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It’s Still Not Betty Davis Time, But We’re Getting There

The release of a new documentary warrants reappraisal of the singer who was much more than Miles' wife

Betty Davis
Betty Davis in the early 1970s. Courtesy of Robert Brenner.

To be ahead of one’s time requires that one’s time eventually arrives. Despite the current, belated critical appreciation for Betty Davis’ work, her music remains jarring to the contemporary listener. Its aggressive, stripped-down, abstract funk is certainly much different from the glossy, R&B-driven version of that music currently peddled by artists like Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak. But the aesthetic shock is nothing compared to what’s in the lyrics: sex, and a lot of it—especially coming from a woman at a time when the peak of the Sexual Revolution was barely in the rearview mirror.

The lyrics, still a fixation (though now a positive one) for critics, are only saved from a parental advisory label by their lack of anatomical specificity. Perhaps most notorious is 1974’s “He Was a Big Freak,” a composition rumored to be either about her husband Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, a friend and source of musical inspiration. “I used to tie him up/He couldn’t get enough,” she yowls through the speaker over a relentless, scattered groove. “I’d get him off with my turquoise chain/I used to whip him/I used to beat him/He used to dig it.”

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Originally Published

Natalie Weiner

Natalie Weiner writes about music for a variety of publications including JazzTimes, Billboard, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. She is also a staff writer at SB Nation where she covers women’s sports and the NFL. Previously, she was a staff writer at Bleacher Report, and an associate editor at Billboard magazine.