Betty Davis, the explosive funk singer known for her hypersexual lyrics and the second wife of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, has died at the age of 77.
Danielle Maggio, a friend of Davis’ and an ethnomusicologist who studied her work, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone. Amie Downs, who serves as communications director for Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, where Davis lived, told the magazine she died of natural causes.
Born Betty Mabry in Durham, N.C., in 1944, Davis moved to New York City in the early ’60s and enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. It was in New York that she met future stars like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone while working as a model and honing her musical craft.
In 1963, Davis released her first single, “The Cellar,” named after the trendy New York club she frequented; the single “Get Ready for Betty” and its B-side “I’m Gonna Get My Baby Back” followed the next year. She also penned the Chamber Brothers’ 1967 single “Uptown,” which became their first Billboard Hot 100 entry.
The following year, Davis married Miles Davis. She appeared on the cover of his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which includes an ode to the trumpeter’s new bride titled “Mademoiselle Mabry.” The couple divorced in 1969, but Davis was a major creative influence on her husband, introducing him to rock music and inspiring his groundbreaking jazz-fusion opuses In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970).
Davis, meanwhile, released her eponymous debut album in 1973, followed in quick succession by 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal. While her albums were not commercial successes, Davis drew attention — and controversy — for her sexually super-charged lyrics, as demonstrated on songs like “Nasty Gal” and “He Was a Big Freak.”
Listen to Betty Davis’ ‘Nasty Gal’
Following this trio of underperforming albums, Davis was dropped from her Island Records contract and left the music industry, relocating to her adolescent home of Pittsburgh. “When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” she told The New York Times in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
In recent years, Davis’ music and legacy have been reexamined. She was the subject of the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different, made with her cooperation because, as she said in 2018, “I figured it would be better to have them cover me when I was alive than when I was dead.”
Several musicians across generations have cited Davis as an influence as well, from Prince to Erykah Badu to Janelle Monae. Yet despite her resurgence in recent years, Davis did not return to the stage, opting instead to leave fans with their old memories of her. “With age, your looks change,” she said in 2018. “I want to leave them with what they had.”
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