GREG ERRICO ON PRODUCING BETTY'S CLASSIC SELF TITLED DEBUT
“Betty was a free spirit, talented as a motherfucker.” Said Jazz genius Miles Davis, via the pages of his autobiography Miles. In an era when he was already starting to digest the funk of both James Brown and Sly & The Family Stone, Miles credits his ex-wife (Miss. Mabry when they met) of turning him onto “rockers” like her friend Jimi Hendrix, and of being “something like Madonna, something like Prince - only a woman. She was the beginning of all of that when she was singing as Betty Davis.”
Arranging sessions with musicians who featured on the jazz masterpiece In A Silent Way - including Fender Rhodes player Joe Zawinul, guitarist John McLaughlin and produced by the legendary Teo Macero - Miles tried to bottle her talent himself and give up the funk. Recording, amongst an albums’ worth, a slop version of Cream’s The Politician, but the groove obviously didn’t take with the sessions remaining in the Columbia vaults, despite the label remastering anything else Miles guffed on during that era. Miles sophisticated, improvisational funk too intricate to truly get nasty.
The marriage wouldn’t last either. After a brief year-long union spent in New York, the 23 year old Betty & 43 year old Miles would swiftly divorce. But not before Miles would record and release the groundbreaking slop-jazz of his 1969 album Bitches Brew. The title itself a probable reference to the overriding influence of his new spouse, though ultimately Betty’s brew of free spirit (read independence) and sexual appetite, would prove too potent, too strong. Miles calling time on their joint account after believing Betty and Hendrix had been burning the midnight lamp - despite knocking around with two other women himself – portraying Betty in his bio as ‘wild’, ‘all sex,’ ‘raunchy’ and ‘all that kind of shit.’ Wanting to keep her in the cellar; too hot to handle even for the much lauded Prince of Darkness.
For Betty’s part, whilst walkin’ up the road on her tod, she didn’t want the Davis sunset to cast a shadow over her musical aspirations.
“I believe in being taken seriously, not coasting on my husband’s name.” Said Betty in her 1974 PR blurb, adding: “I could always have recorded with Clive (Davis of Arista Records) or Ahmet (Ertegun head of Atlantic) but I would never truly know if I we’re being humoured because I was Miles’ wife.”
In the ensuing years, whilst globetrotting as an in demand model and songwriter, Betty turned down numerous musical advances from a slew of household names, including Eric Clapton, Marc Bolan and Motown (who , according to Betty, signed The Commodores on the strength of the songs she wrote for their demo). But all she really needed was a drummer. Not any old drummer mind, for any ‘ol square that needed a beat, the musician Betty pursued, and asked to produce her all-important debut album (the eponymously titled Betty Davis) was none other than Greg Errico, the former drummer of arguably the funkiest band that ever grooved –from the Woodstock conquering, original line-up of Sly & The Family Stone.
“When I first left the group (in 1971) I had what I’d call road rash so I just chilled for a year.” Says Errico; from his digs in San Francisco. The end of the The Family Stone had been brutal, for Greg and later Larry Graham, pacing the floors of dressing rooms, losing patience over their band leader’s no shows, with Sly rarely present (either physically or consciously) to witness the riot goin’ on.
“I bought a Harley Davidson and just began hangin’ out with my friends … who knows what (work opportunities) I passed on. I just stopped touring and rode.” Less than a year went by, and Errico began to hear the sound of not-so distant drums. “I got the bug to go back out and perform again – get back into it, and there was lot’s to choose from.”
Errico had begun working on a project that would turn into the ’77 released Giants of San Francisco, with Santana conga player Michael Carabello, Betty’s latest squeeze at the time (Michael referred to her as his ‘New York-Girl’).
“Betty was out here on the west coast and Michael was like ‘She wants to meet you’. Me and Mike used to hang out a lot, and he used to talk about her, told me that she had some interesting ideas and was very influenced by Sly & The Family Stone. So I knew she was a model, had married Miles, wrote for the Chamber Brothers and used to hang with Hendrix - I knew all the back story.”
Sans music, Betty had already been offered a deal by Just Sunshine Records, an independent label owned by Michael Lang, the dude that put on Woodstock. Though not looking to produce her debut album herself (all subsequent records would be), Betty had a clear idea of what she wanted, and what she didn’t want, musically – not interested in the jazzy voodoo cuts in the Columbia vaults.
“Mike brought Betty by in the afternoon,” Errico recalls. “She was tall, long legs. Told me she had tried some things in the past with Teo Macero using musicians from the jazz circle, great musicians, but what they made was not what she was looking for. By the end of the day we just hit it off, she asked me to produce and was very enthusiastic and focused. Comfortable in asking me (despite not having much experience) to produce and I said ‘sure, yeah I’ll do it.’”
