Photo: Robert Brenner/Getty Images
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<em></em>*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.
Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Netflix
For Questlove, "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop" Is Crucial For Rap's Legacy
When Questlove worked on the Hip-Hop 50 revue at the 2023 GRAMMYs, the experience was so stressful that he lost two teeth. But he didn't balk at the opportunity to co-produce a two-hour special; the task was too important.
Today, Public Enemy's 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is correctly viewed as a watershed not just for hip-hop, but all of music. But when Questlove's father overheard him playing it, it didn't even sound like music to him.
"He happened to pass my room while 'Night of the Living Baseheads' came on and he had a look of disgust and dismay, like he caught me watching porn," the artist born Ahmir Thompson tells GRAMMY.com. "He literally was like, 'Dude, when you were three, I was playing you Charlie Parker records, and I was playing you real singers and real arrangers, and this is what you call music? All those years I wasted on private school and jazz classes. This is what you like?'
"I couldn't explain to him: 'Dad, you don't understand. Your entire boring-ass record collection downstairs is now being redefined in this very album. Everything you've ever played is in this record,'" he says. "If my dad — who was relatively cool and hip, but just getting older — couldn't understand it, then I know there's a world of people out there that are really just like, whatever."
That nagging reality has powered him ever since — whether he's co-leading three-time GRAMMY winners the Roots, authoring books and liner notes, or directing Oscar-winning films.
And that path led straight to Questlove's role as a producer for "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop," which will air Sunday, Dec. 10, from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. ET and 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. PT on the CBS Television Network, and stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
Questlove makes no bones about it: working on that 12-minute Hip-Hop 50 revue at the 2023 GRAMMYs was taxing. So taxing, in fact, that he lost two teeth due to the psychological pressure. But he soldiered on, and the result is an inspiring rush of a two-hour special.
"The thing that really motivated me — Look, man, roll up your sleeves and run through this mud — was like, if there ever was going to be a hip-hop time capsule, a lot of the participants in this show are somewhere between the ages of 20 and 60, and everybody's still kind of in their prime," he says.
"So that way,” Questlove continues, “in 2030, 2040, 2050, when our great, great, great, great grandkids are born and they want to look up someone, this'll probably be one of the top five things they look up. And I wanted to be a part of that."
Read on for a rangey interview with Questlove about his role in "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years of Hip-Hop," in all its dimensions.
Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" in 2023. Photo: Todd Owyoung/NBC via Getty Images
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What can you tell me about your involvement in "A GRAMMY Salute To 50 Years Of Hip-Hop"?
I could be the guy that complains and complains and complains and complains: Man, I wish somebody would dah, dah, dah. Man, somebody needs to dah, dah, dah. And then the universe the whole time is poking you in the stomach like a dog. You think you're going to be drumming for life — like, that's your job.
So I went through this period where I just hated the lay of the land. And now people are like, "Well, the door is open if you want to come and see if you could change it." And for me, it was just important to.
And at first, I was really skeptical about this because even when I was an artist, my peers all the time would — I say in air quotes jokingly, but it's like, man, I know they're serious — they would just call me a suit. Whenever someone's called a suit in a sitcom or it is like, that's always the bad guy. Or especially for me that's known for all this artistry.
But for me, it's like, I can either just sit on the sidelines and watch this thing slowly kind of go in a direction that I don't want it to go. And often with the history of Black music in America, we're innovating this stuff, but we're really not behind the scenes in power positions to control it or to decide what direction it is. And it's a lot of heartbreaking and hard work.
After the success of the thing that we did in March — that 12-minute revue thing — I'll be honest with you. For 12 minutes that was like going through damn near, and I'm not even using hyperbolic statements by saying, coming out within an inch of my life.
When that moment was literally over and I was on the airplane landing back in New York, two of my teeth fell out. That's the level of stress I was [under]. Imagine landing in JFK and I got to rush to "The Tonight Show," but then it's like, Oh, wait, what's happening? Oh God, no! My teeth are falling out! And going to emergency surgery. My whole takeaway was like: Never again.
So of course when they hit me in July, "Hey, remember that 12 minute thing you did? You want to do the two-hour version of it?" I was like, "Hell no." And of course I hell noed for three weeks and it's like, "All right, I'll do it, but I'll just be a name on it. I ain't doing nothing." And then it went from that to like, "All right, what do you need me to do?"
