The Other 'Nasty Gal': Betty Davis
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because long before Sophia Amoruso, there was this queen.
By Constance C. R. White
One of the most scrutinized trademarks of the last decade is “Nasty Gal,” the name Sophia Amoruso chose for her fledgling fashion store turned e-commerce juggernaut.
The unexpected moniker comes from a song by Betty Davis, a singer and the former wife of Miles Davis. And while you might suppose a name like “Trash & Couture” or “Chic Girl Clothes” would have been an easier sell, once you get a load of Davis and her story, you understand why the idea seduced Amoruso and, rather than being a turn-off, for many young women it’s both seductive and empowering.
Davis was a tall, leggy model and singer whose music exuded such funk and raw sexuality that it unsettled more than a few; some even boycotted her shows.
Screaming, purring and singing her way through songs she penned, she demands freedom to be her own woman and to express her sexuality.
In the mid-’70s, she made a handful of albums. And while they never gained wide commercial appeal, they were so bold and ahead of their time that today they sound utterly contemporary and refreshing.
Her best songs have a strong funk groove with bluesy undertones. Davis’ voice rides the rhythms, cascading between playful girlishness and earthy, feline growls. Screaming, purring and singing her way through songs she penned herself, she demands freedom to be her own woman and to express her sexuality.
Many have compared her to Madonna, but not even Madge took her womanist vision to the level Davis did. Take, for instance, the following lines from “Nasty Gal”:
“You said I was a witch now. My way was too dirty for you. Ain’t nothin but a nasty gal now. Why you want this nasty gal back now?”
Her songwriting is vivid, uninhibited and risqué with the sort of sexual bravado one expects from men in rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop.
“I left you in bed hanging by your fingernails …”
“No, I don’t want your love because I know how you are …”
“That’s why I ain’t gonna love you because you like to be in charge …”
“I beat you with a turquoise chain …”
Plenty assumed that her lyrics were autobiographical and referred to Miles Davis or, a few postulated, to her friend Jimi Hendrix. But she has remained mostly mum on the subject.
Miles Davis’ seminal “Bitches Brew” album was either named by her or for her, depending on who’s telling the story.
She married the legendary jazz musician in 1968, when she was 23 and he was old enough to be her father. It lasted one year. Yet Miles and others have acknowledged that she had a major influence on him and his music. Betty exposed him to rock ’n’ roll and funk. She introduced him to Hendrix and other rockers, influenced the way he dressed and how he thought about music.
Betty’s face graces the cover of Filles de Kilimanjaro and one of the songs, “Madam Mabry,” is dedicated to her.
In fact, without Betty, Miles’s turn to new jazz might never have happened. His seminal Bitches Brew album was either named by her or for her, depending on who’s telling the story. In a 2010 interview, the now reclusive singer told Brit newspaper The Guardian that she gave the album its name. In the jazz world it’s widely acknowledged that she had something to do with the album title and its fresh direction.
After their divorce, she focused on her own music career, with top musicians of the day playing on her records and the Pointer Sisters occasionally providing background vocals.
Betty retired from the limelight in the late ’70s but you can see her lusty, no-holds-barred approach to music and personal style reflected in a number of funk and R&B artists who followed: from Prince to LL Cool J, a few of her songs have been sampled. And now, with the ascendance of Amoruso’s “Nasty Gal,” renewed attention is being paid to the woman who wrote and performed “Anti Love Song” and “They Say I’m Different.” Don’t miss them.
Here’s a listen to “Nasty Gal.”