The Upshot: Previously unreleased Miles Davis-produced sessions from 1969 featuring the powerhouse funk/soul vocals of Davis’ then-wife Betty, it’s got a who’s-who of jazz and rock legends as house band.
BY FRED MILLS
Although throughout the late ‘60s Betty Davis (born Betty Mabry) was making the NYC scene, rubbing shoulders with the elite, releasing a couple of independent singles, and eventually snagging a contract with Columbia Records (which released a 45 in 1968, “It’s My Life” b/w “Live, Love, Learn”), it wouldn’t be until 1973 that she would actually release a full-length en route to becoming the “Nasty Gal” funk-soul dynamo. And by the end of the decade, she’d already decided to leave the music business, just three albums to her name—hardly the type of career that gets inscribed in the history books.
However, there was that stunning 1975 Nasty Gal album. And there was that short-lived marriage to Miles Davis, to whom she introduced the rock-world likes of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. So she’s definitely more than a footnote. And the marriage also yielded an intriguing set of Miles-produced demos cut for Columbia on May 14 and 20, 1969, released here for the first time. The Columbia Years features a veritable jazz-rock supergroup backing her in the studio: Herbie Hancock, Harvey Brooks, Billy Cox, John McLaughlin, Mitch Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, and Larry Young. (Miles himself does not perform on the songs, but his voice can occasionally be heard in the studio talkback.) And it’s an intriguing collection, primarily originals penned by Betty.
The best track is her “Down Home Girl,” an outrageously kinetic five-minute swamp-funk workout that spotlights both the singer’s kittenish vocal come-ons and McLaughlin’s uncharacteristic chicken-pickin’ guitar licks. There’s also a pair of covers: a rousing, equally swampy “Born on the Bayou” which, with Mabry’s extemporaneous grunts and yelps, steers the band directly into Tina Turner territory; and “Politician Man,” served up as a bluesy sultry manifesto for Mabry but which doesn’t quite hold its own next to the version Jack Bruce originally cut with Cream. Also included are three tracks from an October 18, 1968, session produced by Jerry Fuller and arranged by her then-boyfriend Hugh Masekela. Those are equally engaging, and perhaps even a bit more expansive with the dynamics, which benefit from string arrangements and Masekela’s upbeat horn lines.
The album was put together by Light In the Attic with the cooperation and input of Betty, and her involvement surely gets the hopes up for longtime Davis fans who bemoaned her truncated career and always hoped there might be material stashed away in the vault—or even that she might return to performing and recording.
Consumer Note: The LP version is pressed on handsome gold vinyl, and the set’s graphic design is another class production from the stalwart archival label, with a thick gatefold sleeve and a booklet boasting iconic Baron Wolman photos and interviews with Masakela, bassist Brooks, and Davis herself.
DOWNLOAD: “Down Home Girl,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Live, Love, Learn”
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