What I will say is it's a two-hour show in which you got to figure out how to tell [the story of] hip-hop's 50-year totality — its origins, its peak period, its first moments of breaking new ground, the moment it went global around the world. You got to figure out a way to tell this story in two-hour interstitials and be all-inclusive.
It was just as stressful, even up until four hours ago. I'll just basically say that my teeth didn't fall out, thank God. And it was worth everything, because it's really a beautiful moment.
Sorry for that 12-hour answer, but that's just how my life rolls.
It was a great answer. What was your specific role behind the scenes?
So, [part of] my actual division of labor thing was finding people to help facilitate music. This is a genre in which maybe the first six years of the art form, there was no such thing as an instrumental. "Or, "Hey, J.Period, can you recreate 'Check Out My Melody' by Eric B. & Rakim with no vocals in it?"
Finding the right people to do the music, sometimes I'd have to do it myself. And a lot of people in hip-hop have been super burnt. Super burnt. And I mean, that's putting it lightly.
And so you're giving these impassioned, Jerry Maguire, help-me-help-you speeches. The amount of times I was like, "Look, I really want you to reconsider your answer. This is our legacy we're talking about."
I'm using terms that a lot of these people, frankly, are hearing for the first time, Because like I've said in past interviews, hip-hop started as outlaw music. No one thought it was going to be a thing. So there's a whole generation that had to lay out the red carpet, just so that the next generation could benefit from it while we disposed of them.
But then that next generation gets disposed of, and then here comes my generation. And then the next thing, you wake up and it's like, "Oh, we're not relevant anymore," and dah, dah, dah.
And I'm trying to convince people, "Wait, you don't understand. Now we have a seat at the table. Now we get to control. All that we talked about, we need to control our destiny, and this is our culture." And there was a lot of that. And some people [were like], "All right, I'll do it for you." [To which I said,] "No, no, don't do it for me. Do it for the culture."
But then there were also people like, "Man, never again. F— all that." And there was also, "Hey, why wasn't I asked?" and all that stuff. So in these two hours, you're going to see eight to nine segments in which we try to wisely cover every base.
This is the "Lyricist" section, and this is the "Down South" section. And ["Ladies First"] is all about the ladies. And this is for those that passed away. And this is for the club bangers. And this is for music outside of America. And this is for the left-of-center alternative hip-hop.
Yes, we wanted to include everybody, but this is network television. And at that, you only get eight to 12 minutes at a time. So that's even hard. "Hey, why can't I do my chorus and my verse?" "Look, man, you got 32 seconds." If you've ever seen those "Tom and Jerry" cartoons where they're juggling plates in a kitchen — like 30 at a time — I don't recommend that to anybody.
But we got through it. I want everyone to feel proud of where hip-hop has come, because to be nine years old and to get on punishment for hip-hop — you know what I mean? I come from that generation. You've got to pay a price to live this culture.
And now it's established. So that's why I got involved. So there was a lot I had to do. A lot of calls, a lot of begging, a lot of arrangements, a lot of talking to people about clearing their samples, to call up publishing companies: "Look, it's just a four-second segment. It's just one drum roll. Can you please overlook it just for the sake of it?"
The amount of times I had to give those speeches. So yeah, that's what I had to do.
And that's just me. It's nine of us. So there's lighting directions, and choreography, and wardrobe, and dealing with clearance — like FCC, and, "They can't say that." And, "All right, which one of us is going to try to call Snoop to ask him that sort of thing?"
And the amount of Zooms that we were on at five in the morning in the Maldives or halfway around the world.
There must be some component of this process where you recognize that there could never be a perfect two-hour special. There could never be a perfect 200-hour special. There must be something freeing about realizing that nothing can be comprehensive when you're dealing with a cultural ocean like this.
[At one point], I had to take a hip-hop break. And the first thing that I did a week later, after recuperating, was I went on YouTube and I just watched every award show I remember watching — like prime Soul Train Awards back in '87, '88, '89, the years that Michael Jackson was killing the GRAMMYs.
Award shows were so magical to me, when I was a kid. There was a period just between five to maybe 15 or 16 in which I religiously watched that stuff, and you just take it for granted.
