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  • Esperanza Milla

The Extreme Funktress of the 1970s: Betty Davis


“Being different is everything.” It’s an announcement to live by, a proclamation and explanation for every sweaty burning moment funk singer Betty Davis spent strutting across the stage. With tight costumes, raunchy lyrics, and an abrupt and loud attitude, Betty was a singer who kicked down conventions in shiny silver platforms. When her most famous song landed in one of my streaming rotations, “They Say I’m Different,” I was overwhelmed by her image, imagining myself, too, caught in the vibrations of a heavy bass beat. “They Say I’m Different” is an anthem of everything that crafted her. She growls about slopping hogs in between praises to Robert Johnson, Bessie Smith, and T-Bone Walker. With a slinking riff and slide guitar behind her, Betty sells her lyrics.

This song became the title of the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different. I felt inspired by her and sat down to watch the film, notebook in hand. Colorful archive footage flashed across my laptop of Betty as a model, smiling and young, Betty on stage with knees bent and eyes shut, and candid interviews with all of the people she had interacted with over the years. Each one grinned thinking of her, but also mourned the moments no longer present. After her short career as a singer, spanning 1973 to 1975, Betty turned reclusive. Little was known about her disappearance until Phillip Cox, the documentary director, began to communicate with her. It took him two years of phone conversations to meet her in person. In the film, she is unfocused, a blur of a woman in the background of her apartment. Her words, though, like her music, make a rattling impression.

When she speaks of her passion, she gives it wings. She describes this artistic fervor as Crow. “Let me begin with Crow,” she says at the start of the film. “There’s always been a bird inside me.” A long-time friend recalls a story about Betty as a young girl, singing for ten minutes on the phone with her. She was an artistic phenomenon from the beginning. Perhaps this is what attracted Miles Davis, legendary jazz trumpeter, to her. Interestingly, aesthetic is what drew her to him: his cool dress jacket and shiny leather shoes. In Betty’s early years as a model and recent transplant to New York, she became Miles’ wife and artistic muse. Their relationship spawned some of her first recordings, a few covers of contemporary songs and some originals. Her gritty voice was in its beginning stages, as was funk as a genre. It wasn’t until her first release in 1973 that her flare began refracting in a myriad of colors. After leaving Miles, her work began to flourish once she started to write, mix, and produce her own music with a faithful backing band. They took up any spot they could as a studio opportunity, even coming down to Louisiana to record in a little shack on the swamp.

But Betty was a lot for audiences of the 1970s. She was forceful and explicit. Her demand of the stage was decidedly unfeminine of the time, especially for a Black woman. In the aftermath of crooner and Motown music, Black musicians were often set into specific boxes of how they could dress, appear, and sing, and despite the changes of the ‘70s, Betty was still taboo. “He Was a Big Freak,” from 1974, casts her as a dominating sexual partner, showcasing fetish culture. It was not common or expected for a Black woman to use the same alluring language as The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. These white British artists played blue-eyed soul—blues songs they had stolen and repurposed. Not only did the lyrics of blue-eyed soul artists describe the sexual conquest of women, but as white men, the bands also held a racial upper hand. As a Black woman who sang about the conquest of men, Betty was lacking in both areas. According to the music industry, she could not be powerful in both ways. Her own bluesy work struggled to reach audiences.

This rejection led to the end of her music career. Crow was weak and mottled. Betty moved away from her band and the friends she made as a singer. She was gone from peoples’ lives. Her music, though, was still grooving. Her inspiration continues to affect young Black musicians, especially women. Taking on the documentary allowed her to tell her own story before she’s lost to the words of others. She’s kept her independence and her strength. She still writes, she still keeps Crow within, and she still sees the important reception woman garner from her as a role model. After many challenges, Betty Davis continues to be different: “a piece of sugarcane / sweet to the core.”

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