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Remembering Betty Davis: 5 Essential Tracks By The Singer/Songwriter, Fashion Icon & Funk Pioneer
The sexy and ferocious funk agitator Betty Davis may have experienced limited commercial success at her peak, but her influence rippled through the decades
You know the Bechdel test, which measures the number of women in fiction who talk about something other than a man? Let's apply a metric like that to singer/songwriter Betty Davis.
Sure, her husband of a year, Miles Davis, is a big part of her story, and she of his. She inspired his tunes "Mademoiselle Mabry" and "Back Seat Betty," and appeared on the cover of his 1968 Filles de Kilimanjaro album. Davis even shepherded him into the look and sound of '60s rock, spurring her husband to make albums like Bitches Brew. In his infamous 1989 biography Miles, the musician called his former wife "a free spirit — talented as a motherf***er — who was a rocker and a street woman."
But if you remove the Prince of Darkness from her timeline completely, Betty Davis would still be a major player in the funk sphere — with unforgettable style, attitude and autonomy.
Davis' body of work may be mostly confined to the early- and mid-'70s before dropping out of music for decades — but what a catalog. Despite not getting their proper due until the 21st century, 1973's Betty Davis, 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal are must-haves for any funk collection — and so is Is It Love or Desire?, recorded in 1976 but unreleased until 2009, when Light in the Attic saved the day.
All four albums are imbued with ferocity, sexuality and rhythms that could compel a corpse to get on the dancefloor — and today, the world is a little less kinetic. Davis died on Feb. 9, in her almost-lifelong hometown of Homestead, Pennsylvania. She was 76.
In recent years, Davis had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. In 2017, she got her own documentary, Betty: They Say I'm Different. In 2018, Davis had her own episode of Mike Judge’s animated “Tales From The Tour Bus,” ending a season that featured Bootsy Collins and James Brown. With Questlove's 2021 documentary Summer of Soul, her tune "Uptown (To Harlem)" — recorded by the Chambers Brothers — reached a new audience. Her music was featured in TV series from "Girlboss" to "High Fidelity" and "Orange is the New Black."
Davis may have not been a capital-F feminist, but They Say I'm Different is full of examples of how she led the charge as an independent Black woman — and how young, female musicians of color can follow her lead. "I asked my grandmother if I just had to do as I was told — be sweet and pretty for the boys," she's quoted as saying in the 2018 documentary. Grandma responded by playing her Ma Rainey — charting her a course in the lineage of the Mother of the Blues.
Contemporary artists took notice. According to the aforementioned statement, eight-time GRAMMY nominee Janelle Monae called her "one of the godmothers of redefining how Black women in music can be viewed"; four-time GRAMMY winner Erykah Badu added, "We just grains of sand in her Bettyness." And Light in the Attic's Matt Sullivan cited her "unbending DIY ethic," which she forged by taking control of her songwriting, production and image.
For a brief tour through the career that funked up the world, here are five essential tracks by Betty Davis.
"Get Ready for Betty" (single, 1964)
Before Davis was Davis, she was Betty Mabry — and she knocked out this self-referential single in 1964. While it fits more in a streetwise girl group mold than the funk-with-teeth Davis would become famous for, it's nonetheless a charming, hooky and driving statement of purpose. "Get ready for Betty," she sings in the chorus. "I don't mess around." True that!
"If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up" (Betty Davis, 1973)
This is about where primo Davis begins — her self-titled debut can shoot electricity through your cells. If you don't reflexively nod along with "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up," do you even have a nervous system? Her cat-in-heat yowl with a male accompanist egging her on is pure joy — and it's not hard to hear how this music galvanized a generation of Afropunks.
"He Was a Big Freak" (They Say I'm Different, 1974)
Davis got even more savage with They Say I'm Different, perhaps her ultimate statement of intent. "He Was a Big Freak" turns up both the volume and sex: "When I was his mother/I'd hold him like a baby in my arms/ When I was his lover/ Oh, I'd drive him out of his mind!" she insists. It all sounds like she's got a furry, high-heeled boot on his neck, demanding satisfaction — or else.
"You and I" (Nasty Gal, 1975)
Any number of clock-cleaning funk tracks could conceivably make this list. But to get a fuller scope of Davis as an artist, consider how she could operate in the blue part of the flame. "You and I" finds her not roaring, but vulnerably crooning. "I'm just a child tryin' to be a woman," Davis sings, though she sounds nothing if not womanly.
