If there’s a man that can take a sizable amount of credit for the reemergence of Betty Davis’ career, John Ballon is that man. As Ballon helped to force the record labels to award Betty Davis the royalties they’d kept from her for so long.
We sat down to glean a bit more of that story and pick Ballon’s brain on just who Betty Davis is.
Ballon wrote the liner notes for Is It Love or Desire and is the founder of music website MustHear.com.
LIGHT IN THE ATTIC: Aside from your more scholarly work with Betty Davis, you also have a semi-personal story with Betty Davis that involves you actually helping her to receive $40,000 in unpaid royalties. I was hoping you could tell that story.
JOHN BALLON: I first got in touch with Betty through the head of MPC records. He was the one who found her after all these years and got her to sign a record deal to reissue her early albums. At the time I was writing liner notes for Aztec Records, which had licensed Betty’s first two albums from MPC which they were planning on reissuing in Australia. As part of my research, I tracked down Michael Lang of Just Sunshine to ask him about signing and working with Betty. He immediately challenged MPCs claim to being a legitimate rights holder. He told me that he had been looking for Betty for years, because there were years of back royalties that were owed her and they had no clue how to find her. I got in touch with Betty’s publishing company and gave them her current address. In the end, a check was cut and Betty finally got what she had coming. It allowed her to move into a place of her own. As far as I know, the guy from MPC disappeared and Aztec sadly never got their licensing fee back. The true rights holders were subsequently found by the guys at Light In The Attic, leading to the first non-bootleg reissue of Betty’s music on CD. She is now getting paid everything she deserves.
LITA: Betty Davis is known to be one of the more reclusive artists what was like working with her in the past?
JB: My first interview with Betty was not much different from my most recent conversation. She’s a woman of few words. The television is usually blaring in the background. Answers are often vague, short and elusive. She eventually tires of the conversation and finds a way of getting you off the phone. She is a woman who treasures her privacy above all else. While I feel I have earned a degree of her trust, I never felt that she was ready to be totally open and honest with me. There are walls she’s spent years building, and nobody from her past or present seems to be able to break them down.
LITA: In the liner notes for Nasty Gal you give several reasons as to why Betty Davis chose retirement so early in her career (health, creative control issues, etc.). Do you, being one of the few people who’s had contact with the singer in the later years of her life, have any personal observations or thoughts on the reasons behind her fade from the spotlight?
JB: The music business is a killer. She attacked it with all she had, and in the end, she had very little to show for it. I think her manager making off with her final “Hanging Out In Hollywood” recordings combined with the death of her father were a 1-2 punch that she couldn’t recover from. What happened after that remains a mystery. She says she just went on living, but has never really defined what that means. I have no clue how she survived all these years. But I do know she has no interest in going back to music. When someone from Lenny Kravitz’s camp approached me and asked that I gauge Betty’s interest in some kind of collaboration, she flat out said no. Now maybe if Prince had called, the answer would have been different. But I doubt it. Whatever reasons she had for quitting the music business, they remain strong to this day.
LITA: What drew you to Betty Davis originally? Why were you drawn to her music, to her, and to her career?
JB: A friend of mine first played Betty’s “Anti-Love Song” off a funk compilation for me while we were riding up Pacific Coast Highway on a perfect California summer’s day. I was blown away. He mentioned that this lady was married to Miles. Now I’m a huge Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis fan. When I discovered that she not only was Miles’ wife, but had in fact been good friends with Jimi and his “Dolly Dagger” girlfriend, Devon Wilson. The more I learned about her, the more fascinated I became. In many ways, her story is even more incredible than her music. It touches so many defining things about America–rock, jazz, sexual liberation, feminism, groupie-ism, the music industry, youth, beauty, revolution, critical acclaim, failure, the black experience, conformity, identity and of course, the funk.
It’s all totally fascinating.
LITA: Do you remember where you were the first time you heard Betty Davis? What you were doing? The effect it had on you emotionally? What your reaction to it was?
JB: As I mentioned before, “Anti-Love Song” was my first introduction to Betty. It was one of the most devastating first listens I can remember. Larry Graham’s bass and Greg Erricco’s drums. The unconventional lyrics. The production. It really doesn’t get much better than that song. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been a hit. I wanted to hear more. I was hooked. It was love at first listen.
LITA: Over the years has your reaction and experience listening to Betty Davis’ discography changed in any drastic way? Or are you still just enjoying the shit out of her wild style of funk?
JB: Believe it or not, I pretty much only play the first record, even though I think all of her music is great. There’s just something about 1973. The musicians on the record. Erricco’s production. The rawness. The others albums are cool, but I reach for that one again and again.
LITA: On a less Betty-centric note, what are you listening to now? What are you obsessing over in terms of music or food or life or whatever?
JB: My life is the remastered Beatles box. I’m hearing something new in those old albums everyday. Thank god for my long commute. Wow. But man can’t live on music alone. As far as food I’m obsessing over, I’m hooked on my wife Elizabeth’s heirloom tomato pizzas. Word to the wise. Buy the Beatles box and marry an Italian. You’ll thank me.