6 Sep 2016

Betty Davis: The Columbia Years 1968-69

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 6 September 2016
Betty Davis

Betty Davis Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger checks a never-released set of vintage rock and soul from Betty Davis.

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Of the many artists who have enjoyed a critical reappraisal in recent times, one of the more deserving is Betty Davis. The three albums she made between 1973 and 1975, though largely overlooked in their day, were forward-thinking epistles in funk that presented a rare image for that period: a strong, independent woman who was clearly calling the artistic shots. Those albums, all reissued now, have inevitably created a demand for more. But Betty Davis, now 71, is no longer making music. So Light In The Attic have trawled back even further into the archives, and have come out with this.

The album centres on five songs, recorded but never released – or even properly mixed - at what were in fact demo sessions in 1969, organised by her then-husband, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. The pair had married the year before, and the North Carolina-born singer had already had an audible effect on Miles’s music, turning him onto electric instruments and introducing him to some of her friends from the rock world, including Jimi Hendrix. Perhaps as a way of repaying the favour, Miles (and his producer Teo Macereo) set up these recordings, in the hope that they would secure Betty a record contract with Columbia. Instead they languished in the vaults for almost fifty years. You can tell they are unfinished; they are punctuated with banter and there’s a loose, jammy quality about the whole thing. But they also have a terrific groove.

One of the ways Betty Davis was ahead of the game was in bringing elements of hard rock into the world of soul and R&B. Miles had recently introduced the British guitarist John McLaughlin into his band, and McLaughlin can be heard firing on all cylinders in these recordings, along with other players more commonly associated with rock – including Hendrix’s rhythm section of Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Meanwhile, Betty was giving her own salacious spin to such material as the Cream song ‘Politician’.

These demos are fleshed out here with three recordings, made a year earlier in 1968 with trumpeter Hugh Masekela. These tracks seem more complete, but also more conventional. The demos, though, are well worth a listen. This may be scraping the bottom of the barrel, but whatever was in that barrel sure was funky.

Songs featured: Hanging Out, Down Home Girl, Politician.

The Columbia Years is available on Light In The Attic Records.