Rise of the Funky Divas

Rise of the Funky Divas

Men have dominated funk, but female funkateers like Betty Davis, Labelle and Mother's Finest should never be forgotten

Michael A. Gonzales

by Michael A. Gonzales, August 12, 2013

Rise of the Funky Divas

Labelle put their big-girl space-boot platform shoes on

for Aerosmith, they also played gigs with Labelle, Brides of Funkenstein and Betty Davis.

Once married to famed trumpeter Miles Davis, who she helped transform from a jazz son to the father of fusion, Betty Davis’s brilliant self-titled debut album dropped in 1973. In 1997, Joi began performing a cover of “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” making a new generation aware of Davis and her sonic innovations. In recent years, Brooklyn-based singer Nucomme has done a series of tributes simply called Betty’s Story. “In the ’70s, Betty only put out three albums,” Nucomme explains, “but she was just too raw. America wasn’t ready.”

Mother’s Finest’s third album, Another Mother Further, was released in 1977. Featuring their now classic “Baby Love,” some folks began comparing Kennedy to Khan. “Well, we both had red hair at one time,” Kennedy laughs. “But vocally, I’m nowhere near her class. You have to understand, that era was about women doing their own thing. None of us were doing exactly the same thing, so there was a love for individual talents and endeavors.

“We respected one another, so it was all love, all sugar. But please don’t forget about Tina Turner, because she was rocking for years before us.” Of course, Kennedy’s right. Thinking back, I can clearly remember seeing Turner in her miniskirt and heels wailing “Proud Mary.” I recall how disturbed my grandmother became whenever she saw the singer on television.

Gazing at Turner’s gyrating body, Grandma screamed, “She’s so vulgar! It’s like she’s having sex on the stage.” Later, Grandma’s word vulgar would be applied to other female artists including Chaka Khan, Shelia E. and Madonna.

“I blame what I call respectability politics as part of the reason the funk-rock some of the women from the ’70s aren’t better known,” Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, explains. “Despite the importance of their music and presence, many of the funk-rock females represented the aggressive behavior and sexuality that many people were not comfortable with.”

A decade later, fem funk drummer, singer, songwriter and producer Bernadette Cooper sipped from the same batch of courage as her predecessors when conceiving Klymaxx, Madame X and her own solo project. “When I look back at the forming of Klymaxx, it feels more like it was an out of body experience,” Cooper recalls. “I remember the struggles and the sacrifice, but I also remember the camaraderie of six girls focusing on one goal. This is very rare and hard to find.

“We sent out a few demos and immediately came to the attention of Solar Records through an executive named Margaret Nash,” Cooper continues. “Margaret urged her boss, Mr. Dick Griffey, to check us out. He came to our rehearsal, watched us play and offered us a record deal.” Signing on the dotted line in 1981, Klymaxx released three albums before finally having a hit with their fourth, Meeting in the Ladies Room, which featured the Cooper penned single, “The Men All Paused.”

Cooper remembers, “The reaction by other male groups to us was not very good. They did not embrace the idea. This is a male-dominated business and women are not supposed to be on drums or guitars.” In 1987, shortly after the group released their self-titled fifth album that contained “Sexy” (co-written with George Clinton himself), Copper conceived the side-project called Madame X, which consisted of vocalists Iris Parker, Valerie Victoria and Alisa Randolph.

Cooper wrote and produced the entire project. Inspired as much by opera (“Cherries in the Snow”) as she was by Minneapolis funk (“Just That Type of Girl”), Cooper crafted one of the best fem funk albums of the 1980s. “Freedom was my blueprint,” Cooper recalls. “I had just moved forward from Klymaxx, which was ruled by committee, and now I had the freedom to produce and write without any limitations. Sylvia Rhone signed the concept to Atlantic Records before I even found the girls.

“My engineer Gerry Brown and I crafted that project like it was the Mona Lisa. Every song was from either my life or someone else around me. I wasn’t searching for a hit. I just wanted the project to be pure. The girls did all of their own vocals and the result was the creation of a new sound and group.”

Without a doubt, women like Khan, Kennedy, Labelle, Davis and Cooper made it possible for post-soul artists Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj to get their freak on while making millions in the process. Says Kimberly Nicole, “With the rise of the female funk singers, you could see that it was all right to be raw and wild, both on stage and vocally.”

For many folks, including more than a few men, the dirty work of fem funk artists represented courage, and that message

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