When Miles met Betty: The Columbia Sessions Come Alive

The Betty Davis Columbia sessions are an insanely historic document and a sign of future success for Davis.
By    July 25, 2016

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Will Schube was there for Kubrick’s moon landing.

Light in the Attic has pulled off some crazy stuff, but maybe nothing quite like this. The whispers have been circulating for a while, from Illuminati members to over-40 bloggers and even a hushed hint or two from the ghost of Miles himself. But you know how rumors work. Kevin Durant’s as good as a DC resident, he’s going to San Antonio, he’s staying in OKC…Never believe what you hear. Never, ever believe what you hear on the internet. But almost 50 years later, the Miles Davis/Betty Davis sessions emerge from the vault, unpretentious and historic.

For the uninitiated: In 1968, 22 year old Betty Mabry marries 42 year old Miles Davis. The couple divorced in ‘69, but her influence was profound: She’s often cited as one of the big inspirations for Davis’ milestone, 180-degree, 1970 freak fest LP Bitches Brew. This inspiration is not only due to the music she created, but because of the stuff she showed Miles, namely the work of a young guitar player named Jimi Hendrix. Before the couple divorced, however, Betty and Miles hopped into the studio with some friends and supposedly made a record. Light in the Attic’s The Columbia Years 1968-1969 is the result.

The interesting thing about this release is that it’s a better document of a bunch of musical giants gathering together than it is a very good album. Betty Davis made a ton of incredible music during her career, and while there are some thrilling moments on this re-issue, it doesn’t come close to toppling her best work. “Hangin’ Out” will leave you yearning for a late night party around a BBQ, while her take of “Born on the Bayou” is ecstatic. “Politician Man” shows traces of the psychedelic, melted guitar John McLaughlin would introduce to the jazz world on Bitches Brew. But a lot of the album leaves something to be desired.

The Columbia sessions feature McLaughlin on guitar, Mitch Mitchell on drums, and Herbie Hancock on keys. It’s an unbelievable cast, but after multiple listens, it’s clear why this thing is just seeing the light of day: they’re sessions that produced great sketches, but the song-writing isn’t quite consistently coherent. Betty Davis would grow into her music in an astounding way. I’m thrilled that The Columbia Years exists because it’s an amazing document. Sometimes the myth is better left undiscovered.