BETTY DAVIS: IS IT LOVE OR DESIRE?


Betty Davis: Whorey Angel
Stars Starve You Know
From Is It Love Or Desire? (Light in the Attic, 2009)

I am really honored to have been part of this project, writing the liner notes to an album that many of us feared would never come to light.

Here’s an excerpt from my liners:

    “Originally entitled Crashin’ From Passion, Is It Love Or Desire? was recorded and completed in Bogalusa, Louisiana during the summer of 1976 before promptly vanishing into a hole for the next 33 years. Even for an artist as enigmatic as Betty Davis, Is It Love Or Desire? has been the ultimate mystery – no singles, no promos, not even so much as a bootleg. It’s as if the album never existed; a cruel fate to bestow on what was universally considered as Betty’s crowning achievement by those who worked on it.

    Fate is fickle though. For years, people knew of the album’s existence; a one-of-a-kind acetate test pressing even quietly circulated in private hands. Yet all this time, the original master tapes sat forgotten – not lost – in vaults in New York and Louisiana. After the success of the Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different reissues in 2007, momentum gathered to finally give Is It Love or Desire? a proper release that’s been three decades in the making.”

This scratches the proverbial surface and my liners (all 3000 words of ’em) goes much deeper into the recording and background of this album. Suffice to say though, everyone I spoke to, especially the Funkhouse musicians who played on IILOD basically said it was the best damn thing Betty ever did and I’m not about to argue that point. It’s not as “sample-friendly” as her earlier albums but in terms of her artistic execution, IILOD was a clear step ahead. The fact that it would become this ill-fated album only hurt all the more but that’s balanced by the excitement in the album coming back after all these years.

I picked two of my favorite songs off the album to share here and here are my respective notes on each of them:

    “Arguably the most striking song in this vein is the unforgettably titled “Whorey Angel,” which seemed to sum up Betty’s recorded persona as well as any two words could – playfully dirty, yet sweet at the core. Beyond the title, the song is also notable because Betty shares her vocals with Fred Mills. Betty explained, “I would hear him kiddin’ around….he would sing, but he wouldn’t be like, ‘I’m a singer.” I thought Fred has a great sound in his voice, like a really earthy blues singer.”

    Mills had to overcome his own reservations to sing on the song: “I was kind of conflicted because my mama’s a minister and I knew she wasn’t gonna dig it…but you know, that’s what mothers do, especially if they’re ministers,” he joked. Mills didn’t necessarily seem himself a full-fledged singer; he felt his purpose was, “more about the noise or about the emotional things she put in. I basically wouldn’t have to say too many words. If you listen to the song, I’m just saying one or two words, but it’s the way she wanted [me] to say it.”

    “The intimacy of Is It Love Or Desire? went beyond the sound of a song or physicality of its themes; Betty never shied away from talking about her own life and on “Stars Starve, You Know,” she puts everything out on the table. It’s an answer song – a way for Betty to shout back at her critics and speak on the challenges of, well, being Betty Davis: “They said if I wanted to make some money, I’d have to clean up my act. So I called Miles Davis, he said, “It’’s ‘cause you’re a fine Black bitch, that’s all to that.” I said, “they won’t take what I’m giving, so it’s hard for me and the band to make a living.”

    She had never made as autobiographical a song about her actual musical career and “Stars Starve, You Know” was as humorous as it was serious; you get the sense that Betty was having a ball penning small asides such as, “we need some money…oh hey hey Island!” or singing, “ain’t no business like show business/that’s why we stay broke!” Betty said “Stars Starve” was a reaction to her critics but not in an antagonistic way: “everybody has a job to do. They get paid for writing about you, that’s how they make their living. I just lay it down and however it’s perceived, I just have to go along with it.”

IILOD is also being released along with the reissue of Betty’s third album, Nasty Gal which originally came out on Island. The exceptional John Ballon, who wrote that kick ass Wax Poetics piece on Betty, wrote the liners for this one and I highly recommend you check that album (and Ballon’s notes) too. John’s interviewed on the Light in the Attic site. My interview will appear tomorrow.

As a bonus, there’s a very cool Betty Davis poster commissioned, limited to 100 prints. They’re running a contest for one right now or you can cop it for a Jackson.

I have a few extra copies of the CD to give away but I have a trio of CD-mixes I’m about to put out so I’ll include them, at random, in that batch once I announce ’em. In the meantime, if you’re impatient, get IILOD from the site, direct.

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