Betty Davis, an uncompromising, sexually liberated funk-soul singer and ex-wife of Miles Davis, has died. Her death was confirmed to Rolling Stone by Danielle Maggio, an ethnomusicologist, researcher, and close friend of the singer. It was determined that Davis died of natural causes, according to Allegheny County communications director Amie Downs, where the singer resided.
During her peak in the mid-1960s and ’70s, Davis became known for her overtly sexual lyrics. She first began her career under her birth name, Betty Mabry, with the release of her 1964 single, “Get Ready For Betty.” As a rising influence in the New York music scene, she befriended Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix and later married jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in 1968. Though they were only wed for a year (his temper was allegedly the cause of their split), Betty is credited for introducing Miles to rock artists paving the way in the genre, including Hendrix. This preceded Miles’ jazz-rock fusion era with 1969’s In a Silent Way, 1970’s B***hes Brew, and 1972’s On the Corner. Betty was also the muse behind his song, “Mademoiselle Mabry” and was on the cover of his 1968 album, Filles de Kilimanjaro.
The work she’d done during her time with Miles’ band was shelved until the release of her eponymous debut album in 1973. She wasted no time with the release of her next two albums: 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal. Not long after, she was dropped from her label, spent the following year in Japan with silent monks, and left the music industry for 40 years.
Despite being banned and boycotted, and her albums not being commercial successes, her raw expression and explicit nature on songs like “Nasty Gal,” “He Was a Big Freak,” “Shut Off the Light,” and “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” blazed a path for future acts like Madonna, Prince, Janelle Monae, and Erykah Badu.
Following the release of a 2017 documentary, Betty: They Say I’m Different, she revealed in an interview with the New York Times, “When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it and nobody else was knocking at my door.” She also explained that her father’s death in 1980 played a factor in her shift. “I went to another level. It was no longer about the music or anything, it was about me losing a part of myself. It was devastating,” she stated.
She didn’t reveal to her band, Funkhaus, why she left the music business. When asked what happened, she ended the conversation, saying, “Well, it was nice talking to you.”
Furthermore, Betty also shared why she agreed to participate in the documentary in the first place: “I figured it would be better to have them cover me when I was alive than when I was dead.” The renewed interest in her work led to the archival label Light in the Attic reissuing her album as well as her previously unreleased 1976 album, Crashin’ from Passion.
In 2019, Betty wrote, produced, and arranged a brand new song, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” that was sung by the aforementioned Maggio. However, for the most part, she has remained out of the public eye since the ’70s.
VIBE issues our condolences to the family of Betty Davis and those affected by her loss.