Betty Davis / They Say I’m Different
A / A-
hen a woman gains ingress into the hallowed Boys Club of rock or jazz credibility, it's most often put down to feminine eccentricity (Patti Smith, Kate Bush, Björk) or the intercession of a masculine partner or group (Alice Coltrane, Debbie Harry, Grace Slick). A pernicious subsector of music fandom seems to imply that Baez owes Dylan, when it clearly should be the other way around.
Betty Davis, who happened to be married to one Miles Davis for a whirlwind year, owes Mr. Davis precisely nothing. He, however, most likely owes a great deal to the young hellion from North Carolina. Yet even the acknowledged influence of Betty on Miles comes codified—she turned him on to Sly Stone and Hendrix (two dudes if ever there were), or she switched him up from fashion victim to style icon, an unquestionable assertion that nevertheless comes loaded with baggage regarding the importance of matters sartorial. So we'll rest on a heady claim, and then get to the matters of real importance: without Betty Davis nee Mabry, no Bitches' Brew, no organ vamping, no nehru jackets and spaceman goggles, and no funk emerging from Miles' bag.
Wildly enough, Ms. Davis herself rejected "funk" as a descriptive term for her music, claiming "that means something dirty." Etymology aside, if there's anything dirty about Ms. Davis' music, then I don't wanna be clean. Both Betty Davis and They Say I'm Different are extravagant slabs of meaty, heavy, wall-to-wall fonk, by anyone's definition of the term. Whatever might actually dangle between an artist’s legs, there have been precious few in the canon of soul, rock, or funk to realize albums with bad-ass balls like these. Over a greasy stew of ass-slapping licks and thunderous rhythms, one crazy chick rides roughshod and wild—too wild, it would seem, for Mr. Davis and the record-buying public.
It's almost impossible to call out the killer from the filler here, most likely due to the fact that there is precious little of the latter. Betty wielded a distinct advantage in making long-lasting long-players—one that owed something to her gender. Unlike the mostly male, many-legged groups that formed the core of the funk scene, she had no need to pad out an album of limber booty jams with any soporific ballads for "the ladies." Ergo, Betty is free to fill each and every slice on these two platters with unadulterated sass. Not to mention some incredible riffing from a tight-as-lockjaw band on the debut, including the Tower of Power horns, Sylvester and the Pointer Sisters on backup vox, fatback bass from none other than Larry Graham, Merl Saunders on organ, and a pair of Santana alums in Neal Schon and Douglas Rodriguez.
"If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up" starts the ball rolling on Betty Davis and there's no doubt who's in control of the come-on, despite the questionable title. A barrage of breakbeat drumming, chicken-fried picking, and swampy vamps galore, it's the blueprint for the greased-lightning grooves to follow. On "Walking Up the Road," Betty graduates into full-scale shouting mode (Tina Turner to the third power) over a slightly less rigid rhythm that allows for a greasy bit of jamming to seep through the cracks by the last minute. Everything that follows is basically a variation on these two formats, which is by no means a complaint. Tempos might drop ("Anti Love Song") or escalate ("Steppin in Her I. Miller Shoes") and the subject matter might shift from one aspect of relationship redressing to another, but Betty Davis is more or less of a stylistic and thematic piece.
They Say I'm Different loses the all-star backing band (though Saunders would be retained), but compensates with extra attitude from Davis herself, who steps into the producer’s chair to direct a tuff-playing group of new boys through the changes. Long considered a thinner effort, it might actually be a more personal and intense one, Betty ropes in even wilder themes (the titular freak in "He Was a Big Freak" is a whole lot freakier than Funkadelic's "Freak of the Week," for starters), spins out far more adventurous saucy sagas, and inadvertently invents Millie Jackson at some point during the whole process. Moving beyond merely crafting ass-flattening jams, some of the finest songs she'd ever cut are here ("He Was a Big Freak," the stone-cold classic stomp "Git in There," the slyly funny, sexy title track). Meanwhile, They Say I'm Different widens the scope of Betty's lyrical concerns to cover a bit of heartbreak ("70's Blues," "Your Mama Wants You Back") when she lets the band slow down a bit, even going so far as to cut an almost-ballad ("Special People").
So: what we're saying here is you need to buy both. Remastered with a light but sure hand and bolstered with unheard tracks (for the first record) and not-so-alternate alternate takes (for the second), they are essential documents for anyone interested in hard-edged black music or potent female-led bands.