Singer-songwriter-producer Betty Davis, an icon of future-funk, fashion and bold sexuality in the 1970s, died Wednesday at age 77 in her longtime home of Homestead, Pennsylvania.
Davis, who was once married to and collaborated with jazz legend Miles Davis, died of natural causes, Allegheny County communications director Amie Downs told Rolling Stone.
The singer was widely viewed as having paved a way for R&B and hip-hop performers ranging from Prince and Erykah Badu to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, even though she dropped out of the recording scene so early — all but disappearing after the mid-1970s — that thse debts were not always recognized.
In her heyday, this uninhibited mistress of futuristic funk and highly sexualized lyrical and vocal prowess released three albums – 1973’s “Betty Davis,” 1974’s “They Say I’m Different” and 1975’s definitive “Nasty Gal” – that were as bold in their self-creation as she was in portraying their sensual power on each album sleeve.
Davis wrote all of her songs (save for a few on “Nasty Gal,” including “You and I,” which was penned with Miles Davis), and produced all but the first of her solo albums. A fourth solo album, “Is It Love or Desire?” was recorded in 1976 but shelved until 2009, when it released by the Light in the Attic reissue label.
Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina, but raised in the Pittsburgh area, Davis made a splash in the pop-art ’60s of New York City as a model for designers such as Halston, Betsey Johnson and Norma Kamali, and as a habitue of downtown nightclubs such as the Cellar. Recording her first single as Betty Mabry, she released “Get Ready for Betty” in 1964 for legendary Frank Sinatra arranger Don Costa’s DCP label. Several years later, in 1967, she penned “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers.
In 1968, after working with trumpeter/arranger Hugh Masekela on songs for Columbia such as “Live, Love, Learn” and “It’s My Life,” Mabry met and started a relationship with Davis. Seeing potential in her raw, untamed brand of psychedelic soul, Davis and his producer Teo Macero worked with her to cut a handful of her self-penned songs, along with tracks from Creedence Clearwater Revival and Cream. No label picked up on these recordings at the time, but several of these sessions were released in 2016 when they were included in the compilation “The Columbia Years, 1968–1969,” released on Light in the Attic. In 1968, however, her face appeared on the cover of her husband’s “Filles de Kilimanjaro” album, and she was the namesake inspiration behind Miles Davis’ “Mademoiselle Mabry (Miss Mabry)” from that same album.
Although she was reported to be an influence on her husband’s music and wardrobe when it came to all things psychedelic, the Davis marriage did not remain a one. Introducing Miles to guitarist Jimi Hendrix backfired, according to the trumpeter in 1989’s “Miles: The Autobiography.” Along with accusing his wife of being “too young and wild,” he claimed that Betty and Hendrix had an affair.
By 1969, the Davis marriage was over, but Betty’s career was just heating up, as she hired Greg Errico and Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone, the Pointer Sisters and members of Santana and Tower of Power to play on her self-titled debut album on the Just Sunshine label. The record didn’t sell, but its grooves were filled with the sounds of Davis hissing, shouting, cooing and moaning her way through sexually forward tracks such as “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” The rock-funk of 1974’s “They Say I’m Different” didn’t sell many more copies, but was twice as explicit and noisy with tracks such as “He Was a Big Freak” leading the charge, and a space-is-the-place costume worthy of Sun Ra.
In 1975, with a record deal secured by blue -eyed soul singer Robert Palmer, Davis released her definitive “Nasty Gal” for the Island label, another album of gut-bucket funk and salacious soul featuring self-penned songs such as “Gettin Kicked Off, Havin’ Fun” and “Shut Off the Light.” Again, sales were minimal.
After “Is It Love or Desire?” was shelved in 1976, and Island dropped her contract, Davis mostly disappeared from view in the music scene. Davis attempted new song sessions in 1979 with no label behind her, and the songs went unreleased until a 2016 Light in the Attic project. The label re-released all of her albums in 2007 and 2009 to great critical acclaim.
Upon reevaluation in the hip-hop era, Davis attracted new generations of cult veneration, being viewed as a forward-thinking mistress of funk and the predecessor to the likes of OutKast and Badu, to say nothing of Prince’s DIY ethos.
A documentary about Davis’ life, “Betty: They Say I’m Different,” arrived in 2017, at about the same time as Davis’ first new song in 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” was released — sung by Danielle Maggio, but written, arranged and produced by Davis.
After Davis’ death was announced, Light in the Attic revealed plans to issue Davis’ final album, “Crashin’ from Passion.”