Behind The Black Power Goddess: Betty Davis' Early Demos Released

Jul 6, 2016
Originally published on July 6, 2016 4:34 pm

Over the last 10 years, 1970s funk icon Betty Davis has enjoyed a renaissance of rediscovery. Her music has been lavishly reissued and anthologized, but for years the holy grail was a collection of songs she recorded for Columbia Records in the late '60s, several of which her then-husband, Miles Davis, helped to produce. For decades, no one could hear those songs — until now. The Columbia Years 1968-1969 captures an artist beginning to assert her own voice.

Betty Mabry was already enjoying a budding music career when Miles Davis came into her life. She'd written "Uptown" for the Chambers Brothers and released a couple of her own solo singles, including 1968's "Live, Love, Learn."

Mabry and Davis became a couple later that year. She made an immediate impact on his music, and in return, Davis helped her produce a series of demo tracks recorded at the Columbia Records studio the following spring. For the past 47 years, those songs have been the subject of wild speculation over why they've never been let out of the vault. Somehow, the Seattle label Light In the Attic label finally got permission to release them.

Remember: These were intended to be demo tracks, not finished songs. But in their rawness you already hear how Mabry was shaping her identity as a "down home girl" from North Carolina. Those roots are right up front, both in her song's themes and in that countrified accent she curls around her voice.

Almost all of the players on these sessions were jazz musicians, including Miles Davis' sidemen at the time, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The sound, though, was unmistakably influenced by rock and funk, most of all on her cover of "Politician" by Cream.

Most of the tracks, however, were Mabry's original compositions. She was always aspiring to be her own artist and not just a face or voice. The compilation includes an outtake where you can hear her working through her ideas with the band in real time.

When Mabry reintroduced herself in 1973 as Betty Davis, it felt like she had appeared fully formed as an uber-confident, sexy Black Power goddess. But what the Columbia recordings reveal are her early ideas about presenting her music, her sexuality, her persona. Even nearly five decades later, it seems we still have something to learn about one of funk's music's most iconic artists.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Funk singer Betty Davis was big in the 1970s, and she's been enjoying a renaissance over the last 10 years or so thanks to reissues of her music. For years her fans have been waiting for the big prize - sessions she recorded for Columbia Records in the late 1960s, several of them co-produced by her then-husband Miles Davis. Reviewer Oliver Wang is one of those fans, and he could barely contain his enthusiasm when he learned those recordings have finally been released.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Betty Mabry was already enjoying a budding music career when Miles Davis came into her life. She'd written "Uptown" for the Chambers Brothers and released a couple of her own solo singles, including 1968's "Live, Love, Learn."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE, LOVE, LEARN")

BETTY DAVIS: (Singing) Every heart must sing. Every soul must cry. Just because it rains one day doesn't mean the sun won't ever shine for you. You live.

WANG: Mabry and Davis became a couple later that year, and she made in an immediate impact on his music. In return, Davis agreed to help her produce a series of demo tracks recorded at the Columbia Records studio the following spring. For the past 47 years, those songs have been the subject of wild speculation over why they've never been let out of the vault. But somehow Seattle's Light In The Attic label finally got permission to release them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME GIRL")

DAVIS: (Singing) I was born in a little shack down in Mississippi.

WANG: Remember, these were intended to be demo tracks, not finished songs, but in their rawness, you already hear how Mabry was shaping her identity as a down-home girl. Those roots are right up front both in her songs' themes and in that countrified accent she curls around her voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN HOME GIRL")

DAVIS: (Singing) I'm a down home girl. I'm just a down home girl. I come from the country, but I sure do know where it's at.

WANG: Almost all of the players in these sessions were jazz musicians, including Miles Davis's sidemen at the time, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The sound though was unmistakably influenced by rock and funk, most of all on this cover of "Politician" by the rock super group Cream.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLITICIAN MAN")

DAVIS: (Singing) Hey now, Baby, get into my big, black car. Seduce her. That's right.

WANG: Most of the tracks, however, were Mabry's original compositions. She was always aspiring to be her own artist and not just a face or voice. The compilation includes an outtake where you can hear her working through her ideas with the band in real time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DAVIS: (Singing) I'm a political...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You kind of, you can overdub that.

DAVIS: Overdub it. I've overdubbed it. Do for that line, you practically repeat the same thing for that line, you know? It's just like a repeat of (singing) well, get ready for me 'cause I'm ready for you. You better hold on cause you can - well, sock to me, you know?

WANG: When Mabry reintroduced herself in 1973 as Betty Davis, it felt like she had appeared fully formed as this uber-confident and sexy black power goddess. But what the Columbia recordings reveal are her early ideas about presenting her music, her sexuality, her persona. Even nearly five decades later, it seems we still have something to learn about one of funk music's most iconic artists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M READY, WILLING AND ABLE")

DAVIS: (Singing) If you want my love, come on and get it 'cause this soul sister is going to let you have it. I ain't going to hold nothing back. I'm going to give my love to you, make you feel just good as I can 'cause I'm ready, and I'm willing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.