Over the last 10 years, 1970s funk icon Betty Davis has enjoyed a renaissance of rediscovery. Her music has been lavishly reissued and anthologized, but for years the holy grail was a collection of songs she recorded for Columbia Records in the late ’60s, several of which her then-husband, Miles Davis, helped to produce. For decades, no one could hear those songs — until now. The Columbia Years 1968-1969 captures an artist beginning to assert her own voice.
Betty Mabry was already enjoying a budding music career when Miles Davis came into her life. She’d written “Uptown” for the Chambers Brothers and released a couple of her own solo singles, including 1968’s “Live, Love, Learn.”
Mabry and Davis became a couple later that year. She made an immediate impact on his music, and in return, Davis helped her produce a series of demo tracks recorded at the Columbia Records studio the following spring. For the past 47 years, those songs have been the subject of wild speculation over why they’ve never been let out of the vault. Somehow, the Seattle label Light In the Attic label finally got permission to release them.
Remember: These were intended to be demo tracks, not finished songs. But in their rawness you already hear how Mabry was shaping her identity as a “down home girl” from North Carolina. Those roots are right up front, both in her song’s themes and in that countrified accent she curls around her voice.
Almost all of the players on these sessions were jazz musicians, including Miles Davis’ sidemen at the time, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The sound, though, was unmistakably influenced by rock and funk, most of all on her cover of “Politician” by Cream.
Most of the tracks, however, were Mabry’s original compositions. She was always aspiring to be her own artist and not just a face or voice. The compilation includes an outtake where you can hear her working through her ideas with the band in real time.
When Mabry reintroduced herself in 1973 as Betty Davis, it felt like she had appeared fully formed as an uber-confident, sexy Black Power goddess. But what the Columbia recordings reveal are her early ideas about presenting her music, her sexuality, her persona. Even nearly five decades later, it seems we still have something to learn about one of funk’s music’s most iconic artists.