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Betty Davis: A 'Nasty Gal' Ahead Of Her Time

Funk and R&B singer Betty Davis was influenced by close friends like Jimi Hendrix and her ex-husband, jazz legend Miles Davis. In 1975, visionary music mogul Chris Blackwell signed her to his Island Records label, which released her groundbreaking album Nasty Gal; it's just been reissued on CD.

Davis' sexy growl conjures images of her the way she looked onstage in the '70s — thigh-high silver boots, hot pants, massive afro. Davis was Sly Stone, Mick Jagger and The Jimi Hendrix Experience all rolled into one woman. Sly Stone bassist Larry Graham once said that, although Davis didn't play anything, her mind, body and spirit were her instruments. In this album's title track, you can hear that her singing doesn't just represent a voice; it's a supernatural force she's using to break social conventions, push funk to the extreme and propel herself as an artist.

By the time Nasty Gal was recorded, Davis and her band were a tight unit, their act finely honed over many months on the road. She wasn't just a woman fronting a group of musicians; she was part of the band, but she was also the leader in every way. The music, the clothes, the choreography — Davis controlled the whole package, uncompromising in her vision. Aggressive and outrageous, she challenged the notions of what women could do and say on and off the stage.

Davis could use her vocal power for ballads just as easily as belting, and on Nasty Gal, she proved that she wasn't a one-dimensional screamer. The song "You and I" marked her public reconciliation with her ex-husband, Miles Davis; the two co-wrote the song about their relationship. Punctuated by his distinct trumpet playing, it's even more poignant.

Nasty Gal was poised to be Betty Davis' commercial breakthrough, but it didn't work out that way. She left the business shortly after its release and moved to Pennsylvania, where she still resides. Some say that her image upstaged her music, but I disagree. Listening to the propulsive funk and powerful ensemble playing, all driven by this astonishing woman, it's apparent that her image was just as important to the albums as a guitar or a keyboard or her voice. Her image was the very concept from which her music stemmed. In 1975, Betty seemed to represent the era, but she probably pushed boundaries too far for mainstream music. And artists at the forefront of their art are seldom appreciated until the rest of the world catches up.

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Meredith Ochs