There would be no Prince, Madonna, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis (in the 1970’s), or Lil Kim, if it weren’t for Betty Davis and her explosive, courageous, erotic, gender bending, bluesy, and funky music. Betty’s voice purrs, growls, and scratches through her deliciously written lyrics. A blues woman to the bone, Betty took her southern roots, and mixed them with raw funk, soul, and psychedelic rock. A woman well ahead of her time, she pushed boundaries with her avant-garde fashion sense, amazing afro, and provocative lyrics.
She was born in 1945 in Durham, North Carolina with the maiden name Mabry. A true southern gal, Betty grew up on her grandmother’s farm, where she woke up every morning to slop the hogs, with the blues, ham hocks, and black-eye-peas all in her veins. Her grandmother had a vast collection of blues records so at an early age Betty become influenced by the heavy blues sounds of Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, BB King, Lightning Hopkins, and Big Mama Thorton. Betty wrote her first song when she was twelve, aptly titled “I’m Gonna Bake That Cake of Love.”
In her teenage years her father got a job as a foreman on a steel mill in an industrial town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her family moved and she got her first dose of city life. While a teenager in Pittsburgh she was an introvert, writing songs and sketching clothing designs. Betty moved to New York City when she was sixteen to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She became emerged in the fashion world as a budding designer and a successful model, gracing the covers of Seventeen, Ebony, and Glamour. The gorgeous young woman enjoyed the easy money she earned from modeling but song-writing was always her true passion.
In 1966 when Betty was 21 she went to the East Village night club, Electric Circus, where the Chamber Brothers were performing and presented them with a song she wrote, “Uptown in Harlem.” An anthem for the black Mecca of the world, the song chants “I’m going uptown to Harlem/I’m gonna let my hair down in Harlem/If a taxi won’t take me I’ll catch a train/I’ll go underground I’ll get there just the same.” A simple yet political song that speaks of joys and troubles that still affect us to this day. The Chamber Brothers included “Uptown in Harlem” in their 1967 album, Time Has Come.
Davis also wrote songs for the Commodores who needed her keen lyricism. The songs she wrote helped them get signed to Motown. Betty was beginning to make her mark as a phenomenal lyricist for some of the premier funk, soul, and rock acts of the ’60s.
22 year old Betty met brilliant trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis who was almost twice her age. Miles could not resist the undeniable coolness that Betty exuded, so he had to know her. The steamy pair married in 1969 only after a year of knowing each other. By this time Betty had already graced the cover of Miles’s 1968 album, Filles de Killimanjaro. “Mademoiselle Mabry” served as Miles’s muse as well as a very influential musician in his life. During the pivotal two years they were together, Betty introduced Miles to the sounds of her good friend Jimi Hendrix, who middle aged Miles was not hip to. Inspired by the sounds of the younger generation Miles decided to push his music to uncharted territory, and thus spawned “jazz fusion.” Miles completely reinvented himself and released the ground breaking album Bitches Brew in 1970, which Betty also helped name.
Betty was supposedly too wild for Miles and their relationship strained. They divorced in 1969 with allegations that Betty and Jimii Hendrix had an affair. Amongst the turmoil and allegations Betty and Miles Davis served as one of the most influential musical couples of the twentieth century. The year following her divorce with Miles, Jimi Hendrix died, and Betty lost one of the most influential musicians in her life.
Though Betty never thought of herself as a performer, that is what she became after the release of her self titled album released in 1973. 28 year old Davis collaborated with Greg Errico, Sly Stone’s drummer to produce the album. Errico assembled the best funk and soul musicians on the West Cost. The cast included Sly Stone’s bassist Larry Graham, guitarist Neal Schon of Santana, the Pointer Sisters on background vocals, and members of Graham Central Station and Tower of Power on drums and horns. The songs on the album were based on funk grooves, bluesy guitar riffs, gritty percussion and Betty’s raunchy lyrics and vocal sass. Songs off the album include “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” “Anti-Love Song” and “Your Man My Man.” Betty was undeniably bold, possessing sexual agency through her lyrics that revealed her sexual desires, the cruel side to love and the experience of extra marital affairs.
She went on to produce, write, and arrange, her second and third albums, They Say I'm Different and Nasty Gal in 1974 and 1975 respectively. These albums continue her provocative word play, raunchy lyrics, and kitten like pur. With scandalous songs like, "He was a Big Freak" where she describes how she use to "beat him with a turquoise chain." Davis paved the way for performers who wanted to express their sexuality in their music in creative, daring, and honest ways- the foremother of the brazen lady mc. A true wild woman. Davis never achieved commercial success, was highly criticized for her lyrical content, and was banned from radio stations. She stopped releasing music after 1975 and has been living out of the public eye in Pennsylvania since. Despite her musical genius and overall impact on funk music and fusion, Betty Davis still passes the radar of many music fans. Well before music videos Betty created a personal for herself so that her image and music seamlessly coincided, creating an unforgettable vision and sound of the 1970s.
written by Tamara Davidson
originally published on revive-music.com in 2011.