Betty Davis, trailblazing funk singer, dies at 77

Davis gained a cult following in the mid-1960s and 1970s for her sexuality-charged songs

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Funk singer Betty Davis died on Wednesday of natural causes at age 77.

Davis, who was the ex-wife of famed trumpeter Miles Davis, died at her Pennsylvania home, her close friend Danielle Maggio confirmed to Rolling Stone.

Betty Davis / Getty Images

“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, Pitchfork reports.

“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.”

Born in Durham, North Carolina in 1945, Davis grew up there and in Pittsburgh before moving to New York City in the early 1960s. At age 17, she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology and supported herself as a professional model before turning her attention to making music.

Davis gained a cult following in the mid-1960s and 1970s for her sexually-charged songs such as “Shut Off the Light” and “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” and “He Was a Big Freak,” which boasts the lyrics, “I used to whip him/I used to beat him/Oh, he used to dig it.” Davis also wrote the Chambers Brothers song “Uptown (to Harlem).”

“I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love,” Davis told the New York Times in a 2018 interview. “When I was writing about it (sex), nobody was writing about it. But now everybody’s writing about it. It’s like a cliché.”

Davis released her self-titled first record in 1973. She released two more albums, They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal, in 1974 and 1975 respectively.

Her only singles to break into the top 100 were “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” peaking at 66 and “Shut Off the Lights” at 97, per Billboard. Davis’ albums failed to gain commercial success but she was dubbed the Queen of Funk amid her music career between 1964 and 1975. 

Jazz legend Miles Davis was 19 years her senior when the two began dating in 1966. Betty became his second wife when they tied the knot two years later. They called it quits in 1969. 

“Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she says in the 2017 documentary Betty: They Say I’m Different.

After Davis retired from the spotlight in 1979 she moved back to Pittsburgh and lived there until her death.

“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times about why she quit Hollywood. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”

Davis’ music inspired a generation of artists such as Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae and singer/songwriter Jamila Woods

Woods noted in Rolling Stone’s Icons and Influences issue in 2021 that she found inspiration in Davis’ confidence as a Black woman in the music industry during her heyday.

“That was probably one of the most inspiring parts about her story that I really latched onto over the process of creating my last project. I think I was thinking a lot about the balance of feminine/masculine energy in myself. And how I think the way that I naturally am, being in the industry I am, it asks me to step outside of that a lot, and I was trying to navigate that,” said Woods.

She added, “[I remember] instantly being struck by just the sonic quality of her voice,” she says, also referring to the emotiveness of Davis’ singing. It’s like she makes me want to listen to what she’s saying. And I don’t think I understood the power of just that for a long time, and she really helped me internalize that.”

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