mouth. She hasn’t played them for anyone, not even her family.

Q: Do your songs today sound like your old ones, or has your approach changed?
A: I don’t know really.
Q: Are they…
A: They’re sex-oriented.
Q: They’re about sex?
A: Yeah. All my songs are about sex.

It seems that Davis’ prolonged hibernation may not have changed her much. The fact that she has a backlog of unreleased material just sitting in her apartment will no doubt drive fans and historians wild. I asked if she would be willing to let Light in the Attic release those songs at some point, let the world hear what she’s been working on. “I’ve thought about it. I’m not sure if I wanna get back into the business, though.”

As John Ballon stated in his recent Wax Poetics article on Davis, you can’t keep a good woman down for long. Saul Williams goes on to note that plenty of women from her generation, such as Bettye LaVette, have found a platform in today’s musical climate.

“God, I wish she would release that shit—that would be amazing,” Williams says when I tell him of her unheard material. “There has never been a better time for a Betty Davis resurgence.”

Brian J. Barr

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