When Herbie Hancock did Rockit back in 1983 with all those mechanical break dancers, I wonder the work and the headaches that it took to make that happen. The drummer from Guns N' Roses [was] missing while they had to do "Patience" at the American Music Awards — and Don Henley, of all people, was just on the sidelines like, "Does anyone know how to drum?"
Because the thing was, that was the year they decided, "You know what? This is going to be the first year in which we're going to ask artists to double down on stuff. So we're going to have Rihanna sing three songs, and we're going to have Chris do two songs. We're going to have Justin Timberlake. And then, suddenly, their absence now means that there's five major gaps open.
And they had 40 minutes left before they went to go live and I'm watching the producer make an announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, something just happened. We can't get into it."
The level of viralness now on Instagram or Twitter is expected, but back then it was like, Oh, I wonder what happened? And they're just running up the aisles to Stevie Wonder, "Yo, can you [mimics rapid-fire, inaudible chatter]?"
And I'm looking at him, pondering: What the hell are they asking him? And then Stevie's getting up and doing it, and then, "Jonas Brothers, can you duh, duh, duh? Boyz II Men. Where's Al Green? Is Al Green here?" So literally, I'm watching them solve a headache in real time. And with 20 minutes left, backstage rehearsing, and we were really none the wiser.
I've seen that a few times. My very first GRAMMYs was when Luciano Pavarotti got sick and someone just randomly asked, "Hey, does anyone out there know the lyrics to 'Ave Maria'?" Aretha Franklin raised her hand, and we were all like, 'Wait, we mean the Italian version, like that 'Ave Maria.'" And she's like, "I do know the version."
We underestimated if Aretha Franklin from Detroit, Michigan knew how to sing something in Italian. And within a half hour she was on that stage and she killed that s—.
So it made me literally recapitulate every award show I ever watched.Now I'm watching with the analytical eye: I wonder what headaches it took to put that together? So, it changed me as a spectator and a participant.
I have a friend who's been a dedicated hip-hop fan his entire life. We were talking about the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. He questioned the entire enterprise, arguing that it's an arbitrary number that doesn't mean much to true rap fans. What does the 50th anniversary of hip-hop mean to you, personally?
Well, to me, it's important. There's an interlude that I put on the Things Fall Apart record. The album starts with an argument from [the 1990 film] Mo' Better Blues in which Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes' jazz musician characters are arguing about just the disposability of the art form.
And it ends with a quote from Harry Allen saying that the thing about hip-hop is that most people think that it's disposable: Let me get what I can out this thing, and I'll throw them out the window. And on top of that, people don't even see it as art. And that really hit me in the gut, because I see the beauty of it.
This is kind of why I got into the game of: first it was with liner notes, and then with social media doing these mammoth history posts. And then it's like, Alright, well, let me write some books, because I'm afraid that no one's doing this level of critical thinking about this particular thing.
I know that the disdain and the dismissiveness that I got from some of hip-hop's participants does sort of stem from a place of ego being bruised. And it's righteous. It's righteous anger. But I also knew that if I sat on the sidelines, then it's like when I have grandkids and they Google this, and if it was a half-assed job, then that's my fault. And I definitely don't want to be the guy that talks, talks, complains, complains, without being a part of it.
So yeah, for the amount of people that prematurely died before the age of 30, and for the startling volume of people that have recently passed away in the last three years because of health issues, cardiac arrest, strokes, a lot of us are dying… You and I are talking right now, right when Norman Lear has passed away at the age of 101.
I just read that in The New York Times.
Dude, can you imagine "Tupac Shakur Dead at 103"? Can you imagine that for hip-hop?
It's a survival tool, because for a lot of us, that was the way out of poverty. It was vital for me. I couldn't just sit back and not watch one person behind the wheel. I have to be the designated driver. So, that's why it's important to celebrate that number.
And a big part of my convincing them was like when they were going to pass, like, "Nah, dog, I'm cool. I got a gig that night," I was like, "Dude, we're not going to do this for the 51st or the 52nd. And frankly, will we be here?" I will be 92 years old if it makes it to the 75th. You know what I mean?
The only person that got in my face was Latifah like, "Excuse me, I will be here for the 75th and I will be for the 100th. You don't know when I'm leaving." So I was like, "More power to you, Dana. All right, good. Queen Latifah will be here for the 100th."
