REMEMBERING BETTY DAVIS

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:

I’ll leave you with two favorite tunes, one from her, one inspired by her:

Peaceful journey to you, Betty.

(Originally written for my Soul Sides Stray newsletter)

DOOMSDAY

“No one knew me until I put on the mask.”

Well, not exactly. I was a fan of MF Doom aka Zev Love X aka Daniel Dumile since the days he was cameo-ing on 3rd Bass’s “The Gas Face.”

I stayed listening to him during the ups and downs of KMD’s career and while other artists might have hung it up after that group’s unceremonious end at the hands of Electra, Zev Love transformed into MF Doom and created one of the greatest second acts in hip-hop history.

It’s hard to believe that he died so young (except that we’ve so many die too young, least of all this year). RIP to MF Doom. RIP to Subroc. Hope the two of ya’ll are staying a positive kause in a much damaged society, wherever the two of you are now.

IMMORTALITY

We are, of course, living through a moment in which both the threat and presence of death feels suffocating. I’ve always been wary of Soul Sides turning into one long death roll of musicians and artists that I admire because it would feel unrelenting but I also don’t want to ignore all these giants that we seemingly are losing on a daily basis. In the end, we can mourn their passing but also celebrate what will survive them for years to come: the music that made them memorable to begin with.

This isn’t meant to be remotely definitive or comprehensive of everyone we’ve lost…it’s just a nod of respect to some of the artists I’ve long respected, whose work I will continue to cherish.

Manu Dibango (d. March 24, age 86) . For many of us, Manu’s songs were our introduction to Afrofunk. As both an artist and producer, Manu’s influence spanned both a generation and continent. Soul Makossa is the biggest release he ever had but I will forever stay enamored with African Voodoo, a library record he put together a few years after Soul Makossa blew up.

Gene Deitch (d. April 16, age 95). I was introduced to animator/illustrator Deitch’s work through vintage issues of The Record Changer, a midcentury record collector’s magazine where Deitch often did the cover art and interior cartoons. The above, from July 1947, was one of several covers that Deitch did that attacked American segregation by pointing out the hypocrisies of how we love Black music but not Black people. In 2013, many of his illustrations were compiled into A Cat On a Hot Thin Groove.

Don Campbell (d. April 23, age 69). Inventor of The Campbellock, Campbell was a giant in contemporary street dance in helping pioneer “locking” which would then find its way incorporated into early b-boy/b-girl styles. Campbell also had a minor hit with the single that celebrated his dance: “Campbell Lock.”

Hamilton Bohannon (d. April 24, age 78). Bohannon was discovered in the early ’70s by Motown and went onto to have a successful disco-era career but for beat heads, we all gravitated to Stop & Go, his and his Detroit band’s debut album on Dakar: a veritable feast of samples that 100% hold up today.

Tony Allen (d. April 30, age 79). Fela Kuti was the name most people saw on Afrobeat albums but the person actually providing the beat? That’d be Allen, easily the most influential percussionist to come out of the Afrobeat movement. He has a deep catalog but start with his debut album with Africa 70, Jealousy.

Steve “Stezo” Williams (d. April 29, age 52). Stezo started off as a dancer with EPMD before branching into becoming a rapper in the late 1980s. He was part of the last wave of early golden era artists for whom rapping and dancing were a mark of distinction. Stezo’s 1989 debut album, Crazy Noise, is a perfect snapshot of rap music of the era and well worth a listen.

Andre Harrell (d. May 7, age 59). Harrell is best known for starting Uptown Records which would absolutely pivotal to shaping R&B and hip-hop at the turn of the ’80s to ’90s. He was an architect of the New Jack Swing sound, help folks like Heavy D. and Mary J. Blige get off the ground and discovered Sean “Puffy” Combs (and by extension, Biggie). He also was the Dr. Jeckyll in the early rap group, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

Betty Wright (d. May 10, age 66). This one really strings and not just because it happened this morning. 66 is really young all said and Wright is such an important figure in soul, especially as the premier artist to come out of the vibrant Florida R&B scene of the ’60s and ’70s. I wanted to include her rendition of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” above to tip the hat to Withers, who I already wrote about after his passing, but if you’re going to dip your toes into her catalog, start with her debut, My First Time Around, recorded when she was only 14. Just an incredible talent, all around.

RIP BILL WITHERS

Bill Withers has passed away at age 81. I’ve written a fair amount about Withers on this site (see here and here) but the closest I feel like I’ve ever come to articulating what made him such a memorable singer and songwriter came with this 2012 review I wrote of his Complete Sussex and Columbia Masters anthology.

At risk of being solipsistic, this is what I wrote for my intro and it still stands true to me today.

“It may sound contradictory to describe Bill Withers’ voice as “uniquely plainspoken,” but this singer and songwriter from West Virginia coal country began his career at the crossroads between folk, R&B and rock. He was neither a showy shouter nor a sweet crooner. Instead, Withers always conveyed his emotions with a simple, forthright earnestness — the everyman singer with a poet’s soul.”

As a bonus, never forget this awesome 1972 live performance; check out my fly guy James Gadson on drums with his sparkling smile.

NATHAN DAVIS: STICK BUDDY (1976)

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Nathan Davis: Sticky Buddy, from If (Tomorrow Int’l, 1976)

Sad news: Nathan Davis just passed away this week. Like a lot of folks in the ’90s, I discovered Davis’ magnificent album, If via Luv N Haight comps and one story I always tell is that when I was a DJ at KALX, I realized they had an original copy of If and at the time, it was an LP that could have easily sold for $200+. I never stole, ever, a record from the KALX library but I always joked that if I was going to, I would have went to If first.

“Stick Buddy” still puts a smile on my face every time I hear those opening bars and then Davis’ sax just sexily step into the mix.

RIP to Davis.