“He was a big freak!”
Hearing those words in a yelling, screechy voice was my introduction to Betty Davis, during my college days at the house of a friend. I was clueless, but my friend told me she was the ex-wife of Miles Davis. I thought, “That explains it.” But it really didn’t.
“Betty: They Say I’m Different” is the long-awaited documentary that allows audiences to understand the composer, producer and singer who has been a recluse for decades. The film was screened Sept. 14 at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club to kick off a “Funkateer Weekend.”
When Davis came on the scene in the 1970s, she was considered a provocative talent who had entered the male-dominated world of funk music. She was fearless, unafraid to write lyrics that told who she was and what she expected. It didn’t matter if it was respect or sex — Davis was clear.
Her biggest challenge was that radio couldn’t figure out where she fit.
“I had not known of her music beforehand and it was a revelation — not for the beauty of her voice but for the sheer raw authenticity of her unapologetic delivery in a time when everything was so homogenized and mass-produced,” said Phil Cox, producer and director of the film.
It’s clear that Cox was immediately hooked when introduced to Davis’ music and story. Beginning his research and trek track to her down in 2012, Cox found out that Davis had dealt with a mixed, even hostile, reception in the 1970s. She was a maverick Black artist in relationships with incredible musicians, including Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela, but she was basically out there alone.
Davis’ background made Cox curious, so, naturally, he had to find her.
“The key to this project was that it was done in Betty’s own time,” said Cox, who is based in London. “I think she finally allowed our team to work with her after some years of simply chatting on the phone every so often. There grew a root of trust and friendship.”
Working through the challenge of a 35-year hole of information, with no archives, film footage or interviews to draw from (and Davis’ refusal to be filmed directly), Cox forged ahead. What is seen in the film is a brief clip of Davis performing and some photos. On screen are admirers, collectors and family members, but it was difficult to figure out the connection as the version of the documentary screened last month did not identify the people interviewed.
There was eerie, almost sad footage of Davis, now 73, sitting alone in her apartment outside of Pittsburgh. One might conclude that she was tired of the struggle of trying to be accepted as herself. Davis stepped away and was fine with that.
A hint of Davis’ personality came through during a segment in the documentary when she was on the phone with members of Funk House, her former band. It was “old home week” with keyboardist Fred “Funki” Mills and bassist Larry Johnson during that phone chat with the funk queen.
“It’s a blessing that after 40-something years that the film has come out and people can see a little bit of what she was like,” said Mills, who performed with the band after the film screening. “I was surprised to find out 20 years ago, that Betty was all over the internet. Social media and the diehard fans have helped us a lot.”
The band members, all from North Carolina including Davis, were on two of her albums, “Nasty Gal” and “Is it Love or Desire.” Over the past five years, Mills continues to speak with Davis about twice a month.
After the screening, Funk House “funked out” Bethesda Blues and Jazz with a hard-driving jam session, giving the audience a taste of why they fell in love with Betty Davis.
“I hope the film brings her legacy and contribution back into public consciousness and discussion,” Cox said. “I think for her it was — and still is — just about the music and the unapologetic right to release one’s inner voice and spirit out into the world.”