In the loamy swamp's underbrush surrounding Bogalusa, La., four men from Reidsville, N.C.—a former tobacco and textile community north of Greensboro, not far from the Virginia state line—set out to make soul seductress Betty Davis' ultimate record. They succeeded, too, but for more than three decades people only heard whispers and rumors of those recordings, not the music itself.
California label Light in the Attic reissued Betty Davis and They Say I'm Different, the first two records from the Durham-born, hypersexual funk pioneer, in 2007. This fall, they followed through with two more archival feats: a remastered version of album three, Nasty Gal and—at long last—that sweaty bayou masterpiece, Is it Love or Desire. Once again, Betty Davis outlasted an untimely fate.
In 1975, Davis was at a crossroads in her career: Six years before, she'd split with her husband, the jazz legend Miles Davis, and recorded those first two records with bands that included members of Sly & the Family Stone. Sessions with folks like Herbie Hancock and a deal with major label Island Records for a third record followed. They were but minor successes.
Davis wanted to break out and widen her audience, just as many of those around her had done. She had been opening for big bands of the day—Graham Central Station, Mahavishnu Orchestra, even a slot warming up for Kiss that fell through, reportedly because they thought she might upstage them. Davis wanted to be the main event. She formed a band, later dubbed Funkhouse, from two family members and their old friends who had been playing together on the R&B scene back in North Carolina. Drummer Nickey Neal and bassist Larry Johnson were first cousins. Guitarist Carlos Morales got the nod from Davis' cousins, as did keyboardist Fred "Funki" Mills. Johnson, Neal and Mills had played in bands together around Reidsville and Greensboro for years.
Though she had been born in Durham, Davis was raised until age 9 on her grandmother's farm in Reidsville. "I remember slopping the hogs in the morning, and they'd be getting off humpin' to John Lee Hooker," she said of those farm days in a rare interview with the Independent Weekly in 2007, from her home in Pittsburgh.
"Betty's grandmother—you know, that she lived with—and her aunts, they were such a musical influence on her," says Mills, a congenial, laughing man who still lives in East Durham and performs with his band, Sweet Dreams, at the downtown nightclub Talk of the Town. "Well, I called her grandmother, too. In Reidsville, it was like a family thing with all of us."
Down in Louisiana, the family needed to deliver fast, tight rhythms, giving Davis' provocative lyrics their most delicious backing yet. Unlike others in her position, Davis wasn't afraid of voicing her perspective for fear of losing her gig. In the tumultuous, often chauvinist music world of the '70s, she was prescient about her own gender in the world. So many of the songs on the album focused on things that were important to Davis—her own openness about life and sexuality ("Nasty Gal," "Talkin Trash"), props to her musical core in a roll call of influence and heritage ("F.U.N.K.") and her intimate side ("You and I," co-written with Miles).
"She was true to herself," says Mills, who's a decade younger than Davis. "Maybe she had an over-the-top show, but she wrote honestly, like she thought about things."
In a 1976 interview with Penthouse, quoted in writer John Ballon's liner notes to the new Nasty Gal reissue, Davis said, "Women are supposed to scream for Mick Jagger and try to pull off a man's clothes on the stage. But men are supposed to be in control on all levels. A lot of them might really want to jump up and pull off my clothes, but they know they aren't supposed to. It makes 'em feel weird and uptight."
Mills speculates that Davis' forthright, sexy style would have lent itself to another subgenre. "I feel like if she had come along during Prince's time," he says, "she would have fit right in with that. All the girl groups he had going ..."
All of this came into focus when Davis embarked on recording Is it Love or Desire, her most ambitious project. It was a bold move for her and her management, even for an outsider artist like Davis.
Hunkered down in one of the best modern-equipped studios around, called adoringly Studio in the Country, the band had settled in to record the album undisturbed. Set away from town, with the late summer haze off Lake Pontchartrain's brackish water rolling in, the soundproofed building allowed them to open up and let the ideas fly—Betty's ideas, that is.
"It was so much about getting across this thing Betty was into, this sensuality thing. We were still Betty's concept, it all came from her," says Davis. "It wasn't like we did a song and brought it to her. That never happened." In one case, when Davis decided a song needed a sound she couldn't get from Funkhouse, local musician and Louisiana legend Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown came in to play violin on "For My Man."
"We had a babe who cooked and did laundry for us," Mills says of the Louisiana space. "It was like a bungalow. We'd go into the studio, engineers would be there, we'd go through some things. We had 24-hour access and lived in little houses right there."
And they nailed it: The blasting title track certainly clears any haze around Davis' modus operandi. A snappy bass line percolates, and Davis yowls "Lovaaah!" She launches into a come-on that most singers of the time, and likely today, would consider too much: "Lover of many men/ I'm too hot too hot to handle/ I'm too cold to freeze/ I'm too sweet to stand up/ And I'm much too low to get into it/ On my knees." The song's driving pace and her siren's call marking each verse announced a new chapter for Davis. And on "Whorey Angel," where Mills sings backup, Davis is a roaring bad girl in control, paired with a male vocal that makes the song sound like an updated Ike and Tina take. Had it come out as scheduled, these tunes—heavy, relentless, personal—might have altered the paths of Davis herself (not long after this session, she retired from music), let alone scores of other musicians and singers.
"Betty had gotten released from Island Records, and so they were in negotiations with Philly International," Mills remembers. The music business had always been something Betty bumped against, feeling like she was unfairly treated. Mills said it was another singer's ambition that left the Bogalusa recordings stuck in the mud, label-less. "When Teddy Pendergrass left Harold Melvin and Blue Notes, [one of Philly International's flagship acts] they [waffled on Betty's record]."
Indeed, until the label's previous reissues stirred up more interest in Betty Davis, there were only murmurs about the album. In his extensive liner notes for the eponymous record, critic Oliver Wang explained just how invisible they were: "Even for an artist as enigmatic as Betty Davis, Is it Love or Desire has been the ultimate mystery—no singles, no promos, not even so much as a bootleg," he wrote. "It's as if the album never existed; a cruel fate to bestow on what was universally considered as Betty's crowning achievement by those who worked on it."
So the recordings lay dormant and unclaimed in storage. Mills said of Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan, "Matt keeps in touch with me, and he was trying to find the recordings. He had some tenacity about finding it." He eventually discovered them spread between vaults in Louisiana and New York.
"'If I was a man,' Betty used to always say," remembers Mills. "She always had this thing about the business." In "Stars Starve, You Know?" she voices that frustration clearly but tempers it with some off-kilter comedy. But the stinging venom was still there. She railed against the male-dominated industry, while playing the come-hither, power-wielding goddess who stirs libidos everywhere. Far ahead of the social norms then, Davis presented herself unflinchingly as a complex black woman who could not be held down. Thankfully, her recordings have been impossible to suppress, too.