He growled in his wild voice. She was shaken, provoked. She was a woman, black and she never let herself be overwhelmed. Betty Davis (1945-2022), pioneer of funk in the seventies, has died at the age of 77 this Wednesday of natural causes, as she has confirmed to the magazine rolling stone Danielle Maggio, a close friend and scholar of the work of Miles Davis, to whom she was married.
Davis only released three albums (Betty Davis, 1973; They Say I’m Different, 1974, and Nasty Gal, 1975), but they were tremendously influential. From Prince and Lenny Kravitz to Janelle Monae. Also for artists far from funk music like Madonna, who saw in her an example of sexual fury on stage. With these three titles she got her name to be linked not only to a kind of cult artist, but to a voice that would endure over time due to its sensuality and the explicit way in which she narrated her lyrics. The second wife of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis had a short career as an artist, but enough to become a recognized figure on the American music scene in the early 1970s.
She was born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, and grew up in North Carolina and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before moving to New York at the age of 17. It was in this city where she began to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology and began as a model and head of a club. Thanks to these early jobs, she met characters like Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone or Eric Clapton. Apart from her busy social life, she always had a special interest in music, in which she started when she was 12 years old. She recorded her first songs in the late sixties and that’s when she caught the attention of Miles Davis. They married in 1968.
Although their marriage only lasted a year, it was instrumental in changing Miles Davis. Betty aesthetically transformed Miles: Afro hair, chains, colorful clothes. She taught him the music of Cream, of Sly Stone, of Hendrix. The trumpeter, always open to risky experiments, was renewed with the hot music of the moment. He can be checked on disks like In a Silent Way (1969). In his 1989 memoir, Miles Davis writes: “I met a beautiful young singer-songwriter named Betty Mabry, whose picture is on the cover of [el álbum] Filles of Kilimanjaro. In it, a song that bears his name, Mademoiselle Mabry. Man, was I really in love again. She was 23 years old when I met her and she was from Pittsburgh. She was very fond of new and avant-garde pop music. Betty was a huge influence in my personal life and in my musical life. She introduced me to the music of Jimi Hendrix, and to Jimi Hendrix himself, and to other black rock music and musicians. She knew Sly Stone and all those guys, and she was cool herself. If Betty were singing today, she would be something like Madonna: something like Prince, only as a woman. She was the beginning of all that when she sang as Betty Davis. She was ahead of her time. She also helped me change the way I dress. The marriage only lasted about a year, but that year was full of new things and surprises and it helped point the way forward, both in my music and, in a way, in my lifestyle.”
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In 1973 he published his first album, Betty Davis, which opens with If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up, a cover letter that defines his style: meaty messages, funk howls, abrasive sounds and a sharp rock guitar. An album that you put on the computer and it burned. Although he kept the last name of the trumpeter after the separation, he never wanted to live in the shadow of his famous ex-partner. “I wanted my music to be taken seriously. I did not want to become a Yoko Ono or a Linda McCartney, ”he pointed out in reference to the couples of the beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
His second album includes his best-known theme, They Say I’m Different, where he sings, always playing with double meanings: “They say I’m different because I’m a piece of sugar cane.” In the song she cites musicians she loved, like Howlin Wolf, Big Mama Thornton or John Lee Hooker. However, her records had little impact on sales. Her spirits fell apart in her late seventies. Disco music was all the rage and she found herself out of place. She decided to disconnect by going to Japan. There she led a life of seclusion, even living with some monks.
When he returned to the United States, in the eighties, he did not have much desire to return to musical activity. He holed up in his home in Pittsburgh and spent the next four decades there. A series of reissues of his albums and a documentary about his life in 2017, Betty: They Say I’m Differentencouraged him to write his first song in 40 years, A Little Bit Hot Tonight. However, she did not dare to sing it and offered it to her friend Danielle Maggio, the same one who has announced her death.
In 2018 he lent himself to do one of the few interviews after his retirement. He went to the Washington Post, where he said: “I like that no one recognizes me when I walk down the street or go shopping. I like to live quietly, without being disturbed. But it would be nice to remember that at some point I made good music and made people smile.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.