What I'm gathering from what you're saying is that no matter what, it's important to have an organization of this prestige canonize this cultural force.
Oh, absolutely. And I know that oftentimes we play the game of public appearances for the gaze of the establishment. I don't want to get into that thing either: making performative celebrations just so that the mainstream can celebrate us.
I have to say that when you watch it, it really doesn't come off as compromised. This thing really looks good. That was the one thing that we laughed at in the group chat, like, "Man, we just went through Apocalypse Now, and are we all saying it was worth it?"
There are at least three people in my production thread that were sort of like, "Uh-huh, never again. I will never again subject myself." And one of them is dead serious. One of them started doing something the opposite, like, "Nah, I'm just doing classical music from now on. There's no stress there." But it was worth it. It was worth it to me.
Questlove in 2023. Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
It looks to be a classy, expansive special. I'm excited for it to air.
The best part about it? So if you remember, to me, the star of the 12-minute version that we did at the GRAMMYs in March, was Jay-Z.
It was one of the things where it's like, "Hey, do we even ask Jay-Z?" And that's the one guy we decided ourselves, "Well, let's pass on him because number one, he's already performing with DJ Khaled, so we'll pass on him."
Jay-Z actually wound up being the star of that because he was a fan mouthing it in the audience, which to me was almost like better than us just doing a song with Jay-Z on stage. But the audience is the absolute star.
To see Chuck D smile — I've never seen Chuck D smile. As all these acts are coming out and Chuck D's like, singing <a href="https://www.grammy.com/news/sly-stone-velvet-underground-11-facts-about-grammy-legends">[Sly and the Family Stone's] "Everyday People," like Boston fans sing "Sweet Caroline" at Red Sox games. Who knew that Chuck D was so jovial about things? But that's with everyone in the audience watching, supporting each other.
So that to me is also an important thing because as audience members on stage, they're ripping it, but as audience members, they're supporting each other. And that, I think is the most important part, because a lot of my take was like, "Wow, I didn't know that dah, dah, dah was so supportive." Or, "Man, Nelly actually knows every Public Enemy lyric. Who knew?" There are a lot of "Who knew?" moments that will shock people for this show.
I'm so glad you brought that up. That was one of my favorite moments during the Hip-Hop 50 performance at the 2022 GRAMMYs. Jay-Z is a billionaire twice over and a global cultural figure, but we see him in the audience, grinning ear-to-ear like a little boy, doing finger guns in the air.
He's getting his life back. And it's important. Especially now, I'm all about joy. And it's not even just like this particular hip-hop figure celebrating his music.
When Chance the Rapper comes out, again, I'm like, "Wow, [Cee] Knowledge from Digable Planets knows Chance?" And then I was like, "Well, they got kids, so of course I'm sure their kids play around the house." I'm doing all this analytical things like, "Wait, how do they know this song? And this is past their age range."
And that to me is the most telling part of this whole thing, to watch generational people get out of their actual zone and to find out that they're fans of — when GloRilla comes out, to watch [Digable Planets' Ladybug] Mecca mouth the lyrics. I was just like, "Oh, wow, OK."
That kind of puts to bed that stereotype that we only listen to the music in our realm. So, yeah, man — to me, that was the magic part of it all.
Photo: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty Images
5 Less-Discussed Miles Davis Albums You Need To Know, From 'Water Babies' To 'We Want Miles'
Despite not being mentioned nearly as much as 'Kind of Blue' or 'Bitches Brew,' these five albums are highly recommended — some for Davis neophytes, some for diehards.
Joe Farnsworth couldn’t believe what he was watching. The leading straight-ahead drummer was sitting with the revered tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and a Miles Davis documentary happened to come on TV.
“This documentary went from Coltrane straight to Sam Rivers,” Farnsworth told LondonJazz News in 2023 — referring to the tenormen the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee employed in his so-called First and Second Great Quintets, respectively.
“What happened to ‘Four’ & More? What happened to My Funny Valentine? What happened to Seven Steps to Heaven?” Farnsworth remembered wondering. “Not a mention, man.”
Granted, Coleman’s tenure represented a transitional period for Davis’s group; his choice of tenorist would solidify in 1964 with the arrival of the 12-time GRAMMY winner and 23-time nominee Wayne Shorter. With pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams as the rhythm section — 18 GRAMMYs between them — the result was one of jazz’s all-time classic groups.
