Betty Davis was a force on stage. A silver-booted, wild-haired, sweating dripping, sex-pot of a performer that took the stage and your soul captive for as long as she wanted, and left you a shriveled bag of a person. But these live performances would’ve been shells without the backing of one of the funkiest bands to ever grace a stage – Funk House.
Fred Mills was the big-hatted keyboardist for the band (as well as the musical director for Is It Love Or Desire) and he was kind enough to sit down with us for a few moments and discuss the albums, Betty Davis, and the wild world that was Funk House.
This is a fantastic interview and we hope you enjoy!
LIGHT IN THE ATTIC: How did you see Betty Davis’ sound changing between her early albums (S/T, They Say I’m Different) without Funk House and her later work (Nasty Gal, Is It Love Or Desire)? What did Funk House add to Betty Davis’ existing sound?
FRED MILLS: The musicians that recorded (They Same I’m Different) with Betty were guys we listened to and got a lot of our feel from. The Sly, Larry Graham, Ohio Players and Santana type funk was what Funk House was about.
LITA: It seems that Betty Davis had a hand in all aspects of Funk House, from creation of the band, to the selection of your outfits – I wonder if you could discuss your thoughts, or observations on Betty as a band leader.
FM: We really started Funk House to play dates when we had down time from the road with Betty. Promoting ourselves as her recording and tour band helped us keep busy. She had wanted us to change our name to Sleazes, but we had established a following already. Performances with Betty were as much about the visual as the music. She wanted a certain look from the type of guitar I was playing to me not wearing a shirt and being well oiled (she liked that dark Miles type). Betty was the first female artist I had worked with that was also the band leader. She was really cool, but she would always say “If she I a man!” when situations were not cool.
LITA: What’s the feeling of being right there with Betty as she started moving towards a sort of mainstream success? And concurrently, what was it like to be there when it became evident that Betty’s rise to fame might be short lived?
FM: When you’re in the moment it’s hard to think that maybe next week “this isn’t going to be happening”. The business end was Betty’s thing and by the time we were aware of certain things it was a formality. It was Betty’s concept and record deal. She was the boss and we really never got involved with that end as it relates to Betty Davis the business woman.
LITA: Looking back now Funk House is widely considered to be one of the “funkiest” backing bands to ever grace the stage. While performing, or recording, did you recognize that? Did you see yourselves as this funk force or was it just another day at the office?
FM: Being the recording and performing band meant we were locked by the time we took the stage. Every song was our baby, and Betty was the momma. We all grew up together, and had played with each other from time to time before Funkhouse. Betty would bring the lyrics and an outline of what she heard musically, and we would take it from there. As Ray [Davis, Funk House bassist ed.] would say…”we just made it do what it do”
LITA: What was the emotional atmosphere amongst Funk House and Betty Davis as you entered the Studio in the Country to record what would become Is It Love or Desire?
FM: You have to remember we were in Reidsville NC and Betty was in Pittsburgh. Maybe two or three weeks before we did performances or start recording, we would get a phone call and off we go. This was the first time that we did not rehearse at a separate location. Studio in the Country was full service 24 hrs. We would rehearse on day and record the next, or record as we rehearsed if the magic was there. It was very relaxed and open for us.
LITA: On Is It Love or Desire? you took on a more active role as the musical director. How did this change your relationship with Betty?
FM: I remember the only clash that Betty and I ever had. She wanted to do a kind of of Betty Davis presents Funk House and she wanted us to do “Going To A Go Go”. I wasn’t feeling it. We had spent some of our off time fooling around in the studio and had a song I thought was better for Funk House. We never came to an agreement and I think in her relationship with me from then on was “If I was a man”.
LITA: This previously unreleased record has been called “the best project Betty ever put together.” What was the feeling then to see such an amazing album get shelved? And what’s the feeling now that it’s finally seeing the light?
FM: First let me say Matt [Sullivan, Light In The Attic owner, ed.] is my hero! The first reaction is somebody will pick Betty up and we’ll be on the road soon. As the days and weeks turn into months without a phone call, you move on. The music business is like no other. Until you call it quits, there’s always another gig.
LITA: What do you think the reasons were that Is It Love or Desire got shelved?
FM: Money, money, money. That is the reason so many of today’s artists have taken control of their projects. If you don’t have an individual or company that is willing to put up some money within reasonable parameters of who gets what, you find yourself making decisions about how much you are willing to give up to make this happen. I guess Betty and the money people couldn’t find a common ground. A good friend once told me “In order for a business to be successful, somebody’s got to get fucked”
LITA: Finally, in your opinion, why did Betty Davis fade from the spotlight?
FM: I’ll leave that for Betty. I can only tell you that Betty Davis was ahead of her time.