As producer, Errico’s first task was to amass a band funky enough to bring Davis’s plan to fruition, and using his connections he was able to assemble the cream of the Bay Area crop.
Former bandmate and slap-bass inventor Larry Graham, brought members from his new group Graham Central Station: clavinet player Hershall Kennedy and co-lead singer, funk box player Patryce ‘Choc’Let’ Banks. The Tower of Power horn section was present and correct with Greg Adams, Skip Mesquit & Michael Gillette all in attendance. Future disco star Sylvester & The Pointer Sisters would also provide backing vocals.
“It’s just like doing a movie,” Errico explains. “You got something you want to express, a story to tell and really it all ends up in the casting. There’s so much creativity when you cast something right, with the right people involved. You just throw an idea out there and, boy, you just got all of this creativity nurturing that one idea. Something that represents all the people involved.”
The initial idea and spark always came from Betty, who (somewhat uniquely for an artist, let alone a debutant) would go on to be credited with writing all of the songs, on every album she released. The musical ideas/sketches that Betty brought to the studio we’re unlike anything released by her former husband.
Says Greg: “Betty did talk about Miles; you know she didn’t go out of her way, but within conversation she would definitely. I mean, he was a dominant part of her existence – some of it was personal, but generally it was about the music. She played me the things she had done with Teo, the demos, and it was nothing like anything we ended up doing. In the infancy, when we started working the thing out she would literally just hum a line, could be a bassline or a tune. Then she would sing over the top. The band would build the tune around the lyric, line or melody. But she wasn’t really heavily melodic, or a great singer or nothin’, but she had her story and wanted to deliver it with the heavy funk rhythm section. You know, she wasn’t a singer’s-singer.”
Neither was Mick Jagger, but that never bothered his legion of fans. Betty’s vocal delivery, though it sounds nothing like Jagger, is equally full of character, as operatic as it is scathing. She wasn’t trying to take on no Aretha Franklin n’ Amazing Grace, lord knows there were plenty of soul singer’s in ’73, what Betty wanted was to bring the funk, amongst a male dominated r&b scene where men (and back then most women too) still believed girl’s like Betty needed a change of mind. Errico on the other hand was down with it, understood where Davis wanted to go.
“As disconnected and as bare as it all was when we just started out,” Greg laughs “it was funky, and it was raw. I remember feeling, ‘she knows what she don’t want!’ In her mind, what she wanted was already well defined.” An early, brilliant, reel to reel rehearsal tape unearthed by Errico of the last song on side one, Your Man, My Man, gives a glimpse into the way in which Davis would coax the band into finding the groove:
Betty sings “doom, dhoom, dah dum, dum di dum”
Then over the top she lays a guide vocal.
Who’s to blame?
Your man, is my mayne,
It’s all the same … ‘cause you care…”
Betty stops and talks to the keyboard player.
“What I mean is, you know, when you just went ‘di ni!’” Betty says gently, aping the little piano notes he just played. Her voice is much lighter than the dramatic guttural screech’s the records would suggest. She continues, “You know when James Brown would go 'di ni!' and then it goes down like ‘di ni!’ again, if you could do that and just chop it. You know, just CHOP it! The guitar part will help you.”
Keys-man (possibly Hershall Kennedy) assures Betty he will, before adding, either apprehensively or sarcastically, that he didn’t want to overplay it.
Betty laughs, “Ahhh, you could never overplay!” The last word ‘overplay’ is said in a high pitched voice. Very sweetly, like sugarcane wouldn’t melt in her mouth.
“We only had, jeez, a couple of rehearsals together as a band,” recalls Greg. “We played after hours in a club called Andre’s on Broadway Street, San Francisco. I had access to it and used to hang out with groups like Santana there.”
Was Betty a part of the live rehearsals?
“No, no she wasn’t. I mean, we didn’t even jam with her – I could be wrong but I doubt she had performed at all before we made the record. But it wasn’t a thing, it wasn’t expected, (as a band) we had to create the animation first, and then it was her obligation to come, jump in it and live it.”
The first single (though not a hit) and album opener was the slop classic, If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up. It has a monstrous riff, achieved by playing the same line on guitar and bass. Organ player Hershall Kennedy’s right on improvised vocal, ‘Wooo hooo hoo, man! I wanna take her home!’ after Betty’s ‘wiggling my fanny’ hook. ‘I Just want to love you a little bit,’ she sings ‘take me home, won’t you take me home?’ Men could dig it literally, hearing it as submission. Women could understand it for what it really was - a sister asserting her power. Gettin’ kicked off havin’ fun.
