They Say I’m Different, Nasty Gal, Crashin’ from Passion… Betty Davis’s album titles tell it like it was. This pioneering R&B singer, songwriter and producer, who has died of natural causes, aged 77, took no prisoners with her lean and dirty funk sound, her feral vocal growl, flamboyant Afrofuturist style, raucous performances and sexually empowered and unapologetic stage presence. In her own words, she was “r-a-w”.
Her peer Carlos Santana described her as "indomitable – she couldn't be tamed. Musically, philosophically and physically, she was extreme and attractive.”Marc Bolan encouraged her to launch her career, Muhammad Ali and Richard Pryor attended her gigs, and she had relationships with Hugh Masekela and Eric Clapton (but turned down his offer to produce her music as he was too trad, dad).
Her most (in)famous partnership was with Miles Davis in the late Sixties. Theirs was a marriage of style and taste, if not minds, with Betty as the chief influencer. She introduced her husband to her twin passions, music and fashion. Miles ditched the suits for hippy threads and was introduced to the big bad world of rock music via Betty’s friends and associates, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The trailblazing jazz fusion of Bitches Brew duly followed.
The marriage was brief and stormy but Davis was moved to say in his 1990 autobiography that his second wife was "talented as a motherf*****…if Betty were singing today she'd be like Madonna; something like Prince.”
An auteur who wrote, arranged and produced her own material when few women in music were afforded that privilege, Davis was a true one-off and arguably too much for the times, as her career failed to catch fire commercially and her albums languished until a re-issue programme in the 2000s introduced this artistic lioness to a new audience.
Little wonder that she influenced subsequent generations of upfront female creatives such as Janelle Monae, electronica artist Peaches and Skunk Anansie frontwoman Skin, with Erykah Badu proclaiming: “We just grains of sand in her Bettyness.”
Davis was born Betty Gray Mabry in Durham, North Carolina and schooled in the blues by her grandmother. She began writing her own songs from an early age. One of her first efforts, penned on the cusp of her teens, was quirkily entitled I’m Going To Bake That Cake of Love. On graduating from high school in Homestead, Pennsylvania, she set her sights on a career in music and modelling. Aged 16, she enrolled at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and joined the roster of Wilhelmina Models, becoming one of the first black models to grace the pages of Glamour and Seventeen.
At the same time, she immersed herself in Greenwich Village cultural life and began recording as Betty Mabry. Her debut release in 1964 was Get Ready for Betty. It seems no one was. However, later that decade, she scored her first musical success when the Chambers Brothers recorded her song Uptown (to Harlem). The 2021 Oscar-nominated documentary Summer of Soul, about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, opens with footage of the band singing her song. Davis also wrote the tracks which won The Commodores their deal with Motown Records. The label also wanted to sign her as a songwriter but the proposed power balance was entirely one-sided, and the savvy Davis refused to be owned.
Her marriage to Miles Davis in 1968 only lasted one year but was transformative – mainly for Miles. His fiercely stylish new wife became the cover star of his Filles de Kilimanjaro album, inspired the songs Mademoiselle Mabry and Back Seat Betty, and persuaded him to change the title of his latest album form Witches Brew to Bitches Brew. In return, Miles filed for divorce, accusing her of an affair with Jimi Hendrix – an allegation she strongly refuted.
However, he did arrange for her to record her songs with some primo musicians, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell. Despite the collective pedigree, Columbia Records shelved the recordings; they were eventually released in 2016 as The Columbia Years: 1968-69.
Her musical fortunes revived somewhat when Woodstock festival founder Michael Lang signed her to his Just Sunshine label. Her eponymous debut album was released in 1973, followed by They Say I’m Different in 1974. Her then partner Robert Palmer introduced her to Island Records, who released Nasty Gal in 1975. Davis maintained that “I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love” but the overt sexuality of tracks such as If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up and He Was a Big Freak were a hard sell to radio and Island dropped her without releasing her next album.“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.”
She went into self-imposed exile on a silent monastic retreat in Japan. When her father died in 1980, a devastated Davis returned to Homestead to live with her mother and disappeared from view for the next quarter century.
However, such unique talent tends to bubble up in the internet age. Seattle-based label Light in the Attic Records have curated her catalogue, with the lost Island album appearing as Is It Love or Desire and the disco-era Crashin’ from Passion set for re-issue later this year. Davis’s music has been featured in the TV series Orange is the New Black, Girlboss and High Fidelity and the enigma herself was filmed (from behind) for the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different. Davis even released her first new music in 40 years in 2019 – in signature sexual style, the song was called A Little Bit Hot Tonight, but the now retired and retiring Davis asked her friend Danielle Maggio to sing it.
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