Betty Davis, Legendary ’70’s Soul and Funk Singer, Has Died

Jaelani Turner-Williams Jaelani Turner-Williams is a contributing news writer for Okayplayer with…
Photo Credit: Gilles Petard/Redferns

Soul and funk trailblazer Betty Davis, who released three solo albums in the 1970s, has died at 77.

Betty Davis, the brazen funk icon, died on Wednesday in Pennsylvania, at the age of 77. Danielle Maggio, a friend of Davis confirmed the news to Rolling Stone. According to Amie Downs, the communications director for Allegheny County — which is where Davis lived — said the legendary rocker died of natural causes.

Born on July 26, 1945 in Durham, North Carolina, Davis (née Mabry) was partially raised on her grandmother’s farm in Reidsville, where she listened to records from blues musicians like B.B. King and Jimmy Reed. Deciding that she too wanted to become a vocalist, Davis was 12 when her family relocated to Pittsburgh.

At 16, Davis left for New York City where she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology and became a socialite in the local uptown scene of Greenwich Village. Davis also became a model, appearing in magazines like SeventeenEbony and Glamour.

Continuing to soak up New York City culture, Davis became friendly with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Lou Courtney who would go on to produce Davis’ first single, aptly titled after her favorite nightclub, “The Cellar”.

Davis went on to become a songwriter, first penning “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the 1967 debut album by The Chamber Brothers. With one songwriting credit, Davis continued her music streak, recording several songs for Columbia Records with South African musician Hugh Masekela.

Davis had also began dating jazz icon Miles Davis, who she married in 1968. While their marriage was brief, Betty was the muse behind 1968 Miles Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro with Betty appearing on the cover. The two divorced in 1969. In 2016, record label Light in the Attic released The Columbia Years 1968-1969 which captured Betty’s lost sessions with Miles.

Nearly five years later, Davis made her solo breakout on her 1973 eponymous debut album. Ahead of her time, Davis’ performances garnered praise for her unapologetic fierceness and sensuality. Her shows were even protested with her music being boycotted by various religious groups and NAACP. Davis was also barred from television performances in the U.S., but she continued recording self-written material on her final two albums of the 1970s, They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal.

In 1979, Davis left music and relocated back to Pittsburgh where she stayed for the rest of her life. She released just four albums with Davis’ final album, Is It Love or Desire, but released in 2009 (despite being completed in 1976.)

In 2017, documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different was released, and two years later, Davis penned and produced “”A Little Bit Hot Tonight” sung by her close friend and ethnomusicologist Danielle Maggio.

Fans spoke about Betty Davis’ legacy on Twitter.

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