Category Archives: Graham Central Station

Bitches Broth: Betty Davis, The Columbia Years, 1968-69

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Betty Davis is, as her ex-husband Miles would undoubtedly have put it, a bad bitch. Her trio of mid-1970s albums–including 1974’s They Say I’m Different, which Andre posted about last summer–constitute some of the rawest, nastiest funk-rock ever released. Imagine prime Tina Turner, but with a heavier rock influence; and what she lacks in vocal prowess, she makes up for with a persona so aggressive, you’d swear she was the one beating up on Ike. If you’re even the slightest fan of powerful women and/or heavy funk, then you need to hear Betty Davis.

That being said, my recommendation for the latest release of Betty Davis’ music, The Columbia Years, 1968-69, is a little more conditional. I received the compilation’s (gorgeous!) vinyl release for Christmas last month, and I love it; it sits proudly on my shelf even as we speak. But I can also understand why it wasn’t officially released until last year.

Comprised of two sessions recorded for Columbia Records in 1968 and 1969–the first produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document. For fans of the more famous Davis, it’s effectively ground zero for jazz fusion: the moment Miles hooked up with the circle of acid rockers and funkateers in Betty’s orbit, including Jimi Hendrix sidemen Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell. Without Betty, there would be no Bitches Brew (in more ways than one–that album’s title is said to have referred to Betty and her entourage of countercultural socialities). According to the compilation’s liner notes, Betty’s come-hither purr in her cover of Cream’s “Politician” even ended up inspiring Miles’ song “Back Seat Betty,” a full 12 years after the couple split.

But just as Betty was never “Mrs. Miles Davis,” The Columbia Years is also of interest for reasons beyond its significance in Miles’ body of work. You can hear the seeds of Betty’s own unique stylistic hybrid being planted, as she tries her hand at a version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” heavily indebted to “Stone Free” by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; or even her own composition “Hangin’ Out,” which comes across as a tamer version of later party-girl anthems like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” For existing devotees, the opportunity to hear her earth-shaking style in embryonic form is priceless.

For newcomers, though, I’m afraid the appeal will be significantly lessened. The fact is, in 1969 Betty Davis didn’t really sound like Betty Davis yet; her vocals are thin, and she hadn’t yet developed the hellion’s rasp that made her voice on later records so distinctive. And, while the personnel on the sessions is impressive–not only Cox and Mitchell, but also John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and others–the arrangements lack grit and verve; they have the slightly patronizing feel that comes with the territory of crack jazz musicians slumming in “lesser” genres. It’s telling that Davis’ best music would be recorded with players who were funk and rock musicians first: her 1973 debut, for example, featured Santana‘s Neal Schon, Larry Graham, and other members of Graham Central Station and the Family Stone. It’s also telling that her music got better the more she was at the helm: her second and third albums, in 1974 and 1975 respectively, were both self-produced.

So, yes, everyone should listen to Betty Davis; and, since to know Betty Davis is to love her, then sure, eventually everyone should probably listen to The Columbia Years. But if you’re just getting started, don’t start at the beginning. Check out Betty DavisThey Say I’m Different, or Nasty Gal; hell, check out her canned 1976 album Crashin’ from Passion, later reissued as Is It Love or Desire? Then, circle back to The Columbia Years and see how it all began. With records like this being released and a new documentary set to premiere this summer, the time has arguably never been riper to rediscover Betty Davis. I can attest that she’s a discovery well worth making.

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Filed under 1960's, Betty Davis, Columbia Records, funk rock, Graham Central Station, Herbie Hancock, Hugh Masekela, Ike & Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Larry Graham, Miles Davis, Music Reviewing, Sly & The Family Stone, Wayne Shorter

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk: “Tis Your Kind Of Music” by Graham Central Station

Welcome to this first ever volume of Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk. This (so far) bimonthly segment is going to be devoted to classic songs in the jazz/funk/soul spectrum from the 60’s and 70’s. It was first conceived by friend and blogging partner Henrique Hopkins. It started to make sense,with this blog’s emphasis on newer grooves,to begin exploring their points of origin in a more in depth kind of way. Decided to take on this idea for now while I am flying solo with Andresmusictalk for a little while. In the spirit of my concept on writing about songs from the classic funk era that are lesser known? I’ll start the concept with one of my personal favorites.

Larry Graham was in a very interesting position during the first few years of his band Graham Central Station. Sly & The Family Stone were still operating and even having hits. So the two,with Larry being the connecting thread to both,were at this point very much in tandem. Larry’s own take music was on a very uptempo gospel oriented type of funk built around the interaction between keyboards and this iconic,thick slap bass playing. For the bands second release in 1974’s Release Yourself, the band forged ahead heavily into an instrumental direction that Sly actually began but which GCS were already about to take to the next level. And for me at least? The crowning achievement of this was in the song ‘Tis Your Kind Of Music”.

The song begins with a nasal burst of ARP synthesizer from Larry himself,which melds into pulsing bass tones playing the counter point to the main theme.All along with the pulsing burble of Patrice “Chocolate” Bank’s organ drum programming. After a bar of this,the synthesizer begins playing a staccato type of bluesy lead line-with a string synthesizer orchestration backing it up and the electric piano of Hershall “Happiness” Kennedy playing the different changes. Chocolate sings the first vocal verse of the song in her deep,thick churchy gospel wail-trading off with Larry’s deep bass voice on each refrain. Each of which is followed by a repeat of that second instrumental verse. The song closes out out with a band unison vocal of the songs title-sang as an exploratory chant.

On the very first time I heard this song? It’s instrumental boldness absolutely blew me away. Realized it would be a song I’d be learning from for years to come. And it has been for sure. Most importantly? It brings up a matter Henrique and I have recently been discussing about the pan ethnic forms of music. In fact,it’s very possible to have a situation on many songs with Afrocentric structure but European content. And vice versa. This is a song of a type that,very much in the original spirit of the Family Stone,blows that ethic right out of the box. It not only presents an almost totally electronic mix of still very new synthesizers and drum machines. But also does so with European classical orchestration,spiritual/gospel melodicism (especially on the vocal arrangements) and that heavy jazz oriented funk grind in terms of how the instruments themselves are played. In many ways? This song represents what the entire 70’s “united funk” age meant at it’s absolute,and most futurist pinnacle.

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Filed under 1974, ARP synthesier, classic funk, drum machines, Funk, Funk Bass, Gospel, Graham Central Station, Larry Graham, Sly Stone, synth funk