Interviews & Articles

RHYTHMS MAGAZINE Interview by Christopher Hollow

We Say She's Different - The Music of Betty Davis
May 2014

Betty Davis. She’s one of music’s great mysteries. Even in the age of the internet, with information always a click away, it’s been hard to get any insight into her life. For many years the only hints came from the music and the album covers.

 

And those covers do tell a fascinating story. Cut-off denim shorts and metallic silver thigh-high go-go boots [Betty Davis] to a futuristic warrior one-piece [They Say I’m Different] to fishnet stockings, black negligee and a feline snarl [Nasty Gal]. In truth, they only fueled the intrigue and the desire to know more.

 

Even now, after Betty’s granted a couple of rare interviews, it’s still hard to get a handle on who she is. No surprises, she’s a woman of few words.

We know she started performing in the mid-‘60s as Betty Mabry, wrote singles for the Chambers Brothers [‘Uptown’], was the face of a Miles Davis record [Filles de Kilimanjaro], inspired Miles’ most radical ever shift in tone [Bitches Brew], married [and divorced] Miles before releasing a bunch of outrageously funky albums in the ‘70s that continue to taunt and titillate.

 

Betty growled, cooed, shrieked and wailed her way through songs that are fierce, super-sexual and rattled your cage [cue: ‘He Was a Big Freak’]. It wasn’t just one trick either. With the uber-bravado came tenderness with songs like ‘In the Meantime’ and ‘You And I’, which you can imagine both Nina Simone and Jane Birkin singing.

 

Now Melbourne performer Cecilia Low is presenting a show – They Say She’s Different – that celebrates the raw, enigmatic music and persona of Betty Davis.

 

The beauty of Betty and her music. It’s there awaiting discovery.

 

What’s the best story you’ve heard about Betty Davis, be it true or false?

The stories of Betty are quite elusive. A lot of it is hearsay, not reliable, pure conjecture. That’s what makes her even more fun. Like a true myth or legend should be. There are conflicting stories about how she met Miles. One being that Miles’ bodyguard approached her in her club, the Cellar, and asked her to share a drink with him. Another more exciting story, which I think is false, is that Betty hunted him down and went to his apartment dressed-to-kill in a sheer mini-dress. Knocked on his door, introduced herself and handed him her card saying, “I’m a musician and I think you might want to get together with me.” Noticing another woman inside she added, “And when you throw that bitch out, I’ll be back.” Pretty crazy, hey? I think this is complete fabrication. More something her stage personality would do – not the real Betty.

 

Where did you first hear about Betty?

I was introduced to her around 1992/3. I was studying classical music, Voice and Musicology, at the Elder Conservatorium [Adelaide]. There was a resurgence of her music due to a re-release of her debut album, Betty Davis, and B Sharp Records on Rundle Street had her as a featured album. My sister was the one who found her. She declared one day: “I walked into B Sharp and looked straight at this CD and it reminded me of you. So I bought it. Here it is.” We weren’t in the habit of buying each other random gifts so I was quite chuffed and intrigued. We put the album on and boogied the entire album through. I’d never heard anything like her before: screeching and wailing like a cat on heat and so damn funky. Her style of rock-funk spoke to me in some way. I couldn’t stop dancing.

 

What can we expect from the show? It’s billed as ‘The Music of Betty Davis’ but is any of her story woven throughout?

The show is loosely based on her life – and only a small period of it: late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. Because of the many conflicting stories about her we have used that as creative license to present a time in history – where things were changing fast and she was right in the middle of it.

How’s the fact that Betty is still a mystery, even after 20 years of the internet and music nerds like me trying to find out anything they can about her …

Yeah, I know. I’ve always wanted to know more too. But, as I do find small bits of information, I see she’s a deeply private person. What she presented on-stage and in her music was only one side of her. Off-stage she was a driven, pure soul with masses of raw creative energy. Softly spoken and often called the girl-next-door. I believe the ‘70s were hard for her, losing a lot of friends through death or drugs, no support from the music industry and her father falling ill. I imagine it’s hard to talk about that stuff and I respect her silence on that.