Says Greg: “The guitar line, that’s all Betty had. That’s all she ever had when she expressed her songs … and boom! All the uptempo stuff started with her humming a line. I can remember coming up with the beat for that and the attitude just being stoopid funky, it was in your face funk. Only on In the Meantime (the ballad) did we sit down with a keyboard player and work out a melody.”
Just after Betty split with Miles, she wound up modelling in England for a spell. So she probably knew what the word fanny meant in English speaking nations outside of North America.
“I’m assuming it means the same thing it does there as it does here … doesn’t it?” Greg sounds confused. He had no idea that in the UK a fanny is a vagina. Not an arse.
“Oh, no. Though I’m sure she knew that. I just took it at face value.” Greg laughs, “err, no pun intended.”
A possible reason for Betty Davis lack of commercial success as an artist could be her fearless raunchiness, regardless of either the mood of the times or how she looked. As a professional model, singing the sexually liberated lines she was singing? Hell, it’d be no surprise if her peers viewed her as a threat. Especially when she was out with her best mate and super-groupie Devon Wilson - the subject of the stomping Steppin’ In Her I. Miller Shoes (“I wish The Family Stone got into that” says Greg) - Betty alludes to her treatment on If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up.
“So all you lady haters don’t be cruel to me, don’t you crush my velvet don’t you ruffle my feathers neither.” She sings.
“Yeah, I think she perceived that,” Errico confirms. “You gotta figure she was stepping out of some long-lived boundaries for a female, right? She was gonna get that. Not that she was asking for it … it just seemed like a natural reaction, given the mood of the times.”
Greg remembers a time in the studio when a bit of ladyhatin’ almost spilled out onto the record.
“When we we're recording Your Man, My Man Larry Graham’s girlfriend Patryce ‘Choc’Let’ Banks was singing the (tete a tete) vamp and there was some,” Greg pauses; “... friendly competition, an aggressive female to female thing. Your man/my man. It got heated, almost serious, and you can hear it in the song, the edge to it. Larry wasn’t present the day they recorded their vocals. But he was to them, like a hologram.” Greg laughs.
Even in the excellent liner notes to the Light In The Attic 2007 re-issue, Patryce can’t resist admitting: “I never really did understand (her voice). She couldn’t sing.”
Says Greg: “Thing was, we also had Kathy Macdonald there who could really belt. The Pointer Sisters & Sylvester, but Betty had no second thoughts about doing what she did in front of anybody. You had people like Patryce saying ‘she can’t sing*, what are WE doing here?’ but within 60 seconds everybody gets it, it’s real and they accept it.”
(Ed note: For her part, Patryce Choclet Banks disputes there was ever any conflict, writing to Soul Jones to say: "During the time I worked with Betty, we became very close. There was never any animosity or competition between us. True, when I first heard her voice, I didn't get it, but she was fearless and knew what she wanted and I admired her for that. On "Your Man, My Man", it was all fun! She wanted it to feel real, so we went for it! She was happy with it and so was I. I just need to dispel any notion that there was ever anything but love between Betty and I.")
After years of cult status the album is now, largely due to hip-hop samples, and the increased exposure of the digital age (like the reappraisal of the Shuggie Otis album Inspiration/Information) rightly recognised as a funk classic. Seems every few years Errico has someone reach out to him about how much they love album (always with a request to be put in touch with the reclusive Davis). With Larry Graham handling most of the basslines, including the excellent thumpin’ and pluckin’ of Walkin’ Up The Road, one of Errico’s favourite moments is the contribution from Doug Rauch on the nasty, 5 minute slop of Game Is My Middle Name. “It’s a ridiculous bass-line from Doug,” says Greg, pride audible in his voice. And rightly so, Errico’s production work was the catalyst for something great, succeeding where geniuses like Miles Davis & Teo Macero couldn’t. Surely Sly must have approved?
“Yeah I had the thought once, though it wasn’t like we would get hung up on little side games. He wasn’t the kind of guy that would bring it up, he would never go out of his way and give you a bunch of props or anything, and he wouldn’t even talk about his own stuff. That wasn’t his thing. It just came up, casually, faintly. Somebody else would say it with you present. Sly would just look at you and give you an eye, a little smile, something. I knew he would hear it (Betty Davis) and I knew he would dig it. And he did, he heard it, he dug it.” Greg laughs.
Had Errico not be involved with Weather Report, he says he would have worked on the '74 follow up They Say I’m Different. Not that he was asked mind. Betty did ask him to tour but he couldn’t, so she went out with the original Graham Central Station band.
“What Betty learned from what we did (on her debut) she used on the They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal (1975), and I was like ‘Ok, she's doing her own thing. That’s cool.’ She didn’t let me down.”