Betty Davis, funk pioneer and ex-wife of Miles Davis, dies

The singer-songwriter, producer, and style icon Betty Davis, whose unfiltered, outspoken 1970s funk songs like “He Was a Big Freak,” “Game Is My Middle Name,” and “Nasty Gal” conveyed a cheeky, gender-breaking force Barriers and defied male-dominated sexual morals, died on Wednesday. She was 77.

Davis’ death from natural causes was announced by her longtime reissue label, Light in the Attic Records.

Despite possessing the allure of a model and the unbridled emotion of a rock star, Davis never had a hit record, but her three long-players between 1973 and 1975 are now considered classics of the era.

“The range of their influence and their sonic lineage is immense,” wrote Author and critic Hanif Abdurraqib on Twitter. “You’ve heard it, even if you think you’ve never heard it. I’m glad we got them in the first place.” Davis’ work was given a second life through sampling on records by artists like Method Man, Ice Cube and Redman.

They were no doubt drawn to her skills as a funk songwriter, producer and bandleader, as well as her certainty that she possessed the musical and sexual energy to conquer any man who would try to tame her. “Don’t answer the phone,” she commanded a lover in 1975’s “Shut Off the Light.” “Just let it ring—just turn off the light.”

Her charisma caught the attention of both Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, whom she married in 1968. Though her music was largely ignored upon release, she garnered renewed praise when her three solo albums and previously unreleased fourth were re-issued in the 2000s.

That she went out of business when she seemed just getting started remains one of the great what-if stories of funk and soul music.

Betty stopped recording music altogether after releasing her third album, Nasty Girl, in 1975. She withdrew from the business Greta Garbo-style and closed herself to the public until the mid-2000s when a wave of writers and fans began touting her work again.

Born Betty Mabry in Durham, NC and raised there and in Pittsburgh, she moved to New York City at 16 and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology. She worked nights at a hip club on 90th Street and Broadway called The Cellar, where she curated the music, hired the club’s dancers and acted as emcee. She also began making music, releasing a single in 1964 entitled “Get ready for Betty.”

She was born into dark music, as she explained in the lyrics to one of her best-known songs: “They say I’m different“: “My great-grandma didn’t like the foxtrot / No, instead she spat her snuff and boogie at Elmore James.”

Though “Get Ready for Betty” didn’t chart, she had another source of income: Her striking looks caught the eye of a celebrity modeling agency, which allowed her to keep up with fashion while pursuing songwriting and music in her spare time worked. She had her first musical success when the psychedelic soul band The Chambers Brothers recorded her song “Uptown” on their debut album “The Time Has Come” in 1967.

She met Davis when he was also dating Cecily Tyson — and not yet divorced from his first wife, Frances Taylor Davis. Even though Miles was twice Betty’s age, the connection was made quickly. “She was just ahead of her time,” Miles wrote in his autobiography. “She also helped me change my clothes. The marriage only lasted about a year, but this year was full of new things and surprises and helped guide me in the direction I should be going, both in my music and in some ways in my lifestyle.”

Jazz fans may recognize her from the cover of his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro. The album also includes an ode to Betty written by Miles: “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry).”

Both during and after the end of their marriage in 1969, Betty Davis was courted by labels hoping to cash in on her brash, sophisticated approach — and her fame in pop culture. She resisted signing exploitative deals while she focused on songwriting – and recovering from Miles’ physical abuse. “I started arranging music – that’s how he influenced me,” she said said hustle in a 2018 interview, adding, “I stopped writing when I was married to him.”

However, that all changed after they divorced and she began to process what she had suffered.

“I didn’t tell anyone how violent Miles was,” Betty said in Betty: They Say I’m Different, a 2017 documentary about her life. Instead, she said: “I wrote and sang with all my heart. Three albums of heavy funk. I put everything there.”

“I believe in being taken seriously and not relying on my husband’s name,” she said in a 1974 press release. Referring to two record moguls, she continued, “I could always have recorded with Clive [Davis] or Ahmed [Ertegun] but I would never really know if I was being made fun of for being Miles’ wife.”

Two women and a man

Betty Davis, left, with husband Miles Davis and an unidentified woman, who attended the 1970 Jimi Hendrix funeral.

(Bob Peterson/Getty Images)

With boastful lyrics about love, lust and heartbreak, a heavy rhythm section and a cast of backing musicians including bassist Merl Saunders, the Pointer Sisters and Sylvester, their self-titled debut album left little doubt as to who was in control. “You know I could make you crawl,” she sang in 1973’s “anti love song.”

She released that and its follow-up, 1974’s They Say I’m Different, through independent label Just Sunshine, owned by the late Woodstock co-founder Michael Lang. Despite the high-profile co-signatures, their music was largely dismissed by male rock critics. The music criticism bible The Rolling Stone Record Guide was concerned about Davis’ “unusual sexual bearing” and concluded that “the songs never fail to tickle”.

Her answer came in “Dedicated to the press‘ from Island Records’ 1975 release ‘Nasty Gal’. They say I’m vulgar / And some people can do without me / Well, all I can say is that it’s such a shame / Why do they blame me for who I am?”

“If you searched the credits on her albums, you realized that Betty was not just a mouthpiece for a male producer or songwriter, but an artist in her own right, an independent visionary in an era when black female solo artists were a rarity,” wrote soul scholar and author Oliver Wang in the accompanying lyrics to Light in the Attic’s 2007 remake of Betty Davis. “In a show of independence that has few comparisons then as now, Betty wrote every song she ever recorded and produced every album after her first.”

She quit shortly after “Nasty Gal” came out, moved back to the Pittsburgh area, and left her music career behind. In 2007, Seattle-based reissue label Light in the Attic re-released their first two albums. The reissues, which helped establish the label as a driving force in archival recording, earned Davis praise from new generations of writers and musicians.

In 2009, the label re-released Nasty Gal and a previously unreleased 1976 studio album, Is It Love or Desire?. Though it hasn’t been heard in more than three decades, it validated Davis’ caliber — and her signature approach.

When asked in an early interview to describe this approach in one word, she captured its essence with her answer. “I would just say it was raw.” Betty Davis, funk pioneer and ex-wife of Miles Davis, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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