Why you can trust us

We independently evaluate the products we review. When you buy via links on our site, we may receive compensation. Read more about how we vet products and deals.

Feminist funk pioneer Betty Davis dead at age 77

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The cover of Betty Davis's landmark 1973 debut album. (Photos: Light in the Attic Records)

Funk trailblazer Betty Davis has died of natural causes, according to Davis’s close friend, ethnomusicologist Danielle Maggio, who confirmed the news to Rolling Stone Wednesday morning. Betty, the ex-wife of jazz great Miles Davis and a legend in her own right, was 77.

A flamboyant futuristic funk diva, Betty vanished from the scene for 40 years, but the cult figure’s brief yet boundary-breaking discography has been cited as an influence on Beyoncé, Rick James, OutKast, Erykah Badu, Lil Kim, Kelis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and various rappers who have sampled her (Ice Cube, Talib Kweli, Ludacris).

Known for her unapologetically raunchy lyrics and extreme performance style, Betty was banned from U.S. television, radio, and many concert venues due to pressure by religious groups and the NAACP, but she later came to be hailed as a feminist pioneer and visionary who was ahead of her time. In his 1990 biography, Miles Davis himself wrote, "If Betty were singing today she'd be something like Madonna, something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis."

Betty Davis (Photo: Robert Brenner)
Betty Davis (Photo: Robert Brenner)

Betty Davis was born Betty Mabry on July 26, 1945 in Durham, N.C., grew up in Pittsburgh, and began writing songs at age 12. At age 16, she moved to New York City, where she attended fashion school, worked as a model, and immersed herself in the Greenwich Village music scene of the early ‘60s. It was there that she met soul singer Lou Courtney, who produced her first single, “The Cellar,” in 1963. She continued to release music, but got her first real break in 1967, when she penned the hit song “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers.

Betty met Miles Davis in 1966; the two began dating in 1968 and married in September of that year. The marriage only lasted until 1969 (in his autobiography, Miles, who was 19 years older than Betty, said she was “too young and wild” for him), but Betty became a major influence on Miles’s art — turning him on to her friends Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and other popular psychedelic music of the late-‘60s counterculture era, and laying the groundwork for his 1970 landmark LP Bitches Brew. She appeared on the cover of Miles’s 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which featured one track, “Mademoiselle Mabry,” named after her.

After her marriage to Miles ended, Betty temporarily relocated to London, where T. Rex glam-rock star Marc Bolan encouraged her to keep writing her own material. When she returned to the States, she focused on her solo career, finally releasing her self-titled debut album in 1973. The explosive record featured such luminaries as Greg Errico and Larry Graham from Sly Stone's band, Neal Schon and Michael Carabello from Santana, the Pointer Sisters, and Sylvester, and is hailed as a funk masterpiece.

Betty Davis was entirely written and arranged by Betty; according to the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I'm Different, she was the first Black female recording artist to perform and write all of her own music and manage herself. During her career, she famously turned down a songwriting deal with Motown Records because she would not have control or ownership of her material, and she passed on a chance to have Eric Clapton produce one of her albums because she found his style too conservative.

Unfortunately, neither Betty Davis nor its follow-ups, 1974’s They Say I'm Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal, were commercial hits, and after some aborted recording sessions in the late ‘70s, Betty stopped making music for four decades and retreated from the public eye. Material from her 1979 recording sessions eventually surfaced on two bootleg albums, Crashin' From Passion and Hangin' Out in Hollywood, in the mid-’90s, but there was a new surge of appreciation for her artistry after her first three studio albums were reissued by Light in the Attic Records in 2007. In 2009, Light in the Attic finally put out Betty’s shelved fourth studio album, Is It Love or Desire?, which had been recorded in 1976 with Herbie Hancock, Chuck Rainey, and Alphonse Mouzon and showcased some of her finest work.

In 2017, Betty was the subject of the film Betty: They Say I'm Different, on which her friend Maggio was an associate producer. In 2019, Betty released “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” her first new song in more than 40 years, which was performed by Maggio.

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

Follow Lyndsey on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon