Betty Davis whose funked-up song stylings led her to be crowned Queen of Funk, earning a cult following and her defiant fashion consciousness which made her a forerunner of the Afrofuturist movement that inspired LaBelle, Prince and David Bowie, died on Feb. 9, in Homestead, PA. She was 77.
The news was confirmed to Rolling Stone by Davis’ close friend Danielle Maggio, an ethnomusicologist whose work focused on the singer’s music and life. Allegheny County communications director Amie Downs said Davis died of natural causes.
“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it. And nobody else was knocking at my door,” Davis said to The New York Times in 2018 about her too-brief career. She said her father’s death changed her priorities. “I went to another level. It was no longer about the music or anything, it was about me losing a part of myself. It was devastating.”
In 2007, “Betty Davis” (1973) and “They Say I’m Different” (1974) were reissued by Light in the Attic Records. In 2009, the label reissued “Nasty Gal” and her unreleased fourth studio album recorded in 1976, re-titled “Is It Love or Desire?” There were extensive liner notes on both reissues which shed some light on the mystery of why her fourth album, considered possibly her best work by members of her last band (Herbie Hancock, Chuck Rainey, and Alphonse Mouzon), was shelved and remained unreleased for 33 years.
An interest in the trailblazing life of Davis was resurrected in 2017, when the independent documentary “They Say I’m Different,” directed by Philip Cox was released. In 2019, Davis released “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” her first new song in over 40 years, which was performed and sung by Danielle Maggio, who was also associate producer on the documentary.
Musicians and listeners have resurrected her definitive raw funk music that is bestowing her with much-belated respect after her music has been re-issued and sampled by Ice Cube, Method Man, and Lenny Kravitz among others.
During her music career, Davis was an independent renegade given the status of female funkateers of which there were few. She wrote all her songs and produced her last two albums, working with her own selected musicians. Few Black women in the music industry including Tina Turner, Chaka Khan, her 1970s contemporaries or later generations like Janet Jackson or Beyoncé have ever enjoyed that level of creative autonomy so early in their careers.
“I’m me and I’m different; my music is just another level of funk. I love Tina [Turner], but we are two totally different people. The same with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Larry Graham, and Stevie Wonder,” said Davis during an interview with Black Music magazine in 1974. “We all make your fingers pop, but for different reasons…so don’t compare me.”
Betty Gray Mabry was born on July 16, 1944, in Durham, North Carolina, to Henry and Betty Mabry and grew up in rural North Carolina before the family relocated to Homestead, Pa., where Betty graduated from high school. Her father was a steelworker and her mother a nurse.
She was introduced to the recordings of blues singers Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf and rock and roll singer Chuck Berry, singing along with the record player. She was 12 when she wrote her first song, “Bake a Cake of Love,” and later she sang in local talent shows.
As a teenager, Davis ventured to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She landed a modeling job with the Wilhelmina agency, appearing in Glamour and Seventeen magazines and Jet Magazine’s centerfold. She was a friend and early muse to fashion designer Stephen Burrows. She loved the Greenwich Village cultural scene from fashion to rock and folk music during the early 1960s. She also found joy at Manhattan’s Upper West Side club the Cellar (Broadway and 90th Street), where an array of stylish folks hung out—models, actors, musicians and athletes (one of few clubs owned by a Black person during that time).
Mabry became the house DJ and hostess.
Her first single “The Cellar” named after her favorite spot was produced through her friendship with singer Lou Courtney, this led to her working with arranger /producer Don Costa recording “Get Ready for Betty” and “I’m Gonna Get My Baby Back” in 1964. She recorded under Betty Mabry. In 1967, the Chambers Brothers recorded her ode to Harlem, “Uptown.” She also wrote several demo songs for the Commodores, which helped them get signed to Motown Records. The storied label offered her a writer’s contract, but she declined after they insisted on owning all her publishing. The South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, then her boyfriend, produced a
1968 single for her, “Live, Love, Learn.”
During her visit to the United Kingdom, Eric Clapton, then still with Cream, offered to produce her but she declined. She later shared with culture writer and scholar Oliver Wang, “Clapton was into a classic-type blues style whereas I’m more into an avant-garde bag. I just don’t think it would have worked.”
She met Miles Davis at a jazz club and became his second wife in 1968. Her photograph was the inspired cover of his 1969 album “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” which included the song “Mademoiselle Mabry.” Ms. Davis introduced her husband to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, catalyzing his move into rock and funk.
Even with her short-lived, abusive marriage to Miles it was evident she was much more of an influence on him than he on her. Although he helped produce a few demo songs for her in 1969, they didn’t land her a deal; she did that on her own after their divorce. It is important to note, Betty introduced Miles to her friends like Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. At that time Miles had begun his transition to jazz-rock fusion, recording his landmark 1970 electric album, “Bitches Brew” (Columbia Records). While working on the album Miles considered the title “Witches Brew,” it was Betty, who suggested “Bitches Brew” which stuck. She also convinced him to trade his expensive silk suits in for a hip, funkier fashion style.
In his 1990 autobiography, Miles devoted a few pages to their relationship—acknowledging that she was “talented as a motherf*****” and “a big influence on my personal life as well as my musical life,” opining that “If Betty were singing today, she’d be like Madonna; something like Prince.” Actually, they would be more like her. Having seen her live performance at the Bottom Line, safe to say there hasn’t been such a dynamic Black female singer combining rock, blues and funk like her moanin’ groanin grindin’ shouting belting out erotic lyrics and her outfit, she could have sung lead vocals in The Sun Ra Arkestra.
Davis was a crowd pleaser when it came to club audiences, but she found little commercial success on radio. As noted, the mainstream music industry of the early ’70s wasn’t welcoming independent Black women artists, especially with such an erotic charged performance from lyrics to stage presence. Allegedly, the Detroit NAACP tried to get her songs banned from local radio, arguing she was spreading a negative image of African American women.
Davis recorded three solo albums: her 1973 self-titled debut, and two Island Records releases “They Say I’m Different” (1974) and “Nasty Gal” (1975) which turned out to be her last album for Island Records. The included track “Dedicated to the Press” showed her willingness to speak her mind straight up and raw. It is her response to a media that wasn’t always her friend. She scored two singles on the Billboard R&B Singles chart, with the
No. 66 single “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and 1975’s “Shut Off the Lights,” which peaked at No. 97.
There was a fourth album recorded in 1976, but problems arose in the middle of producing it. Island Records had Davis and her band, now known as Funk House, down to the state of art “Studio In the Country” in Bogalusa, La. but creative differences sparked Davis’ termination from the label. The masters were held hostage for the next three decades until it finally gained a proper release in 2009 under the name “Is It Love or Desire.” After parting with Island, she attempted a disco-era comeback that also never received a proper release at the time (Light in the Attic will be releasing it soon, under the title “Crashin’ From Passion”).
Davis proved to be a visionary whose music and talent were under-appreciated. She was devoted to her only goal, playing good music. And although she proclaimed not to be a role model, she will be for generations to come.