Variously little known, forgotten, rediscovered, and cherished, ‘They Say I’m Different’ is the most singular of classic albums, one that has shaped generations yet been heard but relatively few listeners. In recognition of the pioneering work of Betty Davis, who died earlier this month age 77, we take a look at her second album, ‘They Say I’m Different’.
Born Betty Mabry, Davis spent her late teens and early twenties as a model, fashion student, and club manager in New York through the late 1960s. A friend of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, and other musicians of the day, her first musical release was a writing credit after she penned “Uptown (To Harlem)”, recorded by The Chambers Brothers in ‘67. The following year she would meet, and shortly afterwards marry, legendary Jazz auteur Miles Davis, appearing on the cover of his album ‘Filles de Kilimanjaro’ and taking his surname. The relationship was short lived, owing to Miles’ violent temper, yet both artists would take creative inspiration from the period. Betty’s stylistic influence encouraged Miles’ move from crisp suits to looser, more bohemian looks, while her passion for the music of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix is considered to have had an impact on Miles’ burgeoning ‘electric period’ with the release of ‘Bitches Brew’, released just after the marriage dissolved. For Betty, the relationship encouraged her to pursue singing alongside her songwriting, and fed into the development of her on-stage persona, becoming looser and more outlandish than before.
Over the next few years Betty Davis would perform, record several tracks, and ultimately release an eponymous debut album while never really drawing any mainstream acclaim despite working with The Staples Singers and members of The Family Stone. For her sophomore release, Davis took on enhanced production duties on top of the writing and arranging she had already mastered. The resulting album, ‘They Say I’m Different’ was released in 1974 and was at once more polished and more extravagant than her previous work.
Opening with ‘Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him’ the libidinous nature of the album is on show from the off. Featuring a slow Funk electric guitar riff, Davis flips the expected active-passive gender roles as she declares she’s variously going to “take him in, check him out”, “try him out until the sunrise” and “shoo-B-doop and cop him”. It’s a gloriously lustful yet controlled Funk track unlike any before it, thanks to the gender-flip. More than that, though, Davis shows her supreme writing talent by putting the spotlight on the history of using terms like “shoo-b-doop” to pass off sexual content in song, a trait common in Blues and early Rock ‘n’ Roll, in particular. Thus, the contrast between the covert and overt, the “shoo-b-doop”… “and cop him”, becomes a centerpiece of tension and release.
An album filled with these tensions, Davis crafts songs that flip narratives, spotlight power imbalances, and play on assumptions and prejudices. The second track, and perhaps best known of her work, ‘He Was a Big Freak’ is a tale of S&M where Davis beats her lover “with a turquoise chain” for his sexual gratification while herself revelling in the power dynamic of being in complete control. Vocally Davis purrs, hollers, and boasts while drawing to mind the prowling, coiled spring delivery of Iggy Pop.
Elsewhere, the title track finds Davis declaring her debt and love to a collection of Blues greats, placing her in a lineage from Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith to Robert Johnson and Chuck Berry. Using the full power of her voice, Davis energises the track while a relatively minimal Blues guitar riff loops in the background. Using repeating refrains, both musical and lyrical, provides the structure on many of the tracks here. In doing so, Davis constructs a framework through which she weaves, making full use of her impressive dynamic range while using the framework to defy expectations as she variously switches gears at unexpected intervals. It’s an arresting listen, quite unlike any of its contemporaries.
It is, perhaps, partly for this reason that ‘They Say I’m Different’ did not receive commercial or critical acclaim at the time of its release. More likely, as a Black female Davis was not considered marketable and therefore little money or effort was given to get the record out to the public, and few media outlets gave it room. The early ‘70s were a Rockist dream, as can be seen when one reflects that an entire genre of “Classic Rock” was born at this time. While Miles Davis maintained critical consideration by pushing the envelope in Jazz, Black artists working in other genres were ignored or shunned. Look to the previous year’s ‘Cosmic Slop’ by Funkadelic, itself a classic, to see another album lauded now that was roundly ignored at the time. Thus, Betty Davis delivered a wild, challenging, socially conscious, and highly sexual album that unjustly wasn’t able to make its mark.
Davis would go on to record and release one more album before disappearing from the public eye, leaving behind many of her friendships and working relationships in turn. In the late-2000s Light In The Attic records would re-release her first three albums, allowing for a critical and public re-evaluation. No longer the preserve of crate-diggers, Betty Davis’ music gained a deservedly devoted, inspired and greatly increased audience. At its pinnacle, ‘They Say I’m Different’ is the album that should have made Davis a star, a prototypical Grace Jones loved and lauded by fans and critics alike. Instead, ingrained music industry misogyny and racism likely got in the way but by being the pioneer, Betty Davis helped open minds just enough to help usher in what came next.