Betty Davis, who has died aged 77, was a model-turned-funk singer and muse to Jimi Hendrix and to Miles Davis (whom she married); her sexually provocative songs and stage persona proved ahead of their time, too hot to handle – both for the commercial powers-that-be of the early 1970s, and for her husband.
When she met the 41-year-old Miles Davis at the Blue Note jazz club in 1967 Betty Mabry was a 22-year-old model with preternaturally long legs, and manager of the Cellar club in New York, where she was part of the late-Sixties counterculture, hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Their courtship did not go entirely smoothly. At their first meeting Miles indicated a stool and invited Betty to “sit on my hand” (she refused). And when he was driving her home in his Lamborghini, he told her he liked “little girls”. She shot back: “I ain’t no girl.”
Yet in 1968 Betty became Davis’s second wife, and although their marriage lasted only a year her influence on her husband was profound.
“His world was progressive jazz, plus he was a lover of classical music, so there were lots of things he hadn’t picked up on,” she told The Observer in 2011. She introduced him to rock and funk, to James Brown, Hendrix and Sly Stone, and her influence became apparent on his 1968 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, a transitional work between his mainly acoustic recordings with the Second Quintet and his later electric jazz-fusion period. The album featured Betty on its sleeve and she inspired the tracks Mademoiselle Mabry and Frelon Brun, both influenced by Hendrix riffs.
Davis’s move into fusion angered many of his old followers but won him a new generation of fans, and Bitches Brew (1970) became the biggest-selling jazz album in history. “Miles wanted to call it Witches Brew, but I suggested Bitches Brew and he said, ‘I like that’,” Betty recalled. “Contrary to what some people said, there was nothing derogatory about it.”
By then the marriage was over, though they continued to see each other. Betty was “too young and wild”, Miles claimed in his autobiography, and he suspected her of having an affair with Jimi Hendrix – something she denied. Her version was that they broke up because of Davis’s violent temper – “Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she said later – but she reflected that otherwise the marriage had been “a good experience for me because I developed creatively”.
During her marriage, with her husband on production, she had recorded a series of R’n’B and funk numbers for Columbia, backed by an all-star band including Mitch Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Hugh Masekela and John McLaughlin. One of the songs she recorded, a cover of Cream’s Politician, she claimed, made Davis “so uptight, because it was so suggestive for his wife to say ‘Get into the back seat’.”
Perhaps because of the strains in their relationship the recordings were buried until 2016, when they were released as Betty Davis: The Columbia Years 1968-69, complete with Miles egging her on with a drawled “Sing it just like that, with the gum in your mouth’n’all, bitch...”
After the break-up of her marriage, Michael Lang signed Betty Davis to his label Just Sunshine, and Greg Errico, the drummer from Sly and the Family Stone, produced her eponymous 1973 debut album, after which she went on tour with a band named Funk House.
Betty Davis wrote and arranged all her songs and went on to produce another two albums of rock-powered funk, They Say I’m Different (1974) and Nasty-Gal the following year, developing a persona as a sexually voracious woman who refused to be beholden to any man, an impression aided by her raw, rasping voice.
Some of her lyrics, though mild by today’s standards, were eye-poppingly explicit for the time. “You dragged my name in the mud... but I used to leave you hanging in bed by your fingernails,” she sang in Nasty Gal, while in He Was a Big Freak she told how “I used to whip him/ I used to beat him/ Oh, he used to dig it/ Yeah, he used to really dig it”. Her paean to prostitution, If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up, contained the lines “I said I’m fishin’ trick and you can call it what you want then/ I said I’m wigglin’ my fanny (Ha, ha, oh, man, get down).”
At a time when black female singers were expected to dress and behave with decorum Betty Davis’s songs, and her lascivious stage act – gyrating in shiny, skimpy, futuristic outfits under an impressive Afro – won her a cult following but proved too much for the pop and rock establishment of the early 1970s. None of her albums achieved much commercial success, earning little radio time due to their sexual explicitness, and she was banned from performing on mainstream US television. The album Is it Love or Desire was recorded in 1976 but not released until 2009.
Miles Davis later described her as “Madonna before Madonna, Prince before Prince”, and indeed Betty Davis could be said to have smoothed a path for later artists who openly explored their sexuality. By the end of the 1970s, however, she had quit the music business and disappeared into obscurity.
Betty Mabry was born on July 16 1944 in Durham, North Carolina, where she recalled “feeding the hogs” as a girl. She grew up there and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where her father worked in a steel mill, before moving aged 17 to New York. There she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, after which she worked as a model for magazines such as Seventeen and Glamour and as manager of the Cellar club.
She had always wanted a career in music – “I always had a bird inside me” – writing songs from the age of 12. Before meeting Miles Davis she had some success as a recording artist as Betty Mabry with the single Get Ready For Betty (1964), and she wrote Uptown (to Harlem) for the Chambers Brothers.
After retiring from the music scene in 1979, Betty Davis returned to Pittsburgh, where, devastated by the death of her father in 1980, she suffered from mental health problems for some years: “I went to another level,’’ she recalled. “It was no longer about the music or anything, it was about me losing a part of myself.’’
Her life was the focus of the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different, and in 2019 she emerged from seclusion with A Little Bit Hot Tonight, her first new composition in 40 years, sung by her friend Danielle Maggio.
Betty Davis, born July 16 1944, died February 9 2022