But Farnsworth’s point is well taken: in the recorded canon, jazz tends to lionize the rulebook-shredders and boundary-shatterers, at the expense of merely excellent work. But there’s not only room for both; in order to exist, the former requires the latter, and vice versa.
And given that Davis is, in many respects, the quintessential jazz musician, this wholly applies to him and his formidable discography — where the capital-P pivotal ones, like Kind of Blue and Bitches Brew, get the majority of the ink.
After you check out Seven Steps to Heaven and the like — and absorb Coleman’s important contributions to Davis’s story — take a spin through five more Davis albums that deserve more attention.
Water Babies (rec. 1967-1968, rel. 1976)
Axiomatically, anything Davis’ Second Great Quintet — and keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Dave Holland, to boot — laid to tape is worth hearing.
But Water Babies should be of interest to any serious Miles fan because it reveals the connective tissue between Davis’ acoustic and electric eras.
The first three tracks, “Water Babies,” “Capricorn” and “Sweet Pea” — Shorter compositions all — were retrieved from the cutting room floor circa 1968’s Nerfiti. (Tellingly, that turned out to be Davis’ final fully acoustic album.)
Tracks four and five — “Two Faced” and “Dual Mr. Tillman Anthony” — add Corea and Holland to the mix; on electric piano, Corea adds a celestial drift to the proceedings. For reasons both
Miles in the Sky (1968)
Miles Davis and George Benson on record? It happened — lucky us. The 10-time GRAMMY-winning, 25-time nominated guitar genius can be found on two tracks from the 1979 outtakes compendium Circle in the Round, and on “Paraphernalia” from Miles in the Sky.
While Water Babies is something of a dark horse for the heads, Miles in the Sky — also featuring the Second Great Quintet —is a fleet, aerodynamic stunner and one of the most unfairly slept-on entries in his discography.
Outside of the Shorter-penned “Paraphernalia,” Miles in the Sky features two Davis tunes in “Stuff” and “Country Son,” and a Williams composition in “Black Comedy.”
It’s sterling stuff, right at the tipping point for fusion — and its obfuscation says nothing about its quality, but speaks volumes as to the volume of masterpieces in Davis’ discography.
Agharta (1965) and Pangaea (1976)
Two primo dispatches from Davis’ experimental years, capturing two concerts from the same evening in Osaka, Agharta and Pangaea are amoebic, undulating wonders.
Across the nearly 100-minute Agharta and 88-minute Pangaea, Davis and company — including alto and soprano saxophonist Sonny Fortune, and guitarists Reggie Lucas and Pate Cosey — conjure everything we expect from electric Miles.
Abstracted drones, worldbeat textures, Davis’ trumpet funneled through twisted wah-wah: check, check, and check. One critic characterized the music as “ambient yet thrashing,” compared it to “Fela Kuti jamming with Can,” and identified hints of Stockhausen, and nailed it on all three counts.
Fans of thick, heavy, electrified Miles typically reach for Bitches Brew or On the Corner first. But if those don’t completely whet your thirst, there’s a whole lot where that came from.
And given that Davis put down the horn, ravaged by illness, for six years afterward, Agharta and Pangaea represent something of a culmination of Davis as the intrepid deconstructionist.
We Want Miles (1982)
Despite what you may have heard, ‘80s Miles — his final full decade on earth, and the one where he drew heavily from pop sounds and songs — is nothing to sniff at.
From 1981’s The Man with the Horn to 1983’s Star People to 1989’s Aura, Davis produced a number of rough-hewn gems. And despite Davis’ bulldozed health during its recording, the live We Want Miles, recorded in ‘81, is among them.
Despite requiring oxygen between songs and wearing a rubber corset to keep playing, Davis is in fine form.
We Want Miles proves that Miles never lost his ability to produce inspired, inspiring work — no matter what his failing body or, erm, ‘80s textures threw at it.
Davis passed away in 1991, and we’ll never see his like again — so savor everything he gave us, whether illuminated or obscured by shadow.
Photo: ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images
9 Things We Learned From Sly Stone's New Memoir
The recently released 'Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)' reflects on Sly Stone's career and personal history with a focus on the late '60s through the 1980s.
Nearly 60 years into his career, Sly Stone remains thankful.
