rest in power

Betty Davis, Revolutionary Funk Singer-Songwriter, Dead at 77

Illustration: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Betty Davis, who made confident, slinky funk music during a short career in the 1970s, died on February 9. Her longtime friend Connie Portis confirmed the news in a Facebook post, writing that Davis had cancer. A press statement later confirmed the news. She was 77. “It is with great sadness that I share the news of the passing of Betty Davis, a multi-talented music influencer, pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, arranger, model, and fashion icon,” Portis wrote. “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.” Davis began recording music in New York City in the 1960s, cutting songs for DCP International and Columbia Records as Betty Mabry. She married the jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in 1968, and helped expand his tastes to funk and rock music. They divorced in 1969.

By 1973, Davis released her self-titled debut album. Betty Davis kicked off a short string of releases, influential for Davis’s rowdy vocal performances and sexual subject matter, also including 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal. “One can hardly imagine Prince, Erykah Badu, or Outkast without the influence of Betty Davis,” reads the statement. “Her style of raw and revelatory punk-funk defies any notions that women can’t be visionaries in the worlds of rock and pop.” Yet none of her albums charted highly, and after Nasty Gal, her first for Island Records, wasn’t commercially successful, the label dropped Davis. In 2009, Light in the Attic Records released her planned follow-up Is It Love or Desire? as part of a reissue campaign for Davis’s catalogue. By the end of the ’70s, Davis had stopped performing music.

Davis moved back to Homestead, Pennsylvania, the town outside Pittsburgh where she had grown up, after her music career. “During that time many thought she was in hiding and did not want to be found. This is not true,” Portis wrote in her Facebook post. “Betty was receiving help to find a balance in her life while continuing to write music and oversee her music business.” Along with the Light in the Attic reissues, a 2017 documentary, Betty: They Say I’m Different, garnered renewed interest in Davis’s music. She released the song “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” performed by the ethnomusicologist Danielle Maggio, in 2019. “Our hearts are incredibly heavy today,” said Matt Sullivan, founder of Light in the Attic, in a statement. “Betty has been the guiding light in everything we do at Light in the Attic. Her unbending DIY ethic and groundbreaking spirit will live on forever.”

Davis reflected on her exit from the public eye in a rare 2018 interview with the Washington Post. “I like that nobody knows who I am when they see me. I like to live quietly,” she said. “But it would be nice to be remembered that at one time, she made good music and she made people smile.”

This post has been updated throughout.

Correction: Davis was 77 when she died, according to a press statement, not 76 as was previously reported.

Betty Davis, Revolutionary Funk Singer, Dead at 77