Betty Davis, the singer and songwriter whose raunchy personality, fierce funk grooves and Afrofuturistic style made her a precursor to R&B and future hip-hop in the early 1970s, died Wednesday in Homestead, Pennsylvania, the town outside of Pittsburgh where she lived. She was 77.
Her re-release label, Light in the Attic, released a statement from her 65-year-old friend, Connie Portis, announcing the death of a “pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter and fashion icon.” The cause was not stated.
Mrs. Davis, who first recorded as Betty Mabry, got her last name from her one-year marriage to jazz band leader Miles Davis. The music she made in the early 1970s did not yield her national hits, but was a direct precursor to the uninhibited funk of musicians from Prince to Janet Jackson to Janelle Monáe.
On the three albums she released from 1973 to 1975, Ms. Davis growled, moaned, teased, and rasped through songs that were lascivious, bluesy, and stubborn. She posed in lingerie, in neo-Egyptian regalia and space warrior garb, with her hair in a towering Afro; she performed in silver thigh-high boots, short shorts and a bustier. The poet Saul Williams described her as “the burning secret of black femininity and sensuality as expressed through song.”
In a 2018 interview with DailyExpertNews, Ms. Davis said, “I wrote about love, really, and all levels of love,” including carnality. “When I wrote about it, no one wrote about it. But now everyone is writing about it.”
“Nasty Gal” would be her last studio album released near the time it was recorded, and she never had a certified hit. When the 1980s began, she almost completely left the music business. Still, listeners and musicians have repeatedly rediscovered her, and Davis gained increasing respect as her music was sampled — by the likes of Ice Cube, Method Man, and Lenny Kravitz — and reissued. “This lady was hip before hip was hip”, mr. Kravitz tweeted†
Born Betty Gray Mabry on July 26, 1944, in Durham, NC, to Henry and Betty Mabry, she grew up in rural North Carolina and in Homestead. Her father was a steel worker, her mother a nurse. In the 2017 documentary “Betty: They Say I’m Different,” she recalled listening to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll as a little girl—Big Mama Thornton, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Chuck Berry—and sang along with the record player. She was 12 when she wrote her first song ‘Bake a Cake of Love’ and she sang in local talent shows.
As a teenager, Ms. Mabry went to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology; she carried a notebook full of songs. She worked as a model for the Wilhelmina agency, appeared in Glamor and Seventeen magazines and as a pin-up in Jet magazine. She also worked as a club hostess and enjoyed the city’s 1960s nightlife, meeting figures such as Andy Warhol and Jimi Hendrix.
Her first single, in 1964, was ‘The Cellar’. According to Danielle Maggio, an ethnomusicologist and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh who wrote her dissertation on Ms. Davis, the song is named after a private club on Broadway and West 90th Street. Ms. Mabry became the MC, disc jockey and hostess, and the club attracted performers, musicians and athletes.
In 1967, the Chambers Brothers recorded one of her songs, “Uptown.” South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, then her boyfriend, produced a single for her in 1968, “Live, Love, Learn”.
She met Miles Davis at a jazz club and became his second wife in 1968. A photo of her is the cover of Davis’ 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro, which features a tune entitled ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’. Mrs. Davis introduced her husband to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, which kick-started his transition to rock and funk.
While Mr. Davis was working on a later album, he considered calling it “Witches Brew”; his wife suggested “Bitches Brew,” the title that stuck. She also convinced him to trade the smart suits from his previous career for flashier contemporary fashions. “I filled the trash can with his suits,” she recalls in the documentary.
mr. Davis encouraged her to perform. In 1969 he produced sessions for her, choosing musicians including Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter of Davis’ quintet and Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox of Hendrix’ Band of Gypsys. His label, Columbia Records, rejected the results, which were not released until 2016.
The marriage was turbulent and sometimes violent before it ended in 1969. “Miles was pure energy, sometimes light but also dark,” Ms. Davis recalled in the documentary. “Every day I married him was a day I earned the name Davis.”
She kept the name when she returned to songwriting. Material she wrote for the Commodores got her an offer to record for Motown, but she turned it down because she insisted on keeping her publishing rights.
Mrs. Davis then moved to London – where a new friend, Eric Clapton, offered to produce an album for her – and then to the Bay Area, where Michael Lang, who had promoted the Woodstock festival in 1969, signed her to his label, Just Sunshine. Greg Errico, the drummer for Sly and the Family Stone, produced her debut album, “Betty Davis”; it opened with “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and featured “Anti Love Song,” which warned, “Just as hard as I’d fall for you, boy / Well, you know you’d fall for me more difficult.”
Mrs. Davis wrote all the songs on her albums, and she produced the next two herself: “They Say I’m Different” and “Nasty Gal”, which brought her to a major label, Island Records. The music and arrangements were hers; she sang every part for her bandmates. Her songs were aggressive, whimsically syncopated funk that was anything but shy. In “Nasty Gal,” she boasted, “you said I love you in every way except your way / And my way was too dirty for you.”
But while Davis conquered the club crowd, she found little attention on the radio, which denied her any commercial success. In 1976 she recorded another album, with the autobiographical ‘Stars Starve, You Know’. The song laments: “They said if I wanted to make some money / I had to clean up my act.”
Island shelved the album, which wasn’t released until 2009, and dropped Ms. Davis. “The doors in the industry kept closing,” she said in the film. “All those white men behind desks telling me to change. Change my look, change my sound. ‘Change your music, Betty.’”
In 1979, she found independent funding to record another album, “Crashin’ With Passion,” which she recorded in Los Angeles with musicians such as Mr. Hancock, Martha Reeves (of Martha and the Vandellas) and the Pointer Sisters; it also went unreleased. Mrs. Davis thought the music business was done with her. In 2018, she said: “When I was told it was over, I just accepted. And no one else knocked on my door.”
Her father’s death in 1980 deepened her isolation and depression. During a year-long visit to Japan in the early 1980s, she played some club dates with a Japanese band, her last live performances. She left no immediate survivors.
But as the decades passed, she was far from forgotten. In the 2000s, Light in the Attic re-released her albums with her approval, along with the Columbia sessions produced by Mr. Davis and her unreleased 1976 album, “Is It Love or Desire.” Hip-hop samples made clear how loud her productions still sounded, and the 2017 documentary brought fresh confirmations that Ms. Davis had been ahead of her time.
“Being different is everything,” she said in the film. “It’s the way forward.”