His recently released memoir, Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), offers an earnest look into the life and music of the funk and soul giant.
"He's at the top of the pantheon for a certain part of rock ‘n’ roll and funk and soul, and should stay there," says Ben Greenman, who co-authored the memoir.
The book – which is the inaugural release on Questlove’s publishing imprint, AUWA Books – pulls its title from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 single of the same name.
"When I'm co-writing with somebody, they start to define the rhythm," says Greenman, who’s also co-written memoirs from Questlove, Brian Wilson, and George Clinton. "Sometimes I'll pitch a certain structure. Other times in the course of talking, they start to develop their own sense and rhythm of things and then you have to reflect that."
Thank You comes over 40 years since Stone released his final album, Ain’t But the One Way, and reflects on the musician’s career, along with surprising, little-known moments. To Greenman, Stone’s tales were reflective of his headspace in the late-1960s and throughout the ‘80s, when the artist was often preoccupied with a chaotic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.
Towards the midpoint of the book, Stone hilariously shared that he once loaned a Cadillac to Etta James, although the police later discovered that the vehicle was stolen.
"The assumption that I had is ‘Oh my God, you gave her this car and good faith and then it turned out it was stolen. How embarrassing, Greenman explains. "But the vibe I got was he probably knew, he just thought that the fake papers on it would hold. That story was so strange and weird and out of nowhere, but sort of representative of what it must have been [like] to be him at that time."
Despite certain points of misfortunes in Stone’s journey, including decades-long drug abuse, the Sly and the Family Stone frontman carried on as an prestigious musical act. To honor Stone’s legacy and Thank You, here are nine takeaways from the book.
Stone Started Out In A Family Group
Stone, born Sylvester Stewart, began in music as part of 1950s family gospel group the Stewart Four. The second of five children, the Pentacostal family got their start in church upon relocating from Denton, Texas to Vallejo, California. The siblings all learned an recited material by gospel pioneers Mahalia Jackson, the Soul Stirrers, Brother Joe May and the Swan Silvertones.
Stone’s parents, K.C. and Alpha, were multi-instrumentalists who noticed their children’s musical forte, and the Stewart Four signed a hyperlocal single deal with the Church of God in Christ, the Northern California Sunday School Dept. Released in 1956, Stone’s first-ever record "On The Battlefield / Walking In Jesus Name" was limited to roughly 100 copies.
Stone Influenced Herbie Hancock And Miles Davis
Sly and the Family Stone debuted in 1967 with A Whole New Thing, and the collective reinvented funk and progressive soul with follow-ups Dance to the Music, Life, Stand!, and their 1971 landmark There's a Riot Goin' On. Their 1973 album Fresh came at an auspicious time for Sly devotees.
Jazz greats Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock took notice of Stone's musicianship. The artist was a direct influence for Hancock’s seminal 1973 album Head Hunters, which includes a punchy jazz fusion cut named after Stone.
Stone recalls that in 1973, Columbia Records dropped multiple jazz acts, including Charles Mingus, Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, in favor of rock and funk artists. Miles Davis was fascinated by the introductory Fresh track "In Time"; according to Stone, Davis was rumored to have replayed the song for his band to "work out the rhythms of it."
The Black Panther Party Took Offense To The Family Stone
Sly and the Family Stone almost ended before the group went mainstream. In the ‘60s, the Bay Area-based group were neighbors to the Oakland chapter of the Black Panther Party.
The organization protested the band’s for leaning into "what White America wanted," per Stone. The Panthers disdained the presence of white members Jerry Martini (saxophonist) and Greg Errico (drummer), pressuring Stone to get rid of the musicians.
Early BPP leader Eldridge Cleaver also wanted Stone to make a six-figure donation to the cause, which Stone refused. Stone condemned the Panthers’ defiance of laws and considered his group to be politically neutral.
Bob Marley And The Wailers Were Removed From The Family Stone’s 1973 Tour
In October 1973, Bob Marley and the Wailers began their first U.S. tour as a supporting act for Sly and the Family Stone. The 17-date tour ended after four shows for the reggae band, who had just released their seminal Catch A Fire.
From Stone’s perspective, the Wailers weren’t a "good match" for American crowds at the time, and Bunny Wailer was no longer performing with the group. Stone dismissed allegations that his group felt they were upstaged.
