Betty Davis, Pioneering Queen of Funk, Dies at 77Breaking News
tags: African American history, 1970s, music, popular culture, Funk, Betty Davis
Betty Davis, the cult funk singer and ex-wife of jazz legend Miles Davis who left an underappreciated yet trailblazing body of work, died Wednesday at the age of 77. Danielle Maggio, a close friend of Davis whose research as an ethnomusicologist focused on Davis’ work, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone. Amie Downs, communications director for Allegheny County where Davis lived, added that the cause of death was natural causes.
The near-entirety of Davis’ musical catalog was recorded between 1964 and 1975, but her impact was felt for decades that followed. A model by profession, Davis first began making music under her birth name Betty Mabry, including her 1964 single “Get Ready for Betty.” An influential figure in the New York music scene in the late-Sixties, she would pen the Chambers Brothers song “Uptown (to Harlem)” and, in 1968, become the second wife of Miles Davis; the following year, Mabry, now performing under the name Betty Davis, would appear on the cover of the jazz great’s Filles de Kilimanjaro, with Betty also the inspiration behind Miles’ “Mademoiselle Mabry.”
Although the marriage only lasted one year, Betty is credited with introducing Miles to the rock music of the era, ultimately ushering in the trumpeter’s jazz fusion phase beginning with 1969’s In a Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew.
While recordings Betty made with Miles’ band during their marriage remained shelved, she finally released her self-titled debut album in 1973 for Woodstock promoter Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine Records. Davis recruited Sly and the Family Stone producer Greg Errico and an outfit of West Coast musical greats like Larry Graham and Merl Saunders. Two more albums quickly followed: 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal.
While none of the funk albums were a commercial success, Davis gained a cult following for her sexuality-laden lyrics, highlighted on songs like “Shut Off the Light” and “If “I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” Her candid, liberating attitudes trailblazed a path for artists like Prince and Madonna in the ensuing decade.
Following that three-year spurt of material — and following a year in Japan where she spent time with silent monks — Davis abruptly left the music industry, moving to the Pittsburgh area where she lived for the next 40 years without making new music.
“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times in a rare interview in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
However, over that decades-long period, Davis’ music gained a cult following, inspiring a generation of artists like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae. The renewed interest in Davis’ work resulted in a series of reissues from archival label Light in the Attic — including the first-ever printing of her unreleased 1976 fourth LP —that celebrated her legacy.
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