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What's So Hot About Betty Davis?


Betty Davus, Photo by Robert Brenner 

We don't have to look for parades. They find us. They track us down. First, we hear a slightly extraordinary sound. THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom, THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom. Could it be a truck or thunder? No! The sound is too regular. Somewhere there are drums. Then, bells and whistles spice the air. It's a parade! It's down the block! People find themselves marching to the curbs. THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom. THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom. It's coming into view, like a peacock stepping from a fog. Here it is-music, marchers, flags and floats.

Parades, coming from nowhere, march through our streets. They transform grime into confetti and solitude into society. When the parade is over, we go back to whatever we were doing with a meandering idiot smile that says, "Kiss me, I saw a parade."

Performers are like parades. We may think we discover them but it's only because they march into our lives. Before we truly sense them, we know them only as traffic noises. It's a situation that can lead to frustration, pomposity, arrogance and a good deal of amusement. In fact, I remember one warm day in Washington, D.C., in the Summer of '63. I floated in a rather large crowd of people who had come to the capitol to express a belief in civil rights. There were speakers, performers and the ever-present button and pennant vendors. Onstage, a person with a guitar and harmonica was trying to be heard.

"Hey," someone said irately, "That's not right. He's doing Peter, Paul & Mary's song."

Of course, it was Bob Dylan singing "Blowing In The Wind." But the key factor is that because he wasn't perceived as *BOB*DYLAN`, he wasn't recognized as anybody, or rather, he was recognized as nobody. Now, however, Bob Dylan's parade has got branch offices all over the world.

Which somehow brings me to Betty Davis. I can hear Betty's parade faintly, but I know it will be massive. It will be a legion of dragons choking the streets. I can imagine Betty at the front. She's a tall woman with caramel skin. Her long hair shoots up from her head, like some kind of funky aura. Her face, a perfect oval, has two large brown eyes, an implied nose and lips to whisper prayers to.

Of course, Betty Davis is not totally unrecognized. To some, she is the ex-Mrs. Miles Davis. Others once knew her as Betty Mabrey, fashion model extraordinaire. Those who read album liner notes as others read closing stock market prices might remember "Uptown To Harlem," a song Betty wrote.

It was recorded by the Chambers Brothers on their spectacular Time Has Come Today lp. And these days, the world is witnessing a major Betty Davis offensive. Two albums-Betty Davis and They Say I'm Different-and one hit single "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up," all on the Just Sunshine label have made friends in some choice urban ghettos, but particularly, for some reason in Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.

In fact, when Betty made her very first public appearance (which happened to be early this year) at Loyola University in Baltimore, there were 7,000 folks waiting to see her, which was kind of unfortunate as the hall only holds 5,000.

I remember going to parties in the folkie days, and ultimately the people with guitars would end up arguing about Bob Dylan. The candles would bum down. The Chianti bottles would empty. The ashtrays would fill; but it would never be resolved whether Dylan was a positive, negative or neutral force in folk music.

So it is with Betty Davis. She is an original. Working within the framework of Soul, R&B or whatever slogan you wish to apply to black music, Betty is building a house of her own.

"She's awful," one critic protests.

"My God, she's a jazz singer," another asserts.

Another writer thrust her record into his list of 1973's best black music.

One longhaired critic sitting in the darkness of the Bottom Line in New York City holds his nose with one hand and elaborately waves his other thumb downward. Another writer stares intently and adoringly, subjecting himself to a fit of ecstasy and a stiff neck.

No wonder she smiles when she roars through, "They Say I'm Different."

Her songs are all upbeat with very emphatic rhythmic lines. Her lyrics are womanly and worldly. They're wise humor, drenched in music. "He was a big freak, "she chants, and then she confides, "I used to beat him with a turquoise chain. " Her lyrics and her music are a new sonic alloy. To some, it's heretical. To others, it's intoxicating. To Betty, it's natural.

"FUNK, " she explodes in her opening number, "I was born with it and 1'm qonna die with it. "

Betty was born in Durham, North Carolina, where her father was stationed. She grew up on her grandmother's farm in Reidsville, N.C., and can remember slopping the hogs and feeding the chickens.

"My whole family's musical," recalled Betty. "My grandmother’s got a valuable record collection — B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Elmore James and all those people. I know some English guitarists who would love to get their hands on it."

In a sense, Betty's musical career started when she was eleven.

