I don't think the world is really ready for a black rock star yet

So yesterday we covered Betty's "fetish funk" side (the most brilliant description of that nasty get-down sound I've come across). And I'm still groping for words to explain why I love Betty so much. It's partly because she just rocks so hard. I did some road tripping recently and blasted Betty all the way there and back. And everytime I play "If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up" I find myself doing air bass. Is that rock or is that rock?

I also think Betty incarnates the extremes of a woman's desire more honestly than any artist I can think of off-hand. There she's following in the footsteps of the blues ancestors as well, blunt and unashamed women like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who were singing about their girlfriends as well as their no-good men. And like the ancestors, she's got a sense of humor about the whole thing:

Girl, I've had that night and it was just last weekend. Let's face it, sometimes a woman needs a little something something, and if she needs it bad enough, maybe she's not as picky as she should be about where she gets it. All I know is, when Betty screams, "Take me home! Take me home!" it thrills me to my soul. Which may or may not be my hoo-hoo. The NAACP called Betty a disgrace to the race for this song, which also earned her some radio boycotts. Well, fine. Yes, the pernicious stereotype of black women as hypersexed avatars of depravity is as old as miscegenation. And yes, I cringe when the sassy black woman shows up in sitcoms and family films to tell it like it is and deliver some blue humor. But someone in this body-hating culture of death has to represent for the pleasures of the flesh and if it's got to be the black woman, so be it. It's not Betty's fault.

BTW, that's Buddy Miles on guitar in "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him." ("Yeah, I'm putting a band together; I think I'll ask Buddy Miles to jam with us.") Another thing I like about Betty: she doesn't break ranks with the women. A lot of the soul sisters do this blame-the-victim thing, like if your man's out tricking, you must not be doing the job at home. In this song, as James Maycock notes, "she brilliantly employs the female backing singers as if they were supportive girlfriends." He's right. The backup singers are right up front with Betty, trading lines. When Betty purrs my favorite line, "I'm going to move it slow like a mule," the girlfriends are there, "Go on and move it girl." Do it, do it.

"Richard Pryor wanted Betty to come on his show," remembers Chuck [Mabry, Betty's brother and manager]. "Now, we saw that as the perfect opportunity for the world to see what Betty was, but the people behind Richard wouldn't allow it."

--James Maycock, "Get Ready for Betty," published in Mojo as "She's Gotta Have It"

What do you think Betty was up against? How many times did she have to act like a dumb slut so men wouldn't be scared of her? How many times did she screw a guy just to get hooked up with the right people?

Betty says, Don't hate the player, hate the game. A woman can't afford to be stupid about these things. And if she's smart enough to get on top of the quid pro quo, she's a tramp. The game is rigged.

And speaking of a rigged game, it's clear that Betty was a rock star, pure and simple. She charmed Marc Bolan, she dug Zappa, she jammed with dudes from Santana. She hooked Miles up with Hendrix and helped inspire Bitches Brew. But if the world wasn't ready for a black rock star in 1981, they clearly didn't know what had hit them in 1973. That's why funk became funk isn't it? So there'd be a place to put all the black rock stars.

It's tempting to draw some moral about gender relations here, but I'm not sure what it would be. Labelle didn't sell either, so maybe the space-goddess-rock-funk thing just didn't take off like everyone had hoped. Betty isn't the easy listen, with her screaming and her raspy howls; of course, Macy Gray made good with that sound. Macy Gray might be a sex-o-matic venus freak, but she wasn't whipping some guy with a turquoise chain. Then again, Madonna's made fetish safe for the masses, so would anybody even care these days? Maybe Rick James is right. Betty was too weird for the black market (but the Clinton Funk Mob wasn't?) and too black for the rock market. And rock is a boys club anyway, so the odds were against Betty from the start. It just seems criminal that someone so witty and cool, so damn funky should have been so overlooked. I discovered Betty all of three months ago, back when MW was getting down with "Nasty Girl," and the listeners at home phoned in about Betty as an antecedent for the song and the Vanity 6 lingerie look. See, that's why I do this blog. Many thanks to those who turned me on to this good thing -- and you know I don't want to give it up. And many thanks to James Maycock for sending over his unedited Mojo article and answering various trivia questions about Betty.