 

You look fantastic as Betty. Your band… well, they look like they had fun in the dress-up shop…

[Laughing] Thank you. She’s fun to be. My alter-ego name is Betty D. There’s nothing like getting to flaunt kick-ass boots on stage whilst screaming into a microphone! The band are awesome. So talented and look damn fine in ‘70s threads. In fact, Phil Ceberano’s wardrobe is so perfect, he’s our style advisor. [Laughing].

 

What can you do as Betty that you couldn’t as mild-mannered Cecilia Low? 

Who says I’m mild-mannered?

 

Betty is infamous as the muse for Miles’s Bitches Brew. She’s the face of Filles de Kilimanjaro and he named a track, ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’, after her. Do you touch on Betty’s life with Miles?

Yes, it’s implied.

 

I love that Miles says that Betty was “too wild” for him…

I think she was – but in that way one is when they are young. Betty was only 23 when she married Miles, who was 42. I believe she was the change that was going on around her whilst the change happened upon Miles. That would have definitely felt a little too wild at times.

Betty doesn’t think she can sing. What’s your take on her voice?

I think her voice is amazing. She might not do vocal acrobatics like other singers but she’s got “it.” I see her voice more as a tool to her, acting her characters to the stories she is telling. It’s the full package with Betty. Her voice forces you to feel what she is feeling. It gets into you

 

What’s your favourite Betty Davis track?

Hard question. ‘Anti-Love Song’ is the classic bad girl anthem because it’s strong, shows her power as a woman and its sexy as hell.

’Cause I know you like to be in chargewell with meyou know you couldn’t control medontcha?‘Cause you know I’d make you drop your guardI’d have you eaten your egoI’d make you pocket your pridejust as hard as I’d be loving youYou know you’d be loving me harderthat’s why I don’t want to love you.

 

What song is the show stopper?

‘They Say I’m Different’ – the groove is so good. We know everything about her from this song. This is her. I love that she salutes the blues legends that influenced her.

They say I’m different ’cause I’m a piece of sugar caneSweet to the core that’s why I got rhythmMy Great Grandma didn’t like to foxtrot,no instead she spitted snuff and boogied to Elmore James

 

What song is the underrated gem?

‘Steppin’ Out in Her I. Miller Shoes’. This is such a powerful song. It’s dark and honest. Its driving beat is hard and demands you stop and listen.

Do you play the song she wrote for the Chambers Brothers – ‘Uptown’? Great song.

Yes, great song. This does make an appearance.

 

She also released a couple singles as Betty Mabry in the mid-‘60s. ‘Get Ready For Betty’, which she recorded with Don Costa and ‘It’s My Life’. Do you play these?

These songs don’t appear in our show.

 

Where can you see the influence that Betty has had on modern music?

Well, she really was the first Madonna. She put it on the line like no other woman has. Especially when you look in context of history – a young black woman writing, singing, producing her own music in the ‘70s. And, she wasn’t talking about R.E.S.P.E.C.T, she was talking about what was really going on. In today’s music, we can see her influence in Madonna, Prince, Costa Rica, Macy Gray, Lenny Kravitz. I still think she dared to do a lot more than anyone after her ever has.

 

Is the world ready for Betty Davis yet?

Hell yes! – after thirty years you’d hope so! Her music is raw and in your face. It’s still rougher edged than a lot of pop music out there today. I think those that find her now are those that have broad musical tastes and often come by her through other musicians like Sly & Family Stone, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Santana. Betty never apologised for her sound. She couldn’t be anything other than herself. Sometimes if we don’t sugar coat things the world doesn’t like you. But if you dare to be, it’s way more fun. Above all, Betty was all about having a good time. There are people out there that get that and they are the ones that count.

  

 

It's the hard hitting early 70's, sex sells, music is god, women are shouting out, change is constant, free love is the new language, and a good time is what really counts.