"They played slow. They had accents," Stone wrote about the Wailers, adding, "There was no offense on our part but we shipped them off."
"How was Bob a threat to Sly Stone?" Joe Higgs, in the 2017 Marley biography So Much Things to Say. People said they can’t hear us: our accent, they couldn’t understand; our rhythm, too slow. We weren’t happening. And our outfits were inappropriate. We were rebels."
Stone And Kathy Silva Had 20,000 Guests At Their Madison Square Garden Wedding
Stone’s marriage to actress-model Kathy Silva was arguably the first concert-turned-wedding. The couple wed on June 5, 1974 at Madison Square Garden. Plans were made in a rush, and guests who received invitations were asked to RSVP by May 31.
An audience of almost 20,000 (some who paid as little as $8.50) attended the wedding ceremony, which doubled as Sly and the Family Stone’s concert. The Temptations co-founder Eddie Kendricks performed first before Stone’s mother and niece, Lisa, gave religious acknowledgements.
Later, on the Starlight Roof at the Waldorf Astoria, champagne flowed and guests dug into a cake shaped like a vinyl record. A reception featured soul food and Japanese cuisine, honoring their Black and Hawaiian heritage.
The day after the special occasion, Stone discovered that wedding officiant Bishop B.R. Stewart wasn't registered in New York, but paperwork was hurried to the city clerk to make the marriage legally official.
Stone And Prince Almost Collaborated
Although Sly and the Family Stone disbanded in 1983, Stone had his eyes on up-and-coming artists. Stone was told that a young Prince was a "new version" of himself and peers Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Stone’s then-girlfriend (and now-manager) Arlene Hirschkowitz encouraged the artists to collaborate following a late-’80s meeting at L.A.’s Roxbury Club.
"I wasn't always on Prince, but that day I was," Stone wrote. "I told [Hirschkowitz] that I was excited about the idea and I meant it. But he never called."
Stone And George Clinton Were Close Friends
In the mid-’70s Sly and the Family Stone was a supporting act on the collective’s P-Funk Earth Tour. After the Family Stone disbanded in the ‘80s, Sly Stone reconnected with fellow funkateer George Clinton.
Clinton owned a farm in Michigan, where he and Stone dabbled in recreational drugs in their downtime. The two closely worked together, with Stone co-writing "Catch a Keeper" for Clinton’s all-female group the Brides of Funkenstein, composed of four women who were previously Stone’s background vocalists. The song was later released by the P-Funk All-Stars, and the Funkenstein was shelved, but Stone also had a writing credit on 1981 Funkadelic album The Electric Spanking of War Babies ("Funk Gets Stronger").
As Stone’s collaboration with P-Funk continued, he noticed that bassist and vocalist Bootsy Collins replicated his style. "Sometimes when I was out walking people would call to me, ‘Bootsy! Bootsy!’ I didn’t mind it so much," Stone wrote.
Michael Jackson Offered To Return Sly Stone’s Catalog
Stone was friendly with the Jackson family, mainly vocalist and former Jackson 5 member, Jermaine, but it was Michael Jackson who upheld Stone’s music. In 1983, Jackson acquired the international rights to Sly and the Family Stone’s catalog. The acquisition was Jackson’s first under his publishing company, MIJAC Music, as Stone didn’t assume that the group’s old songs were of monetary value.
Shortly before his death, Jackson offered to return Stone’s catalog under an agreement that he would go to substance abuse rehab. Stone disagreed with Jackson’s terms, even being a no-show to a meeting that the King of Pop scheduled. Stone later tried to make amends by sending Jackson a letter, though Jackson never received it. Someone sold the letter as memorabilia.
In 2019, Stone closed a deal with MIJAC, allowing Stone to keep minority interest in the catalog and resume collecting on his music.
Sly Stone Was Honored With A Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award
The music of Sly and the Family Stone was featured in a tribute performance at the 2006 GRAMMYs. The Nile Rodgers-curated ceremony consisted of tribute performances from Joss Stone, John Legend, and Van Hunt ("Family Affair"), Maroon 5 ("Everyday People"), will.i.am ("Dance to the Music"), with Steven Tyler and Stone ending with "I Wanna Take You Higher." The live show was Stone’s first since 1987.
In 2017, Sly Stone was honored with the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement special merit award.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.