Trailblazing funk artist and second wife of Miles Davis released three influential albums in the 1970s before leaving the industry
Betty Davis Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns
The Guardian-Adrian Horton
Betty Davis, the trailblazing raw funk pioneer of the 1970s who spent decades after a blistering music career out of the spotlight, has died at the age of 77.
The vocalist and ex-wife of jazz legend Miles Davis died of natural causes, according to her close friend, Danielle Maggio, an ethnomusicologist focused on Davis’s work, and the Allegheny county communications director, Amie Downs, Rolling Stone reported.
Known for her overtly sexual lyrics and raw, wild voice, Davis was an influential musician and significant figure in New York’s late-60s music scene. Nearly all her catalog was recorded between 1964 and 1975. She released three albums in the 1970s – 1973’s Betty Davis, 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal – which gained her a reputation as a cult hero for explicitness and sensuous carnality years ahead of her time.
Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, in 1944, Davis grew up in North Carolina and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before moving to New York at 17 to enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She worked as a model and club manager, mixing in the city’s social scene with such figures as Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Eric Clapton. But she was most interested in music; she began writing songs at 12 and recording some in the late 60s, catching the eye of Miles Davis.
The two married in 1968 and endured a tumultuous, violent year together. “Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she says in a 2017 documentary on her life, Betty: They Say I’m Different. She would appear on the cover of the jazz legend’s 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, and served as the inspiration behind his song Mademoiselle Mabry. A close friend of Hendrix, she is also credited with introducing Miles Davis to the rock music of his time and steering him into the jazz fusion era of his career on such albums as 1969’s In a Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew.
Though she kept his name, Davis never wanted to operate in her ex-husband’s shadow. “I wanted my music to be taken seriously,” she said later. “I wasn’t going to turn into a Yoko Ono or a Linda McCartney.”
Davis recorded her most transgressive work in the 1970s, with carnal lyrics and a lascivious performance style that opened doorways for such artists who openly explored sexuality as Madonna and Prince. As the Guardian’s Stevie Chick put it in 2016, Davis “roared, growled and rasped, her voice like erotic sandpaper, making Janis Joplin sound like Dionne Warwick”.
Her work later inspired a new generation of artists, such as Afro-futurist singer Janelle Monae, who has credited Davis as “one of the godmothers of redefining how Black women in music can be viewed” who “opened up a lot of doors for artists like myself.” Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has said, “We just grains of sand in her Bettyness.”
Her music was never commercially successful and Davis abruptly left the music industry after recording her last album Crashin’ From Passion in 1979. She moved to Pittsburgh and did not record new music.
“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
Following the 2017 documentary, Davis released her first song in over 40 years, A Little Bit Hot Tonight, in 2019, sung by Maggio.
- This article was corrected on 9 February 2021. It was originally stated that Davis was born in 1944 rather than 1945 and left the industry after her 1975 album rather than her 1979 album. A picture of a Betty Davis stage show was also incorrectly used rather than the real Betty Davis. These have all now been amended