Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music Reviews-Betty Davis and The Holmes Brothers

Betty Davis
Betty Davis is a funk singer, songwriter and musician who received some notoriety in the late sixties and early seventies. For a short time she was Miles Davis' (second) wife and muse. Her roommate tells the story that Betty went backstage to meet Miles, found Miles with another woman and told him 
"I'm Betty Mabry. I'm a musician and I think you might want to get together with me. And when you throw that **** out, I'll be back".
Betty says it didn't happen like that and that Miles made the first move. 
Although Miles and Betty were only married for a year , Miles was heavily influenced both sartorially and musically by his much younger wife. Betty wasn't too much into jazz but was extremely well versed in the new funk and rock that was coming out. Per Miles' autobiography: 
"That year was full of new things. Betty was a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life... If Betty were singing today she'd be something like Madonna; something like Prince, only as a woman". 
Miles wrote music for his wife, "Mademoiselle Mabry" and put her on the cover of his album Filles de Kilimanjaro. Per Betty, Miles also asked her opinions on his upcoming album Bitches Brew.  
Betty was also good friends with Jimi Hendrix. According to Miles she was a bit too friendly with Jimi. In his autobiography Miles described learning of an affair between Jimi and Betty from Jimi's then girlfriend, who upset, wanted to be intimate with Miles as a form of revenge. Miles declined the offer but divorced Betty soon after. Betty Davis always denied this affair. She said Jimi was just a friend. Later during her career Betty Davis wrote a song titled He Was a Big Freak about a man who liked to be whipped with a turquoise chain. People thought she was talking about Miles but in an interview she once claimed she was talking about Hendrix. How she would know that if they were just friends is something I don't want to investigate further. Davis was really before her time. She had a guttural singing voice that made you believe she was Howling Wolf's daughter by Etta James. Her dress style and sense of abandon, of letting it all out was quite shocking in the early seventies. At the time women singers just didn't sound like that or dress like that-especially black women singers. But Betty Davis never really seemed to care about what other people thought. She wrote most of the music on her albums, a skill which was rare, and brought a fierce, wild feminine energy to rock, something that in my opinion is missing today. She didn't get a lot of airplay; the NAACP came out against her music. Her clothing and freedom was too much for a more straitlaced black audience; being black worked against her for the white audience. Betty Davis was often frustrated by the expectations placed on her as a woman singer. She walked a thin line between vulgarity and open expression.

Davis' music is unabashedly raunchy and wild. "If I'm in luck .."  has got to be one of the nastiest hardcore rock riffs created and that includes anything by Led Zeppelin or Funkadelic. Davis created that perfect combination of funk, soul, blues and rock that her friend and inspiration Jimi Hendrix also perfected. Vocally her nearest comparison today is probably Macy Gray while people like Joi, Janelle Monae, Nicky Minaj and Nikka Costa probably also owe her something. The song Stepping in her I. Miller Shoes was dedicated to her friend, Devon Wilson, a famous supergroupie and Hendrix's favorite girlfriend.

If I'm in Luck I might get picked up     F.U.N.K
70's blues           Lone Ranger   Stepping in her I. Miller Shoes

The Holmes Brothers
(Left to right) Sherman, Wendell and Popsy
The Holmes Brothers could be described as a blues trio but that description is far far too limiting and probably gives you the wrong idea about their music. You're not going to hear cliched slide guitar licks, guitar tones straight out of beer commercials or meandering solos that go on for 8 minutes and end long after the guitarist has run out of ideas.
No the Holmes Brothers can more accurately be described as an American roots band, primarily based in blues but with equal footing in gospel and soul and R&B and an easy familiarity with country music and rock-n-roll. Similar to other musicians I enjoy listening to The Holmes Brothers grew up before a musician could make a living specializing in just one form of music.  They've played with John Lee Hooker, Willie Nelson, Rosanne Cash, The Impressions, and Wild Jimmy Spruill among others.

The band consists of Wendell Holmes (guitar, piano), Sherman Holmes (bass), and Popsy Dixon (drums). All three men sing and take lead on different songs. Their not no secret weapon is their harmonizing. These are some of the most beautiful gospelized masculine male harmonies I've ever ever heard. Although Popsy can still employ a beautiful falsetto to hit the high notes, generally Wendell and Sherman switch back and forth between soulful tenor and baritone voices. 
This is really good stuff and has won the admiration of younger musicians such as Ben Harper and Joan Osbourne. If you ever have a chance to see them live, please take it. They occasionally use a second guitarist or organist but they don't really need them. Wendell Holmes has the ability to play all the rhythm parts by himself and can drive a band so hard you won't realize there's not another chordal instrument. They're also pretty good arrangers as well. Their version of I Want You to Want Me is sublime and miles apart from Cheap Trick's original. (I'm not saying the original was bad either but the song's subtext differs greatly because of the change in the singer's age and experience). If you don't know much about gospel but don't want to hear a choir, The Holmes Brothers could be a good place to start. Or if you're curious about country music but wouldn't be caught dead listening to Lady Antebellum, again The Holmes Brothers might satisfy that curiosity.

I Want You to Want Me   Everything is Free  Don't Spare your Sword  Amazing Grace

You won't be living here anymore

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