Saturday, August 07, 2010

Mabry my baby

So there I was a couple of nights ago plonking around on the Interweb (as you do) researching some single or other (I think it was one from Jackie Ross) when I stumbled upon a gargantuan list of records for sale (which, by the by, are probably mostly sold now as it turned out to be a few months old). Anyway, in that list of records I saw the name Betty Mabry. This caused me to take an immediate Interweb left turn and I ended up spending the rest of the night playing Betty Davis tracks on YouTube and seeing if I could find out more than I already knew about her.

For those unfamiliar with the names, Betty Mabry and Betty Davis are one and the same person. After moving to New York in the early 60s Betty Mabry recorded a little and, new news to me, had a couple of 45s released (the first in 1964 on the small NY DCP label a copy of which I found noted in the sales list mentioned above). She was also modelling, and writing songs. In 1968 she became Betty Davis when she married Miles Davis. The marriage lasted little more than a year. She appeared on the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro and Miles wrote at least one piece dedicated to her – Mademoiselle Mabry – and it was Betty who apparently turned Miles onto the likes of Hendrix and Sly Stone and prompted Miles’ fusion era.

To those that know, and she remains relatively unknown, her other claims to fame are three incredible albums she released in the mid 70s: “Betty Davis”, “They Say I’m Different” and “Nasty Gal”. FONK is the operative word and, like her erstwhile husband’s finest output, they should be recognised as all time classic albums.      

Her first album “Betty Davis”, released on the wonderfully named Just Sunshine record label in 1973, has long been a jewel in my collection.  All the songs were written and arranged by Betty. On it she is backed by some stellar names - including Larry Graham, The Pointer Sisters, and the Tower Of Power horn section. The music is hard funk and rock, in just about equal measure, and it’s bluesy as hell – as well!  

In the early days of writing this blog I had fully intended to feature her and this album but it seemed whenever I was about to compose a post some other blog had beaten me to it. That was probably because at that time her entire catalogue, including some previously unreleased tracks from the late 70s, were re-released and a whole new fanbase had emerged.
I haven’t seen Betty featured on the blogs recently so my impromptu “Betty night” reminded me to finally do the right thing and feature her here on Feel It.

While I was casting around for more details of Betty’s career I found this interview, given in 2007 and apparently her first in thirty years. It follows her life and is full of interesting information, including some more background on some of the tracks on her debut album. For instance Betty states that “Stepping In Her I Miller Shoes” was written about Devon Wilson. Once in the orbit of Jimi Hendrix, Devon was something of a “super groupie” and after being consumed by the scene tragically lost her life too early, falling eight stories from a New York hotel. Two other tracks on the album - “Walking up The Road” and “Game Is My Middle Name” - were originally written by Betty for The Commodores who needed material for an upcoming deal with Motown. Nothing could be worked out for The Commodores to use those songs but they certainly wouldn’t have sounded out of place on The Commodores’ Machine Gun album which was chock full of hard and slippery funk.

Because she retreated from what little limelight she had in the 70s people like me who didn’t know her personally but were simply captivated by her music (and her looks!)  will, I guess, not have been aware of her growing older. It came as something of a shock hearing her speak in the interview where she does, reasonably enough, sound - how shall I say it – a mature woman. In fact a couple of weeks ago Betty celebrated her 65th birthday! It shouldn’t be a surprise if you do the count back but, nevertheless, I can’t believe that. My image of her will always be as a young woman, and furthermore, to borrow the title of her third album, a “Nasty Gal” (in a good way). Again, having listened to the interview it seems that we should modify that image of her too – she described her younger, recording era, self as being quiet, and didn’t like her music being described as funky as that had a dirty connotation.

Sweet.  (But now I’m studying her shots again on the front of her first album they do have an almost little girl charm to them in stark contrast to the covers of her later albums where there was some serious image making at work it seems).    

Now hold that thought.

If Betty Davis happens to be a new name to you then listen up, then get yourself over to YouTube and then go and buy all her CDs.
If you know of her already then I am sure you will have one of her records on the turntable already.

Betty Davis – Steppin’ In Her I. Miller Shoes 1973

Betty Davis – Your Man My Man 1973


Raggedy said...

Darcy, sir, you never cease to amaze me. I had no clue she had been married to Miles Davis.

WZJN said...

Well done maestro! Betty was (is) da bomb! A nasty potion of funk and soul that I believe was a little ahead of her time. Bravo piece!