Funk Trailblazer Betty Davis Dead at 77

by Jhanaya Belle

February 10, 2022

Photo by: Anthony Barboza/Contributor

Betty Davis, a pioneer of funk music and the wife of jazz legend Miles Davis, died on Wednesday at the age of 77.

According to lifelong friend Connie Portis, Davis died of natural causes at 4:40 a.m. at her home in Homestead, Pa.

“It is with great sadness that I share the news of the passing of Betty Davis, a multitalented music influencer and pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, and fashion icon,” Portis stated.

Photo by: Anthony Barboza/Contributor

Portis continued: “Most of all, Betty was a friend, aunt, niece, and beloved member of her community of Homestead, Pa., and of the worldwide community of friends and fans.”

Davis made history in the male-dominated funk scene with raw, sensuous, and irreverent songs like “Your Man My Man,” “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” and “They Say I’m Different” and created a cult following with her provocative look, racy lyrics, and unique voice.

Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina in 1944, she began her music career in the mid-1960s after moving to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.

She was a professional model who attended The Cellar, a 1960s hangout with musicians including Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Hugh Masekela.

She wrote “Uptown (to Harlem),” which appeared on the Chambers Brothers’ 1968 album “The Time Has Come.”

That same year, the funk pioneer married the legendary Miles Davis, who was 19 years her senior.

Photo by: Bob Peterson/ Contributor

She influenced Davis to revamp his manner and voice, and she appeared on the cover of his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, as well as being the inspiration for his song “Mademoiselle Mabry.”

The famed trumpeter described her as “young and wild” in his book. His famous song “Bitches Brew” was said to be a tribute to her.

Their marriage lasted a year.

Betty Davis released much of her work between 1964 and 1975 on several record companies, fusing rock, jazz, soul, and funk throughout her sensual lyrics.

Photo by: Anthony Barboza/ Contributor

In 1974, she released “They Say I’m Different,” and a year later, for Island Records, she recorded “Nasty Gal.”

The new generation of Black female performers continue to carry the funk trailblazer’s legacy.

Grammy Award-winner Erykah Badu, Black Women Rock! founder Jessica Care Moore, and neo-soul innovator Joi, who released a stirring performance of “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” in 1995 have been influenced by Davis.

“I was introduced to Betty’s music in the early ‘90s via the gentlemen of Fishbone, who I was working with at the time,” Joi explained how she was introduced to Davis’ music in a 2018 interview.

Joi continued: “Just out of the blue they were like, ‘Have you heard of Betty Davis? You need to know who that is…’ Because they had actually seen her perform in Europe, they spoke of similarities and were insistent that I know who she was. The first song that I heard from her was If I’m In Luck I Just Might Get Picked Up and I was transfixed. She felt like the missing link… That’s what it was for me.

In the same interview, Badu explained the time she met Davis in the late 90s.

“I met Betty in the late ’90s after spending a lot of time with Joi. If anyone knows Joi, we all know that Betty is one of her fixtures.”

Badu added, “I also saw the similarities and the kindred spirit – there was nothing else like Betty when I saw her. I was kind of transformed in some kind of way, vicariously, through Joi and Betty at the same time. She kind of reminded me of an unadulterated nudeness, or nakedness…”

Davis retired and lived a secluded life in the Pittsburgh area after becoming disillusioned with the music industry.

She then released her first song in 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” which is featured in the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different, which is available on Amazon Prime Video.

We send our condolences to Betty Davis’ loved ones at this time.

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