Betty Davis exploded onto the music scene in the 1970s, sporting a brash and sultry image that made her an icon to many. The pioneering funk singer and songwriter passed away this week, and we look back at her life.
Fans of funk will most likely be familiar with Davis via her stylish album covers that served as precursors for the likes of other sex-positive artists such as Lil’ Kim, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj, Doja Cat, and even Madonna before them.
She was born Betty Mabry in Durham, N.C., and was raised partially in the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead. At 16, she left home to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and found her footing in the fashion-forward scene of Greenwich Village and New York overall. Blessed with natural good looks, Davis modeled for Ebony and Glamour magazines among other gigs.
While in New York, Davis struck up friendships with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone among others. A late 1960s romance with the late Hugh Masekela bore the fruit of a few singles produced by the South African trumpeter. But it was the dissolving of that relationship that led to her meeting and later marrying jazz giant Miles Davis despite him being 19 years her senior at the time.
Davis was said to have a heavy influence on the great jazz man’s style of dress and some credit her for leading him into the era of jazz fusion that formulated the bulk of his sound in the 1970s.
While Davis initially released three albums in 1973’s self-titled debut, 1974’s They Say I’m Different, and 1975’s Nasty Gal, a fourth album recorded in 1976 was finally released in 2009.
A 2018 Washington Post interview profiled Davis, who left music and the fame behind in lieu of a settled life out of the public eye. Still, it appeared she made peace with her creative arc and did not come across as embittered by her relative obscurity in some music circles.
Danielle Maggio, a friend of Davis, says that she passed away from cancer.
Betty Davis was 77.