"I used to write songs," she explained, "When I was just washing dishes. The first song I ever wrote was called 'The Cake of Love,' It went like ‘We're gonna bake that cake of love, baby, just you and me.’"

When Betty was twelve, she moved to Pittsburgh where her father is now a foreman in a steel mill. She continued spending summers on the farm. Every year she would step onto the Greyhound bus, America's overland steerage. In the company of the poor—other blacks, the elderly, and servicemen — Betty would travel between Reidsville and Pittsburgh.

Sixteen-year-old Betty moved to New York to study apparel design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She stayed with an aunt for a while. Eventually, that proved too restrictive and Betty was on her own. She went through a series of salesgirl and clerical day jobs with Macy's and Lord & Taylor and other stores. This experience was not particularly appealing to her. She decided that the most sensible way to earn money was as a songwriter.

In 1966, she cornered the Chambers Brothers at the old Electric Circus on St. Mark's Place. Between sets, she sang for them. That's how "Uptown to Harlem" came to be recorded.

It was the uncomplicated desire for money that nudged her into her modelling career.

"It amazed me," Betty observed, "that I was making money off the way I look. I got in when black girls were in. Now, some people I know who got started when I did can't even get magazine layout work. The big thing today is the Oriental look. I didn't like modelling because you didn't need brains to do it. It's only going to last as long as you look good."

At the age of 24, Betty married Miles Davis. She says very little about the short-lived union, except that she learned a lot from him.

One would think that an unreformed songwriter-especially one who likes to keep moving—would find a lot of musical fringe benefits in a marriage with Miles Davis. She was on a first-name basis with New York's most important music business people. A hint here and a smile there and it could have been, "Betty, baby, you just let me know when you want to go into the studio and what sidemen you need and you got it."

However, she's got some kind of independent mulish streak that would not permit even the mention of career hanky-panky.

In fact, she became angry when she learned that Miles secretly had written a "Dear Ahmet" letter to the President of Atlantic Records, hyping a certain Betty Davis.

Double in fact, one of her friends, a guitarist named Clapton, wanted to produce her. But nobody nos like Betty nos. She realized that her music and Eric's were never formally introduced and that his offer had more to do with friendship than musical compatibility.

It was just about one-and-one-half years ago that Betty leaped into the musical free-for-all. This happened only after much reflection about the demands of the business.

 “Jimi Hendrix was a good friend of mine,” she said, “and I knew what had happened to him. I mean, the business I'm in killed one of my friends. I was married to Miles and I saw what performing did to him and to other musicians I knew.

"You see, it's hard enough to keep it together personally. Then, you have to give a piece of yourself to the public, and a piece to this one and to that one. By the time you're finished giving pieces away, you don't even know who you are."

THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom. THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom. A life story is one way to view a parade. Another is to live one day. THUD BOOM boom-ta--boom. THUD BOOM boom-ta-boom.

Chuck Mabrey and I sat on a bench in the Chelsea Hotel lobby in New York City. The walls were stuffed with paintings by artists who had stayed at the Chelsea. Coming and going were people who looked as if they could have been famous musicians, artists, writers-or should have been; plus a necessary assortment of neighborhood characters.

Chuck is Betty's younger brother, friend and, while management problems are being resolved, chief get-it-togetherer.

Betty flew in. She was wearing a green blouse, burgundy-colored leather pants and long green suede boots. Dangling from one ear was a three-inch-long feather earring. She carried a green umbrella.

After a jolly round of pleasant hellos, we rushed outside. This was a working day.

"There's a big checker cab coming," announced Betty. "Let the little one pass. Let's get the big checker. I love them. "

The taxi lurched to a stop and we scampered in. Our destination was the Gorham Hotel where her band was staying.

"Chuck," she said. "I went to a party last night."

"I knew you were somewhere," he replied.

"Guess whose it was. Walt Frazier had a little party, and it was so funny." She turned to me. " I never go out, Norman, never. And when I do, I'm very quiet and sit in the corner. Over walks Roger Grimsby [a New York television news anchorman]. He said, 'you don't look like you're having a good time. Why aren't you smiling?'

"I said to myself, 'the same reason you're not smiling.' I love Roger Grimsby. He was slinking last night, just as slinky as he can be. He was just sort of dipping into everything."

What I wanted to know was how one gets invited to a Walt Frazier party.

