Birth name: Betty Gray Mabry
Birthplace: Durham, North Carolina
July 26, 1944 – February 9, 2022
Years Active: 1964-1979, 2019
Betty Davis was born Betty Mabry, in North Carolina in 1944. After being raised in Pittsburgh, Mabry moved to New York City to enroll at the Fashion Institute of Technology. While in New York, Mabry worked as a DJ and print model, and began to explore music making. In 1964, she released her first single, “Get Ready for Betty.” Her first major writing credit was in 1967, when she penned “Uptown (to Harlem),” a hit single for the Soul group, The Chambers Brothers. The next year, Mabry released several of her songs on Columbia Records in a collaboration with South African music legend, Hugh Masekela.
Later in 1968, Mabry picked up the surname “Davis” after marrying jazz innovator, trumpeter Miles Davis. Too often, extraordinary women are relegated to being footnotes to the men to whom they are attached. However, in this case, Betty is often recognized as the person who had an extraordinary influence on Miles – and in a very short period of time. Her sense of style, both fashion and musical, combined with her own music industry network connections had a transformational effect on her husband. Though the marriage only lasted a year and the couple divorced in 1969, Betty Davis is credited with introducing Miles Davis to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Those introductions, both to the people and their music, would have a lasting effect on Miles Davis, and forever change the trajectory of his career – and in certain ways, contribute to the electric evolution of Jazz. Indeed, some music historians believe that it is under Betty Davis’ influence that Miles Davis began experimenting with electronic music technology, which led to the development of Jazz Fusion.
In the early 1970s, Davis signed a record deal with Woodstock Festival promoter Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine Records label and released her self-titled debut album in 1973. Often described as Funk (though Soul, Progressive Punk, and Rock would all be equally accurate), the album consists of all her own original songs. It features members of Sly and the Family Stone, Santana, and Tower of Power, as well as the Pointer Sisters and Sylvester. Davis followed her debut with They Say I’m Different in 1974. Only a year later, and now signed to Island Records, Davis released her third album, Nasty Gal in 1975.
While Davis never crossed over into commercial success, she made a mark on generations to come with her sound and with a stage persona that was equal parts bold expression of a revolutionary femininity and creative mastery. Like the names of her albums, the titles of Betty Davis’ songs provide a window on her brazen approach: “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up”, “Anti Love Song,” “Game Is My Middle Name”, “Don’t Call Her No Tramp,” and “F.U.N.K.” In an era where lyrics often described women as objects of desire, Betty Davis provided a sharp contrast. Together with her confrontational and overtly sexual lyrics, which resulted in Davis’ songs being banned from radio and her shows boycotted by religious and civil organizations, the rough texture of her vocals announced her subjectivity.
Miles Davis once described Betty Davis as being “ahead of her time…something like Prince, but a woman.” For his part, Prince once told a young artist he was mentoring that Betty Davis is the goal, “‘this is what we aim for.’” Rick James, whose trademark style can be read as a sartorial nod to Betty Davis’ remarkable album covers, equated Davis with Funk itself. “She was what funk was,” said James. Janelle Monáe and Erykah Badu both identify Betty Davis as an inspiration, and journalists have traced the sounds of bands including The Roots and early work by the Red Hot Chili Peppers back to Betty Davis. Davis’ raw approach to sexuality and desire paved the way for women who would follow in that vein, including Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim, and Madonna. “I was ahead of my time because I was writing about sex and love and things like that and sex wasn’t really a topic in those days,” Davis said in an interview.
Speaking of her influences, Davis stated: “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. We all make your fingers pop, but for different reasons. . .so don’t compare me. Look, I don’t think I’m a great singer. When I would record, it would be in relationship to the song. I would take over the feeling of the song, and I would use my voice that way. But I’m not a great singer like Chaka (Khan) or Aretha (Franklin). Those are great singers. . .I don’t really sing that way. I project what the music is saying. Like I said, the music came from a feeling inside me. The thing was, I didn’t know if it was going to be accepted. I just knew that it was good music. And that was what was important to me. Making good music.” Davis has also mentioned being inspired by the Blues her mother loved, including the work of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, Koko Taylor, Johnny Taylor, and John Lee Hooker.
Davis left the music business and pursued a quiet life in Pittsburgh starting in the late 1970s. Beginning in 2007, the independent record label Light In The Attic Records reissued Davis’ first three albums, as well as archival recordings and unreleased albums. A documentary on Davis, entitled, Betty: They Say I’m Different was released in 2017. Davis stated about the film, “although I’ve been silent for a long time, I feel it’s important to help shape my legacy while I’m alive by returning my story and music to people who will value it and learn from it. I am as committed now, as I was before, to the importance of our music and our voices, both inner and outer.” Davis’ connections to the documentary would find her creating new music. In 2019, and in collaboration with the film’s associate producer, Danielle Maggio, Davis wrote, arranged, and produced her first new release in four decades, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight.” At Davis’s request, Maggio sang lead vocals and “all proceeds from the song go to the Betty Davis Scholarship, an annual award for a graduating senior who is pursuing music at Steel Valley High School (Ms. Davis’s alma mater).” Upon Betty Davis’ death in 2022, numerous musicians, artists, public figures, and everyday people celebrated her legacy around the world.