 

A young woman by the name of Betty Mabry embodied the changing times, as the women’s movement was going full speed ahead. She was a model, musician, songwriter, singer and producer in her own right, who captured the attention of Jazz legend Miles Davis, becoming his wife at just 23, and introducing him to the who’s who of new music including her good friend Jimi Hendrix.

 

Recording with some of the Sly Family, Santana, The Pointer Sisters and writing hit songs for the Chambers Brothers, not to mention dating Eric Clapton, Betty was the connection they all wanted. She was the ‘it’ girl. Known as a hard-core sassy funk diva on stage, but also ‘the girl next door’ off stage, she was widely misunderstood by society.

 

She sang about kinship and its loss, of choices, mistakes, and death. She sang about her power as a woman and being heard, and about having a good time despite it all!

 

But being a black female in a white man’s world, Betty’s natural energy and daring lyrics were too much for the so-called liberated 70’s. The public deemed her too edgy, the black community denounced her bad girl image, and the music industry dropped her cold.

 

Miles once stated ‘If Betty were singing today she’d be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman. ‘ Betty was the Madonna, before Madonna. Yet her influential spirit has remained largely unknown in American music culture.’

 

However thanks to the people that have sought after her story over the years, raising her to cult status,  we have seen Betty’s music and life finally being appreciated with a new feature documentary, ‘Nasty Gal,’ which is currently in production by UK production company Native Films.

Ms Davis has only done a handful of interviews in over 35 years. This film, in collaboration with Betty herself marks the first time she has spoken out in a major way since leaving Miles and being shunned by the music industry and American culture. The film is due for release late 2015.

Now, right here in Melbourne, audience members of the Fringe Festival will get to experience the original music of Betty Davis in an immersive cinematic experience that recreates what it might have been like to go to a Betty Davis gig in the 70’s.

 

Created, produced and performed by local Melbourne artist Cecilia Low, “They Say She’s Different” blurs the lines between rock gig, film experience, and theatre production as a rock star cast and crew bring the story of Betty Davis to the stage.

 

Featuring Tony Kopa (The Truth, Headspace) as Musical Director, Aussie legend Phil Ceberano on guitar, Thommy Man on drums, Glen Reither on Keys and Sax (Icehouse), Miss Eliza Wolfgramm on vocals, and cinematographer Cameron Zayec.

 

Premiering in 2014 in Melbourne at iconic music venue Ding Dong Lounge, and rocking out the Space Theatre for the 2014 Adelaide Cabaret Festival this show compels audiences to leap out of their seats to boogie! Driven by the music of Betty Davis this show is a snapshot of her pivotal early years giving us a glimpse into the heady world of music, women’s liberation, and a changing society as we re-imagine what a Betty Davis gig might have been like.

  

SPOOK MAGAZINE - Words By Leticia Brown
September 23, 2015

ADAMNOTEVE - interview by Dean Forte
September 23, 2015

  

They Say She’s Different is not your standard tribute show. Cecilia Low and her production team have put together a sonic fusion of live music, film and theatre into a production for the Melbourne Fringe Festival that brings to life the early career of influential 70’s funk Goddess Betty Davis. Dean Forte talks to Cecilia to find out her inspiration behind the project, blurring the lines between live music and a theatrical experience, and Betty’s influence on today’s music scene

First of all, congratulations in putting such fantastic project together. You’ve managed to differentiate many tribute acts by piecing together a number of different art forms, in music, theatre and film, into the one project. How has a project as bold as this come about for you?

Firstly, it was Betty’s music that I really wanted to share with people. She was a bit of an unknown story and an unknown but influential artist that people hadn’t really heard about. When I first heard about her music in the 90’s I fell in love with it. I just hadn’t heard anything like it. I knew from then I really wanted to do something with her music, and I guess 20 years later it’s come out in the form of a live immersive theatre experience. I’ve always wanted to bring film into theatre, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I really wanted Betty’s music to come alive and I thought about ways to do this. So the great thing about film is that it can make something very intimate very quickly, and I wanted to bring that into theatre and I wanted to use film to bring Betty’s music and Betty’s life a little bit closer to the audience and give the audience the feeling of being thrown back in time. Betty’s music has really been the driving force, but I wanted to also challenge the way we experience theatre too. We have some live projections throughout the show and we also have pre-recorded film sequences throughout, and then we have the band in a traditional type of rock set-up.