Betty laughed, raised her eyebrows and said, "Well, what can I tell you?"

"Probably a lot," I mumbled.

"Well," she said, "a very dear friend of mine took me."

Betty's laugh pops out often and it always rocks the sky. It's loud and staccato with a downward inflection like a flight of platinum stairs.

"I'm going to listen to a tape at the Gorham," Betty explained. "There's a young man, named Phillip, who's about eighteen and really talented. He basically writes rhythm lines. He's in from Maryland, and I'll probably be doing one of his things on my next album. He wrote guitar lines and I'll probably put the words to it. I'll probably put the bass part to it; but it's basically his trip."

The Gorham Hotel is opposite the City Center, a landmark auditorium. Betty noted, with enthusiasm, the cluster of people outside the theater who were waiting to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Company.

Into an elevator, down a corridor and across a threshold.

"Jesus Christ," Betty announced. "It looks like a hotel room in here."

One guy was combing another's hair in the bathroom. Another was wearing a fez he had picked up at a press party for Les Variations. The TV was soundlessly flickering away and Phillip was sitting anxiously.

It was introduction time again. Larry, the bassist, and Nicky, the drummer, are Betty's cousins, and Chuck Cordell, the guitarist, is a friend from Pittsburgh.

"Betty and the Family Stone," she laughed.

Then, turning a hotel chair into a throne, Betty commenced to listen to Phillip's tape.

"You can turn the sound up," she said encouragingly.

It was as if Betty were about to step into a pool. First, she let her toes feel the rhythm. Then, her shoulders began to move and her arms were waving. She allowed herself to be fully immersed so she could see what it felt like to move in front of the sound.

At the tape's conclusion, it was get-up time, again. The entourage, led by Betty and including Chuck, Larry, Nicky, Cordell, Phillip and me, walked over to the Chelsea Cobbler which is a shoe store on the fashionable East Side of Manhattan. Betty had seen a pair of snakeskin shoes there that she knew Cordell would just love. She explained that one of her long-standing duties in this world is to shop for other people or at least bird-dog appropriate items.

"I'd even shop for Miles," she confided. "Every once in awhile he'd give me money and say, (imitating the Miles Davis growl) 'Buy me some clothes, Betty.' " She laughed.

As we traipsed across the streets, with Betty in the center, talking and laughing, I felt as if we were in the Wizard of Oz. A uniformed guard at the Chelsea Cobbler spotted Betty and swung the door wide open. The shop seemed to be an informal museum. The smell of expensive leather hung in the air. People spoke in hushed tones.

Betty was greeted by a Susan who is more like a spunky curator than a saleswoman.

"How have you been? How have your shoes been? What are you here for? Twenty pairs of shoes?"

Betty tiptoed over to a display, occupying center stage on the carpet, and snatched the famous snakeskin shoes. Cordell nodded approvingly. While someone checked the stockroom for the right size (the shoes come in English sizes), Betty got in a couple of licks and tried on a couple of pairs of shoes (one at a time). She was on the prowl for something to go with a white dress.

Susan stepped away to take care of another customer. "We have it in different colors," she told him. "We just don't have it in blue."

He wanted to know the price.

"It's a hundred dollars," she informed him, "which is nothing compared to the quality. If you want it in navy, you have to order them. It takes six weeks."

Suddenly, she was taken by a sterling idea.

"Why don't you get red? You don't have any red shoes."

Cordell truly accepted the snakeskin shoes as it they were his own, and, in fact, after he paid seventy-four dollars, they were. Betty, on the other hand, had not come to any decision.

As we breezed through the door and were bid adieu by the security guard, Betty promised to call Susan on Monday.

The next stop was the Daily Planet, a rehearsal studio in the garment district, and, lucky us, along came a checker cab.

I wanted to know how many shoes and boots Betty had bought from the Chelsea Cobbler.

"Let me think," she began. "Oh, I've got a lot of shoes—the blue ones, the white ones, the yellow ones, the green ones, the orange. I've got about a dozen pair. But, you know the reason I buy them now is that they're making beautiful shoes for women; but shoes are starting to get uglier. Like, those Frankenstein platform-heeled shoes which I can't stand. They're monstrous with their six-inch platforms. Did you notice that you're starting to see more of them in the shoe store windows? Basically, you'll see either those or the very straight shoes. So, I've been getting shoes I like because soon they're not going to be around."

