In 1975, Betty Davis’s star was on the rise. With the backing of Island Records and a new band, Funk House, Betty’s third album, Nasty Gal, leaned into the hyper-sexualized persona with which her critics were so obsessed. She raps, purrs, shrieks, and moans on top of Funk House’s manic funk-rock and lays claim to the “bad girl” anthems that now saturate the music industry. This excerpt from the liner notes by John Ballon that accompany our reissue of Betty Davis Nasty Gal (LITA 046) give a unique glimpse into Betty’s singular vision, her cultivation of Funk House, and what a Betty Davis live performance was all about, critics be damned!
Betty’s shot at fame was hard earned. Her two albums for Just Sunshine records, Betty Davis (1973) and They Say I’m Different (1974), focused a lot of attention on her, but it was near constant touring that evolved her sound and perfected her style, paving the way for Nasty Gal. More than anything else, the road made her what she was—and so did her band.
Not content relying on musicians for hire, Betty knew she needed a band of her own to get closer to the sound she was after. In early 1974, Betty rounded up a crew of players whose abilities she knew and respected, and Funk House was born. It was as tight as family because, at its heart, it was family—drummer Nicky Neal and bassist Larry Johnson were first cousins from down home in North Carolina. Through her cousins, she found the rest of her band, Fred Mills on keyboards and Carlos Morales on guitar. Childhood friends, Neal, Johnson, and Mills had grown up playing in bands together. Neal’s dad helped give them their start, buying their first instruments, chipping in for a bus to carry their gear, and letting them sharpen their chops at the club he owned. By the time they hit the road with Betty, they had years of experience making the funkiest of music together on the Reidsville and Greensboro R&B scene.
In one of his last interviews, Rick James remembered first seeing her: “I fell in love. Because she was the only girl, the only woman, who was totally cutting edge. I mean, she was what funk was... She was funking! Rock ’n’ rolling. Doing it all. And she was Black! She had the biggest Afro. She was wearing these fly-ass street clothes. She was just free with her stuff, man.”
For Betty, a former fashion student and model, style was second only to substance. She pushed the band to take her higher. “Her four-piece back-up band are the funkiest around,” declared music critic Vicki Wickham. Vernon Gibbs gave Betty credit for leading “a band with the first true understanding of what Sly’s rhythms are all about.” Bassist Larry Johnson remembered just how funky things could get: “There was one night when the shit was so bad, so notoriously bad. The music was happening, the music was so pure. I caught myself grunting on this set four or five times, it was so funky. I know the expression on my face must have looked as mean as a mother, but when it’s funky, all I can do is frown.” Neal says that critics and audiences alike “…couldn’t believe the funk, the tightness that we had with just four people.”
Freedom, especially sexual freedom, was central to Betty’s musical identity. The critics took note. “She strides, struts and prances onstage, combining the earthiness of soul with the boldness of punk rock and the decadence of glitter, and the effect is mind-blowing,” proclaimed Black Music in 1974. The New York Times agreed: “It is not customary to have a woman perform her own music so aggressively, outdoing the likes of Mick Jagger and Sly Stone at their own game.” For all her onstage abandon, Betty knew the risks in breaking the rules. “Women are supposed to scream for Mick Jagger and try to pull off a man’s clothes on the stage,” she told Gibbs in Penthouse. “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.”
Being the ex-wife of Miles Davis and friends with some of the biggest names in music helped Betty land important gigs at high-profile clubs: the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, and the Bottom Line in New York. As she rolled from city to city, she could feel the momentum building. Word of mouth spread. A show at Loyola University near Baltimore almost sparked a riot after 7,000 fans converged on the school’s 5,000-seat auditorium. Betty calmed the crowd by promising to add another show. “I used to pack ’em in,” she remembers fondly. “Richard Pryor and Muhammad Ali came to see me. My parents too. My mom thought I was good. I thought I was a good performer. I delivered my songs well.” Others agreed. Soon she was opening for big acts from Graham Central Station and Teddy Pendergrass to Bobby “Blue” Bland and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. She was even scheduled to open for rock superstars, Kiss, but as Neal remembers, they canceled over worries Betty might overshadow them.
