If anyone knows about Betty Davis, Oliver Wang does. Creator, founder, all-around master of Soul Sides, Mr. Wang has spent some serious time amongst the obscure annals of funk and soul, and is one of the few folk to sit down with Ms. Betty Davis and pry some hard fought answers out of her.
Oliver is the author of the liner notes for Nasty Gal (a fantastic read in it’s own right) and we sat down with the man to pick his brain about all things Betty.
LIGHT IN THE ATTIC: What originally drew you to Betty Davis and her music? And why you’ve written so extensively on her?
OLIVER WANG: The funny thing is, I hadn’t written that extensively on her prior to handling the liner notes for the first two reissues; I might have had one or two pieces that appeared in alt. weeklies but that’s it. However, there had been so little available on Betty that it may very well have amplified what little press there was.
As to what drew me to Betty and her music…to start with, her funk rhythms were undeniably arresting. They weren’t the most sophisticated, complex compositions but she understood how to grab your attention with a good bassline groove (it also helped she was playing with all-stars like Larry Graham and Mike Errico). Beyond that, I think I was just struck by the brazen attitude and sexuality Betty exuded in her album covers. You can try to compare her with other female funk stars of that era – Parlet, Millie Jackson, the Brides of Funkenstein but I still think Betty was in a class by herself in terms of making this spectacular visual impact. I mean, she was rocking an Egyptian headdress and javelin on an album cover; how are you not going to take notice?
LITA: Can you remember the first time you heard Davis? Where you were? What you were doing? What your first reaction to the music was?
OW: Ha, well, I can’t say I felt like hearing her music for the first time was “an event”. But I do remember it was her “Nasty Gal” album and what I heard was good enough that it made me curious to hear more from her.
LITA: Amidst creative difficulties with her label and a sort of emotional fade from the music industry, Betty only recorded one more album after Is It Love Or Desire. Do you feel as if you can sense the beginning of the end of Betty’s music career on this album?
OW: Not on the album itself, no. I think the album was exuberant given how good the chemistry was with the band and with Betty. However, the failure for the album to get a release definitely was part of the general industry difficulties Betty had in that era and portended the future challenges facing her.
LITA: Certainly you’d been privy to the existence of Is It Love or Desire prior to Light In The Attic’s release. As a collector, and a fan, what’s your reaction to the news that this previously lost album is finally seeing the light?
OW: I think it is an incredible development. Everyone I had interviewed the first time around spoke of how great the album was and how it was such a shame it got buried. I was even more surprised that no one seemed to have a copy of it (I didn’t discover the existence of the test-pressing until later) and I feared the worse. As it turns out, the tapes had been kept safely in two different locations all these years! Just goes to show what you can find when you go looking. But yes, I think it is wonderful that this album finally gets a proper release after all these years.What would you give to be in the audience for one of Betty Davis’ infamously wild shows with Funk House in the early and mid-70s?
OW: They definitely sounded like a helluva show. Just the stunned reaction by the press says a lot. That plus you might have run into Muhammed Ali at one of them!
LITA: Outside of Betty Davis, what are you currently listening to now? What are you musically obsessed with in these beginning days of Fall?
OW: I’m spinning an Aretha Franklin tribute set at a party this week so I’ve been digging back into the Queen’s music. Always an enjoyable endeavor.