Chuck said something, then Betty praised him and an­nounced, "my brother and I have a very incestuous rela­tionship." He quickly raised his eyebrows in startled protest; but she was racing to the next topic.

"I read a thing where a chick said she was with this guy because he looked like her mother_ I said either she's trying to be hip or she's very, very, very          Can you imagine getting into some guy because he looks like your mother? And he's a straight guy. That goes right past me."

Betty stepped out and surveyed Seventh Avenue, the fashion capitol of America_ It was Saturday and there were no hand trucks wiggling between pedestrians. There were --few pedestrians. There were no double-parked trucks blocking traffic. There were no high-stepping models hurrying from showrooms to yoga class.

"I used to hate coming to this area when I was modelling," said Betty. "The truckdrivers get you with their remarks. They don't bother you but they used to say all kinds of funky things.     

We walked into a loft building, squeezed into a sadistically small elevator, and arose. When we peeled out of the elevator, we were no longer in fabricland, but back in music city. Posters were scattered about. Longhaired people in jeans purposefully walked across the floor. Urgent messages impaled a bulletin board.

"Lance Loud needs you . . .

"Bass player in from London. . . "

"Hammond B-3 in good condition . . . "

A spirited band was finishing up its rehearsal time in the dim studio. Betty's road manager, Rutledge, was standing by, waiting to set up the equipment.

The room was clearly a comfortable place for a band to work out. Wonderfully worn rugs hung against the walls—more likely for sound than for atmosphere. Empty soda cans had trickles of ashes upon the lids. There were a few chairs, but no real facilities for an intrusive audience.

Outside the studio, Betty chatted with a member of the group that had just ended its rehearsal. He was flattered that she spoke with him. He was pleased when she expressed a desire to hear his band.

"Call my brother to let him know when you're working," she said, scrawling Chuck's number on a piece of paper.

Betty walked back into the studio and looked around. Freddy Neil, the keyboard player, hadn't shown up yet. Also missing was one of the two singers who back Betty. They are known professionally as The Ladies.

"What we're working on today,- Betty told me, "is an introduction where the girls bring me out. I don't come on the stage for the first ten or so minutes. I've rewritten the whole thing. Cordell wrote the guitar line and I did the words and everything and the arrangements."

I hid myself in a corner and watched. Being a spectator at a rehearsal can be compared to many things. It's like watching  the construction of a house or like observing a block of marble sculpted into a statue. Mostly, it's like watching a clock. There is definite advancement, though you can never really see the hands move.

The guitar line grew more precise. The funk got funkier. The Ladies, Debbie and Bernice, got their parts down, and then started adding more of themselves. Somewhere along the  way, Freddie entered. He was  wearing a blue military jacket, a wide-brimmed hat, and waving a slice of pizza. With him was a friend from Viet Nam whose wife had given birth that day. Now, the organ was added and more was coming together.

The idea was that Freddie would play some chords, then dance into center stage. His movement would signal The Ladies to enter. The three would dance and sing.

Betty, every bit the cheerleader, cajoled them to move that dance from a sedate promenade to out-and-out lovemaking. Then, Betty danced on. The same woman that could go to a party and sit in a corner was now the  supreme sensualist. Her features were compressed into a proud signifying face, a beckoning face, a taunting face. No longer a wallflower, she was now the conquering woman, brown majesty, Betty Davis.

When a well-deserved break came along, I decided it was time to leave. Betty, ever the gracious southern woman, walked me to the elevator.

"Can I get a kiss, now, Norman?"

I leaned over in such a way that I knew my name really ought to be Sneezy or Doc, or more likely Dopey.

Walking down the street, I remembered something Betty said, en route to the Gorham. This came after explaining that she didn't go out much.

"The last thing I went to," she said, "was Josephine Baker's big thing at Carnegie Hall. That was really great. It was the first time I had ever seen her. I was really impressed because she's flawless. That woman has a body that's flawless. You can take it from any angle — any angle. She knocked me out.

"I'd heard a lot about her. Like, she was one of the first blacks that ever went over to Paris and all that stuff. I just thought of her as on the level of, say, Eartha Kitt and everybody else over there. She really is something special. If she had been coming out now she would have been a big star. She was a star in Europe; but she never really got the recognition over here. She's really glamorous. She has sheer glamour."

So does Betty Davis, or, to put it in other words, I love a parade.