R.I.P. Betty Davis, Pioneering Funk Singer Dead at 77

Davis inspired artists including Prince, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Jamila Woods

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Betty Davis, whose ferocious vocals and flamboyant sense of fashion helped revolutionize funk music, has died at the age of 77.

Amie Downs, the communications director for Davis’ home of Allegheny County, told Rolling Stone that the cause of death was natural causes.

Born Betty Mabry in 1945, Davis moved from her family’s home in Pittsburgh to New York City at the age of 16. She studied fashion and worked as a model while practicing her musical craft. After releasing a string of singles such as “The Cellar” and “Get Ready for Betty,” she met the jazz legend Miles Davis in 1967 and married him in 1968.

Although the marriage only lasted one year, Betty is often credited with serving as Miles’ muse during his fusion era, pushing him to incorporate ideas from rock and funk as he worked on late-career classics such as 1969’s In a Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew.

Following their divorce, Betty Davis threw herself into her songwriting, in the process carving out her own formidable place in the history of music. She unleashed her self-titled debut album in 1973 for Just Sunshine Records, a label from Woodstock promoter Michael Lang. She followed that with 1974’s They Say I’m Different, and moved to Island Records for 1975’s Nasty Gal. Then she disappeared.

Davis spent a year in Japan living among silent monks and then returned to Pittsburgh, forsaking the music industry for the next 40 years. Mainstream success had remained elusive during her three-year musical tear, and Nasty Gal was too out there for Island, who dropped her.

“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” she said to The New York Times in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”

But though she stopped writing songs, her music took on a life of its own. She acquired a cult following drawn to her boundary-pushing sensibilities, raw attitude, and sexually explicit lyrics. Artists such as Prince, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Jamila Woods cited her as an influence, and in 2009, renewed interest in her work led to Light in the Attic issuing her previously-unreleased 1976 album Is It Love or Desire for the first time. More recently, the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different exposed a new generation to her music.

Check out a selection of her works below.


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