by Alicia Benjamin
Before Lil Kim, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, there was Betty Davis, shaking her behind, grinding her hips and joyfully delivering raunchy lyrics to both fans and naysayers.
In the documentary film, “Betty: They Say I’m Different,” we witness Betty Davis’s transformation from a creative daddy’s girl in Pittsburg to an erotic, in-your-face performer in New York City from the early to mid-1970s.
Betty Davis, born Betty Mabry in Durham, N.C. in 1946, moved outside Pittsburgh with her family when she was 12 and became Betty Davis after she married jazz great Miles Davis. Betty has been credited not only with helping to move Miles into the electronic jazz scene, but she also convinced him to wear some incredibly funky clothes for the time.
The two divorced in 1969 and Betty reportedly helped to title the 1970 Miles Davis album, “Bitches Brew.” Betty went on to have relationships with musicians Eric Clapton and Robert Palmer, who helped her get a record deal with Island Records in 1975 when she released her third album, “Nasty Gal.”
Betty was far from shy when she performed on stage. Wearing revealing clothes like the popular hot pants of the time and lingerie-like outfits, she sang and danced with unabashed aggressive sexual seduction.
Her lyrics reveal the depth of her bold sexuality. She sang:
“He was a big freak!
“I used to beat him with a turquoise chain, yeah
When I was his woman, I pleased him
I’d lead him to the tip
When I was his mistress,
I gave him cheap thrills.”
Scottish filmmaker Philip Cox does a good job of telling Betty’s story from her days as an ordinary girl who fed the hogs in North Carolina cornfields, to her songwriting years when she penned her first song, “Bake a Cake of Love,” when she was 12. She went on to become a songwriter and wrote such tunes as “Uptown to Harlem” for the Chambers Brothers.
It was Miles Davis, who she met when she was 22, that convinced her to step out on the stage and sing. She ended up doing much more than singing. Betty Davis was a wild, rough and sexy performer. Her outfits were slight and revealing. Her hair was natural and free. Her voice was gravelly and brash.
Always an original and independent thinker, Betty didn’t listen to music executives who told her to tone down her style and lyrics.
“Since I was a girl, I always had something inside of me that had to come out — a kind of restless feeling,” she says in the film. She grew up listening to records by bold women performers that her grandmother played in the house when she was growing up. She admits to being influenced by Ma Rainey, Etta James and Big Mama Thornton.
She learned an important lesson from these women.
“I have never let my being Black interfere with what I wanted to do,” she said. “You should be who you are and just do what you have to do.”
Music executives failed to support her work when she refused to change her style, her delivery and her music. After three albums, “Betty Davis,” “They Say I’m Different,” and “Nasty Gal,” she couldn’t get another contract.
“I learned that stars starve in silence,” she said.
Her stormy relationship with Miles Davis, the death of her father, and the struggles to stay afloat in the music business weighed heavily on Betty Davis. She said she never told anyone about how Miles was physically and emotionally abusive in the relationship. She said, “His genius gave and took from me.”
Despite Betty’s erotic performances and outspokenness, she told screenwriter and film director Desmond Nakano, “I’m a very sensitive girl.”
We see Betty’s subtle and quiet side as she’s revealed in more recent shots from a side angle or from the back while she’s sitting on a bed or a rug in a small bedroom. We never see recent images of Betty from the front.
Betty is now reclusive and lives a simple life outside Pittsburgh. Betty’s friend from her days as a vibrant performer in New York City, Winona Williams, says Betty “sort of lost herself” and is experiencing depression.
“For a while in my life I flew high and strong,” she said. “But the struggle to break through hurt me. Everyone wanted me to be something I wasn’t.”
Ms. Betty was way before her time.
Watch Betty: They Say I’m Different on Amazon.com.