Betty Davis made the future of music possible

Davis died this week at age 77, but she leaves behind a legacy that stretches across decades of pop culture.

Portrait of American Funk, Soul, and R&B singer singer Betty Davis (nee Mabry), New York, New York, ...
Anthony Barboza/Archive Photos/Getty Images
ByStereo Williams

In the 1970s, Betty Davis was a force of nature. An artist in complete command of her voice, she honed her creativity through years of tutelage and experience. A living nexus of power and spirit whose reputation only grew after she shunned the spotlight, Davis died this week at age 77, but she leaves behind a legacy that stretches across decades of popular culture.

Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina, Davis was turned on to music by her grandmother, who played her a collection of blues records by the likes of B.B. King and Elmore James. Davis was only 12 when she wrote her first song, the tellingly titled "I'm Going to Bake That Cake of Love.” She moved to Pittsburgh as a child after her father landed work in steel mills. At 17, she bolted from Pittsburgh and headed to New York City to forge a career in modeling and music. While working nightclubs in the city and attending the Fashion Institute of Technology, Davis began rubbing elbows with artists and musicians like Andy Warhol, Hugh Masakela, and Jimi Hendrix.

Her time in New York was impactful on both her and the scene. When she was 23 she met the 42-year-old Miles Davis. Her work as a model had sustained her, but she ached for a musical career and Miles was enthralled with his young muse. It was Davis who began to push Miles creatively; with the hard bop he’d been famous for starting to fall out of fashion, she hipped him to psychedelic rock and blues. It inspired Miles to embrace the new sounds, and new bands like Hendrix and The Who.

Davis recorded groundbreaking sessions produced by Miles. One of them, the long-unreleased 1969 session Betty Davis: The Columbia Years, was finally put out by Light in the Attic Records in 2016. Those sessions saw Davis backed by Miles regulars like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, as well as members of Jimi Hendrix’s band, Billy Cox and Mitch Mitchell.

But her marriage to Miles was tumultuous and brief, and his abuse drove her to leave him after only a year. After her divorce, she found her voice as an artist rather quickly, as her time recording had emboldened her creatively. She found her own backing band, Funk House, and began writing and producing her own songs. Davis’s talents as a songwriter were evident — Motown had even sought to sign her but she declined due to their ownership of the songs. It was Marc Bolan of T-Rex, who met Davis while she was living in London, who pushed her to record her own original songs. And she adopted a glam rock image, making it clear that she wasn’t interested in being anyone’s cookie-cutter soul diva. It was all born of a need to express herself after years of being told who and how to be.

“I told no one of how Miles was violent,” she explained to the New York Times in 2018. “So I wrote and sung my heart out. Three albums of hard funk. I put everything there. But doors in the industry kept closing. Always white men behind desks telling me to change — change my look, change my sound . . . I needed to ‘fit in,’ or else no contract . . . I learned that stars starve in silence.”

Her self-titled debut album, released in 1973, is the perfect showcase for the fully-formed Betty Davis. With its lurching groove and her distinctive growl, the album’s opening track “If I’m Luck, I Just Might Get Picked Up,” showcases Davis’s brazen boldness. Her voice and style may have been connected to predecessors like Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, but Davis is in her own space on her very first record. Songs like “Anti Love Song” and “Steppin’ In My I. Miller Shoes” proved that she stood out from both funk and R&B. Her lane was her own and she wasn’t playing it safe.

It was mostly thankless work for a woman whose very presence flew in the face of who was supposed to be rockin’ and why.

Just a year later, 1974s They Say I’m Different found Davis in full command of her artistry and embracing her rock lineage. With the S&M classic “He Was a Big Freak,” the oft-sampled “Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him,” and her funkdafied album cover, Davis was pushing the culture forward. But like her debut, Different proved too much for rock and R&B audiences of the day. There was a lot of talk about women breaking boundaries, but it was mostly thankless work for a woman whose very presence flew in the face of who was supposed to be rockin’ and why.

The music Davis made wasn’t just sexually groundbreaking; she was a singer-songwriter unafraid to allude to the struggles of Black people. The Chambers Brothers’ hit that she penned referenced going Uptown, “even if the taxi won’t take me,” and on “They Say I’m Different,” she made a point to align herself with Black rock and blues artists like Big Mama Thornton and Lightin’ Hopkins, who’d been marginalized as rock got mainstreamed as white music. Sadly fitting, Davis herself rarely got attention from rock’s mainstream. She did see some slivers of commercial success on the singles charts: “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” hit No. 66 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart; 1975’s “Shut Off the Lights” peaked at No. 97.

Onstage, she was a dynamic firecracker, Afro high, metallic boots and all power and force. She could be sensual and explosive, sometimes all at once. But her albums didn’t sell. 1975’s Nasty Gal and Is It Love or Desire was shelved a year later. Then that flurry of musical activity suddenly ended abruptly in the early 1980s, when the death of her father sent Davis reeling.

She retreated from the music industry entirely and spent years in seclusion with monks in Japan. There were rumors of emotional and mental health issues, after years of abuse and stress in the music industry.

“I went to another level,” Davis explained. “It was no longer about the music or anything, it was about me losing a part of myself. It was devastating.”

“After we did the first record,” drummer Gregg Errico told the New Yorker in 2018, “her life seemed like it was changing, and things were getting intense. And then years went on, and she disappeared. I mean, really disappeared. Then, after decades go by, I talked to her, but she was very, very quiet, very withdrawn . . . So whatever did happen . . . you know, it’s been heavy, it’s been deep.”

Being at the forefront is often a thankless gig. Betty Davis set the table for everyone from Lady Gaga to Prince, and you can see her in artists as far-ranging as Janelle Monae and Shirley Manson. She would finally resurface in the 2010s, seemingly more comfortable with her infamy and willing to talk more openly about her art and legacy. The documentary They Say I’m Different was released in 2018, and Betty got to tell her own story.

“I figured it would be better to have them cover me when I was alive than when I was dead,” she said ahead of the film’s release.