"Bottom of the Barrel" (Is It Love or Desire?, 2009)
Any '70s artist with a random album in 2009 is bound to raise eyebrows — did some bushy-tailed up-and-comer write songs for them, produce them and trot them back into the spotlight? (No names named here.) But Is it Love or Desire? was recorded back in '76 — it just didn't see the light of day for decades. The whole program is worth hearing, but the mighty "Bottom of the Barrel" displays how her music could have only grown more brazen and inspired.
Luckily, in 2022, we get one more: Crashin' from Passion, a reissue of a 1979 release. Until then, if you love funk but don't know Betty Davis, you're in luck — get picked up.
Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards
Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances
The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more
To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.
Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz.
The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).
The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT.
Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"
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Questlove Pens New Book: 'Creative Quest'
GRAMMY-winning Roots drummer set to release his fourth book on the creative process in April 2018
No stranger to writing books, Questlove has announced his fourth book, Creative Quest, will arrive April 24, 2018.
According to a statement from the book's publisher, Creative Quest "synthesizes all the creative philosophies, lessons and stories [Questlove has] heard from the many creators and collaborators in his life, and reflects on his own experience, to advise readers and fans on how to consider creativity and where to find it."
Not only will the Roots drummer provide personal examples of creativity, he also taps into the lessons he has learned from other notable artists, such as George Clinton, Björk, Ava DuVernay, and David Byrne, equaling a journey full of creative inspiration.
The book is available to pre-order, and follows his other books: 2016's Something To Food About: Exploring Creativity With America's Most Innovative Chefs, 2015's Mo' Meta Blues: The World According To Questlove and 2013's Soul Train: The Music, Dance And Style Of A Generation.
Keith Wilder, Heatwave Lead Singer, Dies
The GRAMMY-nominated "Boogie Nights" and "Always And Forever" singer dies at age 65
Keith Wilder, the lead singer of GRAMMY-nominated '70s R&B/funk hitmakers Heatwave, died Oct. 29 at the age of 65. Wilder's death was confirmed by the group's manager, Les Spaine, via Rolling Stone. No specific cause of death has been confirmed, although fellow Heatwave band member Billy Jones told Dayton.com that Wilder died in his sleep.
Wilder, who was born in Dayton, Ohio, formed Heatwave in 1975 in Germany with his brother, Johnnie Wilder Jr., who was serving in the Army. The duo subsequently enlisted songwriter/keyboardist Rod Temperton, drummer Ernest "Bilbo" Berger, bassist Mario Mantese, and guitarists Eric Johns and Roy Carter.
In 1976 the group released their debut album, the platinum-plus Too Hot To Handle, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard 200. The album spawned the hits "Boogie Nights" (No. 2) and "Always And Forever," both of which attained platinum status. Heatwave's sophomore LP, Central Heating, hit No. 10 on the strength of the Top 20 hit "The Groove Line." The group's third album, 1980's Hot Property, was certified gold.
Moving into a new decade, Heatwave released 1980's Candles and 1982's Current. By then, the group had lost Mantese, Wilder Jr. and Temperton, who at that point was emerging as a go-to songwriter for the likes of Michael Jackson, George Benson and Michael McDonald, among others.
Keith Wilder revamped Heatwave for 1988's The Fire, and kept the band alive as a touring entity into the '90s. While Wilder continued to tour in recent years, he was forced to retire from the road after suffering a stroke in 2015.
Wilder scored two nominations with Heatwave at the 20th GRAMMY Awards: Best Arrangement For Voices for "All You Do Is Dial" and Best R&B Vocal Performance By A Duo, Group Or Chorus for "Boogie Nights"
"Johnnie was a MONSTER singer whose harmony game is unmatched," said Questlove in an Instagram post. "No REAL singer worth their grain of salt NEVER denied his mastery."
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Questlove Keynote & More Added To ASCAP I Create Music Expo
Other additions to the expo include a panel on emo rap and Nashville's take on of international sounds
The Roots drummer will also be presented with ASCAP Creative Voice Award, the membership organization announced. Others added to the expo panels include GRAMMY-nominated DJ and producer TOKiMONSTA. The event will take place May 2−4 in Los Angeles at the Loews Hollywood Hotel.
"This Is Us" composer Sidd Khosla, Freddy Kennett of Louis The Child, songwriter Priscilla Renea and singer/songwriter Stephen Bishop were also added as panelists.
Among other additions: The Rise of Emo rap panel featuring Morgan Freed, producer Charlie Shuffler, and artists Lil Aaron and Kreayshawn and Nashville Goes Global, which will feature Ashley Gorley, Tommee Profitt, Chris Farren, Steven Battey and Dave Kuncio and will explore the city's support of international sounds.
For more information on how to attend the expo, visit ASCAP's website.