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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Hugh Masekela, the second by Betty’s then-husband Miles Davis–The Columbia Years is, if nothing else, a fascinating historical document.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 7/4/2014: Robin Thicke’s “Whatever I Want”

These days it seems as if just about every celebrity couple is plastering the breakups of their personal relationships all over cyberspace and whatever TV tabloid show will take it. On the other hand,in the hands of a soul/funk artist with a strong degree of wordly eloquence? This dichotomy can transform itself into a level of lyricism that can be far more flexible than singing about mere romantic turmoil. Otis Redding’s “Respect”,especially in the hands of Aretha Franklin,is probably the best known example of this. Earlier this year? Robin Thicke,on the heals of the enormously successful collaboration with Pharrell Williams on the musically controversial “Blurred Lines”,abruptly separated from his wife of nearly a decade Paula Patton. Somewhat out of nowhere as far as I was concerned? Thicke dropped a new album this past week which,interestingly enough is called Paula. Many of its songs were highly invigorating uptempo funk of many grooving shades. However one particular song stuck out in my mind called “Whatever I Want”.

The song begins with a group vocal fanfare somewhat similar to the intro to Stevie Wonder’s “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” before launching into an uptempo groove that chugs along like a runaway freight train. Helping it along is a very thick Afro-Latin percussive groove that just keeps on going with the basic rhythm. Meanwhile a bassy electric piano is playing a soulful,bluesy melody whose descending chord changes of the school of Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”. A female vocal choir comes on declaring “I can do whatever I want”-with Thicke’s call and response vocals of the same,often adding the phrase “freedom” as well. He also declares that “Now that the pain and regret have moved along/ Now that you finally have some piece of mind/Who knows what buried treasure you might find”. After the female choir chants “kiss me” repeatly on the next chorus? An instrumental break comes in after which the song fades out with the same electric piano sound from the intro.

Considering the controversy of last years “Blurred Lines” focused on plagiarism regarding Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”? It’s somewhat ironic that Robin’s entire new album concept for Paula is conceptually inspired by Gaye’s confessional Here,My Dear. The difference is this album and this song of Thicke’s doesn’t take the “dear diary” approach of naming names and events on the same level Gaye had. There is however a division here. The groove on this song includes the important funk process element of the Afrocentric percussion. Yet melodically this song is deeply based in the straight up blues as well. Being those two are vital building blocks of funk? They both express the divided feelings Thicke is expression. The percussive polyrhythms have always represented freedom-a celebration of life. While the blues has tended to be the more realist story teller,and the dreamer as well. Robin Thicke is alternately celebrating he and Paula’s freedom while questioning it on this song. Exciting,singable,funky and emotionally complex in the classic bluesy soul/funk tradition is a good way to describe what this groove serves up to the listener!

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Filed under Blues, Funk, Marvin Gaye, Pharrell Willaims, Robin Thicke, Soul, Stevie Wonder