“Back to Betty, she fades them all”
By Richard Chandler Burroughs.
Betty Mabry is an unrepentant bad ass who left an indelible mark on music in the late Sixties and Seventies and thanks to the resourcefulness of the Internet, has been discovered by new fans and rediscovered by the music industry.
The ghost writer to the latest chapter in the life of singer Betty Mabry nee’ Davis, is the extreme inevitableness of her ascent. Her brand of music was too progressively aggressive for the times. In fact, her music was too progressively aggressive for her former husband, Jazz great Miles Davis, whose golden legacy Betty burnished. The Eighties ushered in a levee break of America’s chastity belt, led by “I Want My MTV” and it’s audience’s attendant proclivity for promiscuity in it’s musical tastes; but Ms. Mabry had already left the proverbial building by then. Betty’s story is not about regrets and what ifs, It’s a celebration of a woman’s steadfast belief that her art, growl, salacious lyrics and ownership of her sexuality was beyond compromise.
Her’s was the classic story of a dreamer and striver. Well, maybe not that hokey, but Betty Mabry definitely knew that it was a locomotive at the depot with her name on it. Born in Durham, North Carolina, she spent her formative years living on her grandmother’s farm in Reidsville and listening to the albums of her grandmother’s favorite Blues artists, including John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reid and Lightening Hopkins. Those records would be a strong musical influence on Betty, helping to shape her sound and her style of writing; which was her true passion.
Smartly talented and having absorbed the differences between the Durham lifestyle and living in Pittsburgh, where her family moved when she was Twelve years old, Betty skipped a grade and moved to New York City at the age of Sixteen. Ostensibly, she relocated to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology while living with her aunt, but the steel town ingenue really came to conquer the city with a turquoise chain. Moving through a myriad of circles in the late Sixties, Betty strategically placed herself in the key social scenes and traveled the road where being beautiful and stylish was a commodity. Signed by the Wilhelmina model agency, with frequent bookings for magazines, runway shows and commercials, it was Betty’s socializing and positioning at night, amongst the A-List nightlife crowd, that had a greater hand in forging her destined reign in the world of entertainment.
A Unrepentantly beautiful Black girl, in New York City, in the 1960’s…at Nineteen years old, was surely deluged with pre-internet ‘friend requests’ from anybody with a pulse. Skipping around town with a group of girls called the Cosmic Ladies, which included One of her best friends, Devon Wilson, was how she was often seen. A mutual attraction with the crème de la creme of that era’s rock and funk music scene was soon formed including bonds with Jimi Hendrix, who was Devon Wilson’s boyfriend.
Jimi Hendrix and Devon Wilson.
From lower left: Stella Benabou Douglas Shapiro, Colette Harron, Devon Wilson, Mrs.Miles (Betty) Davis, and John Edward Heys
321 East 9th St, East Villiage ,NYC, 1968. Captured by: Raeanne Rubinstein
(John Edward Heys.)
She put that ‘influence’ to use by finding an investor and opening up a New York City nightclub called Uptown Cellar. In a city that has a famous and infamous nightlife history, many people work for years in the industry and struggle to open up their own venue. Betty’s ascent to being an owner was rather remarkable in it’s simplicity. She was considerably young and it was the late 60’s, a time where Black Power was on the rise but even a liberal town like New York City was still rife with discrimination towards all the ‘Betty’s’ of the world. Turns out that totally wasn’t a problem.
When Betty opened Uptown Cellar she was not just the owner but also the DJ. She was moving effortlessly through New York City, meeting tons of top-shelf musicians and still nurturing her true talent of song writing. She went to a club called Electric Lady and saw the Chambers Brothers perform and being struck by their singing, decided that she needed to write them a tune. She approached the Band after the show and pitched the idea and it was a go. Now, normally it doesn’t work like that. That outcome is often painted differently, where the song idea is declined and one of the Chambers brothers asks for Betty’s number to go for a whiskey on a date to be named later. But there was the issue of her inevitableness. Naturally the song, ‘Going Uptown’, became a hit for the Chamber Brothers, and put Betty Mabry on the map as a song writer.
The Chambers Brothers
Early Twenties and a successful fashion model, club impresario and song writer, it was wonderful how she was devouring her opportunities and viewed from the perspective of a young girl from Pittsburgh who was in NYC for just several years, it was quite amazing what she had accomplished. She was the “It” girl of that time. A girl who men wanted to be with and who girls wanted to be like. Her confidence and belief in herself was high She turned down a publishing contract with Motown Records and ended up using the songs for her debut album. Though young and inexperienced in the music industry, when she wrote a demo album for the group the Commodores, who used it to get signed to the “Sound Of Black America,” (Motown) Betty would not agree to signing over the rights to her song royalties to Mr. Gordy and company.
Betty refusal to sign away her publishing royalties to Motown was quite the hardline stance for a Black girl to take in the 60’s. Perhaps the artists on Puffy’s Bad Boy label should have consulted her in the 90’s for lessons on how to NOT get raked by a larger than life music mogul. Her blueprint for music industry movement foreshadowed the Hip-Hop artists of the 1990s and how many maintained control of their royalties and said an emphatic no to record label exploitation.
The next several years was a whirlwind for Betty. She started an emotional love affair with Miles Davis and though their marriage was short lived (two years,) the artistic legacy and cultural impact that it produced reverberates to this day. The ‘Bitches Brew’ album was a landmark in music. It drew a line in the sand for a new, electrified version of Jazz music and dragged Miles Davis insistently back to the forefront of the music audience’s consciousness and Betty’s influence was dripping all over the record. The capitulation of Miles’, in his sartorial and musical style, to Betty’s influence, is evident in his eschewing suits for a decidedly Hendrix influenced attire to changing the name of the album, from Witches Brew to Bitches Brew, based on Betty’s influence.
Betty and Miles Davis ringside at the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier title fight in New York,1971. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis
Betty’s marriage to Miles may occupy a few first page entries on her Google search, but it was post marriage where she created the sticky and undulating oeuvre that has led to her rediscovery. Four albums of ridiculous funk, blues and rock spiked with ribald lyrics and growls, flaunts and wields her sexuality like a medieval character on the TV show Game Of Thrones and politicized a woman’s right to control and manipulate her sexual pleasure as seen fit.
That level of creative control, which was only reserved for women such as Janis Joplin in that day, was hugely responsible for creating Betty Davis’ records the Betty Davis way and it’s the resulting, take-no-prisoners music that is the visceral draw after nearly Four decades. So though her self-propelled meander into obscurity can seem premature, Betty Davis did her job. Her story is playing out exactly as planned. That extreme inevitableness set her up to fall into obscurity and then be rediscovered, with extra strength zeal, by a new generation of fans through the wonderment called the internet. For all we know it really wasn’t Al Gore who created the internet. Perhaps it was Betty Davis masterminding the whole thing all along, creating the vehicle for her reemergence (wink).
Ultimately, Betty’s story is a celebration of a woman’s steadfast belief that her art, growl, salacious lyrics and ownership of her sexuality was beyond compromise….and that’s a celebration we all want to be at.
“For all the struggles and all the fights, when you look at the linear notes of her records, it says written, arranged and produced by Betty Davis”
– Nucomme Davis.