With the exception of bands like Kiss, popular music by the mid-’70s had grown flabby in the clutches of corporate giants. The stage was set for punk and New Wave on the one hand, disco and rap on the other. As competition in the record industry heated up, the labels looked for new ways to promote new kinds of artists. Everyone was looking for the next big thing. The formula was changing. There was no such thing as bad publicity. It seemed that Betty’s time had come. All she needed was to hitch her star to the right machine.
Having paid her dues on and off the road, her big break was finally just around the corner. In 1974, Blue Thumb, the distributor of her record label Just Sunshine, was acquired by ABC/Paramount. Her contract was up for grabs. Through the help of her then-lover Robert “Addicted To Love” Palmer, she landed a deal with Island. “I had a lot of offers,” Betty said at the time, “but I decided to go with Chris Blackwell and Island Records. They’d been the first to really get into reggae, the first to push blue-eyed soul in a big way with Traffic and the like. So, since I wanted to be a first as well, I decided to go with them.”
Record exec Michael Lang, whose Just Sunshine label had signed Betty and released her first two albums, remembers letting her go: “She was beautiful and had amazingly long legs and a real arrogant, very independent flair. And she was doing music she believed in and didn’t care if nobody else was doing at the time. When Chris Blackwell at Island approached us to buy out Betty’s contract, we were open to it. We thought, here’s a shot for her to really be presented in the right way. Because Chris had a much bigger machine and had done this thing before, introducing the public to something new, with Bob Marley and reggae.”
Once at Island, Betty noticed a difference immediately. “The company was bigger and it was more structured… more organized,” she told Oliver Wang. “It was good.” Expectations and enthusiasm were running high on both sides. Vivien Goldman, who handled Betty’s PR at Island, remembers “...there was much excitement about the audacious, charming Miss Davis.” Island had big plans for her. Studio time was quickly booked to begin recording a new album. By May of 1975, Betty and her band were hard at work on Nasty Gal.
While the album’s production, writing, and singing were almost exclusively credited to Betty, its success as an expression of her musical vision was due in no small part to the tightness she forged with her band on the road. As one reviewer noted at the time, “the mutual admiration that exists between singer and band is made entirely clear by what’s in the grooves.” Fred Mills told Black Music in 1976, “We’re into her style and we get freedom in the studio and on the stage.” Betty channeled that freedom. “I could go into a long spiritual rap about how I prepare to write and stuff,” Betty told one critic. “But really it just comes out. I put my insides into stuff I sing.”
Song for song, Nasty Gal is one of the most extreme funk-rock albums of the era. It takes equal parts inspiration from Hendrix and Sly. Heavy funk rhythms roll behind dominant lead guitar and Betty’s devastating vocals. She gives it up, alternating between sexy breathiness, moans, and full-throated screams. Here is a woman capable of projecting sex in a single scream, reveling out loud in the power of her beauty and sexuality.
The album marked the public reconciliation between Betty and her ex-husband, Miles Davis. “You and I,” which she co-wrote with Miles, was an uncharacteristically tender expression of their bond. Miles told Cosmopolitan in 1976: “She’s a downright sexy bitch. She’s got more talent and guts than any single woman out there.” Betty took strength from Miles’s support, telling Let It Rock in 1975: “Knowing that I was once his old lady and that he likes my music gives me more confidence not to mess it up or fuck it up. Especially with the song we wrote together. It’s a ballad, and as you know, that’s not the kind of thing I’m into normally.” Just as she had profoundly changed him, Miles influenced the way she made music. She told Zoo World, “Miles really inspired me to produce myself. He suggested it after he heard my first album. I said, ‘Oh, come on, Miles.’ He said, ‘I’m serious, why don’t you? If you can write it, you can hear it. And if you can do that, you can produce.’ He was right. And I love it.”
First and second photo by Robert Brenner.
Third photo by Derek Ridgers.