Renowned for her controversial raw sexual lyrics, American Funk and Soul singer Betty Davis, ex-wife of jazz legend Miles Davis, whose liberating legacy opened doors for the likes of Prince, Madonna, and Janelle Monae but went unsung during her lifetime has died at age 77.
Her death was confirmed by Danielle Maggio, a close friend of Betty Davis, an ethnomusicologist focused on Davis’s work, and the Allegheny county communications director, Amie Downs, Rolling Stone reported.
The singer who disappeared from the spotlight to live quietly died of natural causes.
“It is with great sadness that I share the news of the passing of Betty Davis, a multi-talented music influencer and pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, and fashion icon,” Davis’ longtime friend Connie Portis said in a statement Wednesday. “Most of all, Betty was a friend, aunt, niece, and beloved member of her community of Homestead, Pennsylvania, and of the worldwide community of friends and fans. At a time to be announced, we will pay tribute to her beautiful, bold, and brash persona. Today we cherish her memory as the sweet, thoughtful, and reflective person she was…There is no other.”
Davis’ impact in the music scene hit hard between 1964 and 1975, releasing three influential albums in the 1970s – 1973’s Betty Davis, 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal – before leaving the music scene to leave quietly without making new music.
Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, in 1944, a model by profession, Davis’s true passion was music; she began writing songs at 12. Although none of the funk albums hit commercial success status, her influence gained a cult following. Davis abruptly left the music industry after recording her last album Crashin’ From Passion in 1979, moving to Pittsburgh, and did not record new music until 2019 when she released her first new song in over 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” her close friend Danielle Maggio sang it on her behalf.
She was known for such songs like “Shut Off the Light” and “If “I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up”.
Her work later inspired a new generation of artists, such as singer Janelle Monae, who has credited Davis as “one of the godmothers of redefining how Black women in music can be viewed” who “opened up a lot of doors for artists like myself.” Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has said, “We just grains of sand in her Bettyness.”
She got married in 1968 to the legendary Miles Davis but their union was tumultuous and violent, lasting for only a year. Betty is also credited with introducing Miles Davis to the rock music of his time and steering him into the jazz-fusion era.
She was the focus of a 2017 documentary (Betty: They Say I’m Different) and an episode of Mike Judge’s Tales From the Tour Bus series.