10 February 2022

Betty Davis, hard funk pioneer, dies aged 77

10 February 2022

Betty Davis a bold and pioneering funk singer, model and songwriter of the 1960s and 70s, has died aged 77.

Davis died early on Wednesday after a brief illness, according to Danielle Maggio, associate producer of the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different.

Sometimes referred to as “Madonna before Madonna”, Davis was the rare woman to make funk albums in the 1970s, and her three albums from that time were showcases for her fearless personality and sexuality and insistence on control of her material and her image.

Her records sold modestly at the time, but their impact has been cited often in the decades following.

Davis dated Eric Clapton (pictured), as well as Robert Palmer and other rock stars (Ian West/PA) (PA Archive)

Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, she was still a teenager when she moved to New York City in the early 1960s and enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology.

She would eventually find work as a model for Seventeen and Glamour among other magazines and would meet Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and numerous other musicians.

She was also releasing her own work, including the singles The Cellar and Get Ready for Betty and she wrote Uptown (to Harlem) for the Chambers Brothers.

She dated Eric Clapton and Robert Palmer among other rock stars, but was best known for her time with Miles Davis. They were only together for a brief time in the 1960s: He alleged — and she denied — that she had an affair with Hendrix.

But her influence on Miles and the future of jazz lasted far longer. He would cite her for opening him up to the sounds of Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone among others, leading to his classic 1970 album Bitches Brew (a title she has said was her idea), which helped launch the genre of jazz fusion.

As an ethnomusicologist who writes about Betty it was amazing to see her music making process first hand

“His world was progressive jazz, plus he was a lover of classical music, so there were lots of things he hadn’t picked up on,” she told the Guardian in 2010.

She released no new music for decades, but she was not forgotten. Betty Davis and other 70s albums were reissued and her music was heard on Orange Is the New Black and other TV series.

In 2019, she broke her long silence with A Little Bit Hot Tonight, a funky blend of Eastern and Western influences which she wrote, arranged and produced and asked Maggio to perform.

“It was a wonderful, surreal experience,” Maggio told The Associated Press.

“As an ethnomusicologist who writes about Betty it was amazing to see her music making process first hand. She taught me the song and taught all the musicians their parts. She was very hands on and was an amazing producer.”

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