Graded on a Curve:
Betty Davis,
The Columbia Years
1968-1969

For lovers of ultra-wicked funkiness, the name Betty Davis is an aphrodisiac of uncommon potency; a few years back her string of ’70s underground classics found deserving reissue by Light in the Attic, and the label has released her very enlightening late ’60s sessions. Cut prior to and during her brief marriage to trumpeter Miles Davis, The Columbia Years 1968-1969 illuminates a formative but highly productive period in the career of a considerable talent who remains too seldom heard.

Before getting hitched she was Betty Mabry; Miles nuts know it’s her picture on the cover of ’68’s Filles de Kilimanjaro and that the album’s closing track “Mademoiselle Mabry” is named after her. However, it’s important to note that she wasn’t discovered by Davis, having cut a pop single for Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa’s DCP International label in ’64 as her song “Uptown” was covered by The Chambers Brothers on Time Has Come Today in ’67.

As related in John Ballon’s liner notes for this set, it was through her involvement in a group of trendsetting women known as the “Cosmic” or “Electric Ladies” that Miles came under her sway, with the impact of the younger on the older extending to the musical. This may seem questionable to casual observers given the hugeness of Miles’ legend, but the situation is borne out by the facts.

Mabry and her cohorts’ passion for the “avant-garde pop music” (in Miles’ description) of Hendrix, Sly Stone, and Santana opened the trumpeter’s eyes as he sat on the cusp of his electric period, with this connection having been previously articulated in Davis’ autobiography; the uncovering of these (astoundingly never bootlegged) vault recordings gives his statement even deeper credence.

Columbia had already recorded Mabry in a 1968 Los Angeles session featuring South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and pianist Joe Sample, saxophonist Wilton Felder and trombonist Wayne Henderson, the last three all members of the Jazz Crusaders. The label even issued “Live, Love, Learn” b/w “It’s My Life” under Mabry’s name; both tracks and an unreleased third from the date are collected here, though the B-side appears in an alternate take.

The remainder of the record comes from the ‘69 New York session organized by Teo Macero; it finds the newly married Davis backed by Jimi Hendrix’s New Experience/ Cry of Love rhythm section, namely bassist Billy Cox and drummer Mitch Mitchell, and by bassist Harvey Brooks, keyboardist Herbie Hancock, guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and organist Larry Young, a crew familiar from Miles’ band and specifically from the groundbreaking Bitches Brew, which emerged the following year.

A famous ex-husband and a deep roster of accompanists aside, it’s her budding artistry that ultimately makes The Columbia Years 1968-1969 worth owning, a circumstance that easily extends to the more trad R&B-inclined material from ’68. But make no mistake; with the exception of the ’64 single the Masekela-arranged material situates Davis at the farthest removed from the funky sex beast she’d soon transform into.

Seeds of defiance are planted in “It’s My Life” as the setting maximizes the potential of the assembled horns. The session was further augmented by members of Masekela’s band of the period (saxophonist Al Abreu, pianist Cecil Barnard) and numerous additional session players and backing vocalists; the results are similar to the breezy, large-scaled scenarios prevalent in the era, but with the extra gusto of funky guitar and lively drumming.

The rhythmically driving “My Soul is Tired” roughly follows the same template, though “Live, Love, Learn” is a significantly more mainstream affair; complete with string section, the strong suit comes through the savvy interaction of lead and backing voices. Emitting a slight Tammi Terrell vibe, it should go down a storm with Motown fans.

Closing out the LP’s second side, the ’68 stuff provides a nice addendum, particularly for folks who dig the period’s merger of soul, pop, and jazz as offered by Masekela and the Crusaders, but the second session is undeniably the main attraction of this set. Those familiar with her subsequent output, especially ’74’s stone monster They Say I’m Different have absorbed Davis’ undisguised thing for the blues, so the rootsy funkiness that emerges shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“Hangin’ Out” is an upbeat original groove with lyrics championing laidback partying as an exalted state of being; it places her firmly in a late ‘60s frame of mind (as her later sex-themed jams landed Davis firmly in a ‘70s milieu), sassiness mingling very nicely with the expert playing of the group. And yet it’s necessary to understand this second session, eventually shopped to Atlantic after Columbia passed on releasing it, is essentially rough demos; “Hangin’ Out” ends abruptly, and Miles’ voice can be heard numerous times throughout, notably at the beginning and finale of “Politician Man.”

The first of two covers on the LP, Davis retains the framework of the Jack Bruce-Pete Brown penned ditty, injecting it with an appropriate level of sultriness as McLaughlin, Mitchell, and Cox do a more than adequate Cream impression; Young’s organ adds a differentiating presence. It leads into “Down Home Girl,” an original blending of Tina Turner’s energetic delivery with the swampy mode of Tony Joe White, the combo continuing without a hitch into a nifty reading of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou.”

It would’ve made a swell single, and the same goes for “I’m Ready, Willing & Able,” which an aborted take shows underwent quite a quick evolution in the two days’ worth of studio time. Altogether The Columbia Years 1968-1969 serves as a very welcome prelude to Davis’ essential ‘70s slabs; folks owning them are unlikely to be disappointed, and newbies picking up this album and Berry Davis will soak up a major musical transformation.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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