My four-year-old son is making his concentrating face signing his name to Betty Davis’s birthday card. She turned 72 this July. ‘I’m old, John,’ she told me with a laugh recently. ‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘But your music isn’t.’
Twenty years earlier, somewhere on Pacific Coast Highway heading toward El Matador State Beach in Malibu, a friend introduced me to Betty’s music, playing her sly liberation funk classic, ‘Anti-Love Song’. When I got home, I did a little research and saw that she was a) a groundbreaking African-American model, b) a muse to her husband Miles, c) tight with Hendrix and d) a major inspiration to Prince. How could I never have heard of her? I picked up her first two albums and was hooked.
Further down the road, I got to know the singer herself. First as a pesky writer who tracked her down and interviewed her for the liner notes for an abortive re-issue of her debut album. Later, after years of persistence, as a friend. I never stopped listening to the music.
‘They Say I’m Different’ is the title track from her 1974 heavy funk masterpiece. Who are ‘they’ and who the hell cares? Betty didn’t. She did it her way all the way, like the other greats who we still play religiously – the ones she calls out in that same song: Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
Here are a few more: Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Larry Graham. They were in luck: whether they knew her, worked with her, slept with her, married her or worshipped her, they were all changed by her. Betty touched their lives directly. As she did mine, and now my family’s. Thank you Betty, for everything.
John Ballon is a writer from Los Angeles. He wrote the sleeve notes for ‘The Columbia Years 1968-1969’ by Betty Davis, out now on Light In The Attic.
Previously: Why I love Gil Scott-Heron