Tag Archives: Bitches Brew

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Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document.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 Groove 1/09/14 Rique’s Pick : “Sing a Simple Song” by The Budos Band

“Sing a Simple Song”, first written and performed by Sly & The Family Stone on their landmark 1968 album “Stand”, is one of the prototypes of funk, a clear cut example of how it is done. It stands alongside songs such as Sly’s own “Thank You”, “Cold Sweat”, “Shotgun”, “Tighten Up”, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag”, “Respect”, “Funky Broadway”, “Express Yourself”, “I Thank You”, and many other songs that took the advance gaurd in delineating how to drop the funk bomb. In the case of this song, the funk formula was a monster two bar riff with a rolling consistency and some sharp, sassy syncopated accents, played with a sharp attack. Everything is based on the guitar and bass riff, and the riff itself has become one of the cliche’s of funk, a style of phrasing musicians return to regularly when soloing or playing. This is backed by Greg Enrico’s funky straight ahead drums, long extended horn notes and the joyful singing of the mixed choir that was Sly & The Family Stone. Daptone Records Brooklyn New York based The Budos Band’s rendition of this classic on their 2005 debut gives you this funk staple in a raw uncut form. Doing a song like this is a great realization of that portion of the Nu Funk movements goals. The Budos Band and their associated groups at Daptone Records make music that cleary evokes the glory of funk musicians coming up with their parts together and recording as a unit, in the style of the original bands.

The song begins with an extremely funky vamp that basically loops the second bar of the “Sing a Simple Song” riff. The harmonized bass and guitar play over drums and percussion, repeating the riff in the manner of an ostinato. This particular piece is the part of the song that grabbed me the most when I first heard it. In particular it reminded me of several things Miles Davis and Teo Macero put together on Miles’ landmark 1969 “Bitches Brew” album, which was in itself influenced by Sly and songs such as “Sing a Simple Song”. Miles would go on to base a section of his song “Right Off” from the Jack Johnson soundtrack on “Sing a Simple Song” as well, with that riff going on to become one Miles returned to for the rest of his career. The Budos Band’s opening vamp has the same repetitive, cut tape quality that Miles and Teo got on songs such as “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” and “Pharoah’s Dance.” They got it by extensive manipulation of tape, creating vamps that repeated themselves over and over, and The Budos Band achieves a similar sound here, which also has a very Blaxploitation scene quality.

After the vamp repeats the drummer kicks it off into the main groove. The bass player plays the classic riff to the song with guitars playing the same riff but harmonized on different notes. The whole sound is dark and skeletal, with the horn section playing a sustained rising riff behind the rhythm. Other horns come across that, playing where the voices of the Family Stone would be, adding the “Hey, Na Na Na Na’s” of the song. The Bands instrumental vibes stretch out and elongate the classic riff, atoning for the abscence of the joyus vocals. At around 1:20 in the music changes up to an extremely funky rendition of the chorus lead in. At 2:05 they hit the famous break section of which Greg Enrico’s drums have been sampled extensively. The song ends on a return to the opening “Miles Davis” vamp, only with more participation from the horn section.

The Budos Band’s rendition of this classic reminds me of what one would probably have heard from a nightclub funk band in the early ’70s, and I mean that as praise, not a slight by any means. Which means its a great vibe cut and would be excellent music for movies and various scenes. The band succeded in capturing a dark and funky undercurrent to this most joyful of funk songs (“Try a little do re me fa so la ti da!”) by incorporating the vibe of one of the countless musicians it influenced, sounding at times very much like the opening vamp on Miles Davis’ “Pharoah’s Dance.” They also show that live band instrumental funk is very much a part of musics present and (hopefully) future!

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