A Nasty Gal!

The boom in high-end LP reissues has now reached the point where the canniest reissue labels have become acutely aware of what vintage vinyl sells for the most on eBay, Discogs, and other sites. If they can license a good-sounding source, astute labels like Mobile Fidelity, Analogue Productions, and Light in the Attic are now reissuing these artifacts on 180 and 200 gram vinyl LPs for much less than an original will cost.

While I'd still rather have an original copy, these reissues for the most part deliver high-quality sound and deluxe packaging. Especially prized by deejays, funk and even disco records, full-length and 12" singles alike, are now among the most valuable of all vintage records. Prices on-line and at record shows can reach into the thousands for a single record, nearly putting them in a category with original Blue Note jazz records as a world unto themselves in LP collecting.

Rather than an indication of how great the music contained on them is, or how many were originally pressed, expensive vintage records are most often albums that upon initial release just did not sell. While most records that ended up in the cut-out bin didn't sell because they were musically lacking, it can also be argued in certain cases that the reason they didn't sell was because they contained music that was impossible to categorize or too far ahead of its time. That may be precisely the case with Betty Davis.

Seattle-based Light in the Attic Records ha for some time now been steadily reissuing the Davis recording catalog: three released records and a pair of LPs collecting unreleased tracks. They assure me that all are sourced from the original master tapes. I have yet to see any corresponding drop in the prices of original pressings despite these reissues coming onto the market; they continue to be very pricey items, depending upon condition, fetching anywhere from $60 to $200. Sealed copies go for even more.

Recently, Light in the Attic released an LP of Davis's final album, Nasty Gal. While the black vinyl version is priced at $21, a cool-looking pink and yellow vinyl, swirled edition goes for $23. Both sound terrific and are packaged in Stoughton jackets.

Originally released on Island Records, Nasty Gal was both her major label debut and swan song. When Island owner Chris Blackwell wanted to produce a follow-up, Davis balked and in 1976 she and the label parted ways. However, she continued to tour and actually did make a follow-up record that was shelved by Island. This album Is It Love or Desire was eventually released on CD by Light in the Attic and on LP by Sundazed in 2009.

Betty Mabry became Betty Davis when she married Miles Davis in 1968. Besides her career as a solo artist, she is also credited with being a seminal influence on Miles and the direction his music took while they were married. Mabry met Davis in 1967 and a year later she married the jazz icon, 20 years her senior. Miles's second wife introduced the trumpeter to the music of Sly Stone and especially her friend (and it has been whispered, lover) Jimi Hendrix. The rock guitarist and jazz trumpeter often spoke of making a record together but sadly that session, which many, including me, believe could have produced magic, did not occur before Hendrix's death in 1970.

Betty Davis' influence on her husband's music is a topic of great debate in jazz circles with many fans and critics of the trumpeter, blaming/crediting Betty with engendering Mile's electric fusion period, perhaps best heard on 1970's Bitches Brew an album whose title may also be a nod towards Betty. Another tale from that time holds that it was Betty who convinced Miles to call the record Bitches Brew. In John Ballon's liner notes to the LITA reissue of Nasty Gal, he quotes Miles as having told Cosmopolitan magazine in 1976," "She's a downright sexy bitch. She's got more talent and guts than any single woman out there."

Betty Davis' own musical career began with "Get Ready for Betty" which was released as a single in 1964. And even though she wrote a tune, "(Uptown) To Harlem," that the Chamber Brothers recorded in 1967, Betty's music took a back seat to her fashion modeling for many years. South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, with whom she was in a relationship with before Miles, produced demos for her that were eventually released by Columbia Records. During their marriage which ended in 1970, Miles also produced a set of demo recordings for her but failed to interest his label Columbia or any other labels in her music. The Miles-produced sessions have also been released on CD and LP by Light in the Attic as The Columbia Years 1968–69

After she and Miles were divorced, Davis, who'd grown bored with modeling, decided to get serious about music, eventually forming the band Funk House, which made Nasty Gal On this record, her shot at making it big, she wrote and sang a strain of 1970s, pre-disco, keyboard-based funk, with and without horns, that was sly, sexy and wonderfully raw.

The controversy surrounding Davis, however, has always been about her voice. Her ferocious grooves were indisputably strong, taking inspiration from both Hendrix and Sly, and they grew in large part in very similar ways to what George Clinton was doing in his musical universe. But it's Davis's voice that is the edge on which her fans and detractors turn. Her vocal tracks are filled with shrieks, screams and growls. It's a style and approach you either buy into or you don't. It works to perfection on tunes like the title track to Nasty Gal.

While she will always be thought of more as a songwriter and musical visionary, Davis's vocal energy, a perfect match for her upbeat material on Nasty Gal, like Talkin' Trash" and "F.U.N.K.," will never be thought of as pretty or particularly appealing. If you're looking for Judy Garland, you need to look elsewhere. As a hint of what might have been however, on Nasty Gal, she sing-talks her way through the very tender, "You and I," a ballad supposedly inspired by her relationship with Miles, proving that she could bring it down a notch and find success as a softer interpreter of her music.

Vocal concerns aside, Betty Davis and her music will always get eternal credit for the artistic path she cut for other artists, particularly women to follow. Perhaps the most lasting judgment on her music came from Prince, who always gave her credit for being one of his most essential inspirations. One nasty girl indeed.

Glotz's picture

Interesting person and thanks for the insight on her. This album image was on a marketing insert for Island records' Bob Marley & the Wailers LIVE! and I've always wondered what this LP was about. They promoted the album as 'Nasty Girl' under the photo in their marketing.

dalethorn's picture

Sampling some of her albums on iTunes (90 second samples!), she makes me think of the future Riot Grrrl sound. And she has a great voice.

Edit: Granted that much of her early material is funk, due I suppose to the backing bands. But I hear that Riot Grrrl sound in her voice in some of her later tracks.

Allen Fant's picture

Thanks! for reviewing -RB.