 

Is the topic of Betty Davis one that has been close to your heart?

Yeah, when I first heard her and I was blown away. My sister came home with a Betty Davis CD, and I just boogied non-stop. I just knew then I wanted to do something with her. I took her to parties and blew people’s minds with it. So back in the 90’s, it was really hard to look up anything on her as the internet was very new, and she had only done very few interviews since she left the industry. There’s a feature documentary that is going to be released next year that she will be a part of, so it’s going to be very exciting to hear about it and for people to experience it.

 

The project debuted last year; how is this production different to the version that you have compiled in the past?

It is a little bit tighter, we’re under a little bit of time constraints (1 hour show), so we’ve dropped one or two songs, so we’re really only touching the iceberg of Betty’s career as we’re only really covering her first two albums of her four album career. We’ve got a new drummer as the original drummer was away but other than that, it will be a pretty similar experience.

 

Betty Davis was known for not only her vocal talents but also her bad girl image and particularly strong appetite for sex at the time. How do you convey this image of Betty in your production?

Well…. Haha. It’s a bit of a naughty show. She was very much commenting on society and what was going on around her. People got her quite confused about what she was about. Her bad girl stage image really wasn’t her – it was more of a character that was reflecting what was going on around her. She still turned heads and was controversial, she wore negligées on stage and talked about whipping men, but there’s no real live video footage that has been found of Betty on stage. At the same time it also gives us a bit of a creative licence when interpreting what it would have been like. There’s a bit of gyrating and skimpy outfits, but we try and balance it out. We show that side of things, but also show that she was more the girl next door off stage.

 

Betty was largely renounced in both the African American community and the musical community for her fairly controversial views at the time, which lead to boycotts of her live shows and radio air play, and was a real sad way for her to finish her career in music.

Definitely, one of the reasons why she left the industry was that music industry didn’t know how to place her. Her father got very ill towards the end of the 70’s, and a number of her friends died in that period, like Jimi Hendrix, and it became too much of a fight to be who she wanted to be in the music world. The musicians and celebrities of the day embraced her, but it wasn’t enough to get over the line in the end. At the time, African Americans were really trying to fit in, and this was really a difficult position for them to get behind. A black woman producing her own music back then would have been quite something new, and as a woman of no compromise, she knew what she wanted and if it wasn’t going to be what she wanted it wasn’t going to happen.

 

Comparing her fairly open lifestyle in today’s modern age, what female entertainers would you compere her with or see her influence amongst modern musicians?

I guess a lot of female and male artists have taken a lot from Betty. I always thought Madonna, Kelis, Prince have a lot of Betty in there. There’s a dirty groove and dirty funk that really came from Betty. There was rock back then, there was blues, there was funk, but Betty was one of the first artists to fuse a lot of those elements together. Today it seems common place, but now artists such as Erykah Badu emulate that raunchier side of a woman, I see a lot of Betty in there. Even though Amy Winehouse isn’t with us anymore, she definitely had a strong vision with her music and just didn’t compromise. I think Betty, without her even knowing it, musicians have really learnt from her groove.

 

You’ve put together a pretty stellar cast for this project, how did you go about convincing all these great artists to get on board with this project?

I was really good friends with Tony Kopa already who is my musical director, and I just went to him for some musical advice, and after an hour of chatting he was like “I could put this band together tomorrow!” so I was like “really?” and he just put it together that week and everyone was really excited to play her music. It takes a certain type of musician to emulate the 70’s like these guys have. They have really stuck to that dirty, gritty 70’s sound. It’s been fun getting right into that sound and creating and feeling what that scene was like. They’ve all got their own little personalities that I like, because that enhances the piece. We’re all in a band together and we’ve all got a great relationship together, so I’m really honoured and stoked to be able to play with them.


 

  

  

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