Betty Davis passed away the other week at age 77 and as many of my readers likely know, I have spent many years in awe of her and her music and had the privilege to interview her for the liner notes that accompanied three of her Light in the Attic reissues (you can read the liners for the first of those reissues, Betty Davis, here). It’ll be one of the great honors of my writing career to have had that opportunity and play a small role in her re-discovery.
NPR Music was gracious enough to let me write an appreciation essay for her: “Game was her middle name.” Just a quick excerpt from that:
Betty Mabry Davis, who passed away early Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh at the age of 77, was an intensely enigmatic artist, having spent the first 30 years of her life on a remarkable ascent into the spotlight only to utterly vanish from public view for the next 30 years. Up until 2007, when the first legitimate reissues of her music began to roll out, the primary way you would have discovered her at all was by randomly finding one of her three studio albums in a record store bin. Once you did though, it was like being let in on a secret that you instantly wanted to share with others.
Her songs were filled with gritty yet sultry style of electrified funk — dirtier than James with more blues than Sly. Likewise, as a vocalist, she shared little in common with her gospel-trained contemporaries with their perfect pitch and vocal control; she took her cues from growling blues singers like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Moreover, she was doing all this as an unapologetically outspoken, sexually empowered performer who shocked the Black cultural establishment of her time. Both musically and professionally, she was an artist without much precedent nor peer and because of that, she’s been the object of constant fascination and inspiration for decades. I always think of how Joi, the accomplished neo-soul singer/songwriter, once told me that when she was first introduced to Betty’s music almost 30 years ago, it was a “revelation that I was not alone.”
I was also just on the NY Times Popcast podcast with my old friend Jon Caramanica, plus Dr. Maureen Mahon, and Jon Pareles, talking about Betty’s legacy.
I also dedicated this month’s Shades of Soul radio show to Betty and her music but alas, it’s not available in the U.S. (but hey, if you got a VPN…).
In case you’re interested in learning more about Betty, here’s a few other things I’ve written about her that should be publicly available:
- A review of the Columbia Years 1968-1969 anthology, for NPR’s All Things Considered (2016)
- My primer on that anthology and its back story (2016)
- A different podcast convo about Betty, for The Vinyl Guide (2017)
- Our Heat Rocks episode with Joi about They Say I’m Different (2017)
- And of course, the liners to Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, and Is It Love or Desire, all through Light In the Attic.
I’ll leave you with two favorite tunes, one from her, one inspired by her:
- Betty Davis: Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him (1974)
- Jamila Woods: Betty (2019)
Peaceful journey to you, Betty.
(Originally written for my Soul Sides Stray newsletter)