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Betty Davis

Funk vocalist, songwriter, and producer Betty Davis was artistic and sexual liberation personified. Uncompromising, unfiltered, and ahead of its time, her small body of work consequently made little commercial impact but gradually found a wider audience. She released her first recordings as Betty Mabry in 1964, had a profound effect on Miles Davis -- to whom she was briefly married -- and is known most for her progressive left-field funk albums issued the following decade, namely her self-titled debut and the charting (and fittingly titled) They Say I'm Different and Nasty Gal. So unbothered by mainstream acceptance was Davis that much of her studio work remained unreleased until decades after the fact. Well before her death in 2022, Davis became an enduring influence heard in the output of artists ranging from Millie Jackson to Prince, from Macy Gray to Beyoncé, and from R&B balladeers to hardcore rappers. Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina, Betty Davis grew up in Pittsburgh, and decamped by the early '60s to New York. She attended the Fashion Institute of Technology and entered hipster circles through nightclubs such as the Cellar, where she worked. She became known as a model, and also worked on music -- a passion since childhood -- debuting under her birth name in 1964 with the self-written "Get Read for Betty," recorded for Don Costa's DCP International imprint. She also teamed that year with Roy Arlington for "I Love You So," credited to Betty and Roy, issued on the Atlantic-distributed Safice label. In 1967, the Chambers Brothers cut Davis' composition "Uptown" and released it as the first single off their Top Ten Columbia album The Time Has Come. The next year, Columbia issued the second Betty Mabry solo single, "Live, Love, Learn," produced by Jerry Fuller and arranged by Hugh Masekela. Mabry and Miles Davis began dating that year and wed by the end of summer. Though the marriage didn't last long, Betty had a tremendous effect on Miles, altering his artistic course by introducing him to psychedelic rock and even influencing his wardrobe. Miles' Filles de Kilimanjaro featured her on the cover, and he wrote the final track, "Mademoiselle Mabry," for her. Divorced in 1969, Miles explained later in his autobiography that Betty was "too young and wild" for him. By the beginning of the '70s, Betty Davis began work on a set of songs and tapped a host of great musicians, including Merl Saunders and members of Sly & the Family Stone, Santana, Tower of Power, and the Pointer Sisters. Davis' self-titled debut, produced by the Family Stone's Greg Errico and released on Michael Lang's Just Sunshine label, appeared in 1973. Although it made no commercial impact, it was an innovative collection with blistering songs. Even more so than a soul shouter like Tina Turner, Davis was a singer for the feminist era, a take-no-prisoners vocalist who screamed, yelled, grunted, and cooed her way through extroverted material like "Anti Love Song," "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him," and "He Was a Big Freak." Religious groups protested many of her concert appearances (several were canceled), and radio outlets refused to play her extreme work. Davis hardly let up with her second and third albums, 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal. Issued respectively on Just Sunshine and Island, they were produced by Davis and registered on Billboard's R&B chart. Though Davis would have made an excellent disco diva, multiple late-'70s projects didn't materialize, and she left the music scene shortly thereafter. Her final sessions were released in the mid-'90s, first as Crashin' from Passion, then as Hangin' Out in Hollywood. In the late 2000s, Light in the Attic Records reissued Davis' three studio albums, and also issued her intended fourth album, Is It Love or Desire, recorded in 1976. They followed up the next decade with another dig into Davis' archive, The Columbia Years 1968-1969, which featured both sides of her 1968 promotional single. Davis' reputation got a serious boost in 2017 with the release of the feature-length documentary Betty: They Say I'm Different, a study of her life and music that was screened at a number of leading film festivals. Danielle Maggio, an associate producer on the film, later collaborated on a track with Davis, "A Little Bit Hot Tonight," that was released in 2019. Davis wrote, produced, and arranged the material, Maggio sang lead vocals, and it was the first music Davis had released in 40 years. It would also be the last recording she released in her lifetime. Davis died from cancer in Homestead, Pennsylvania, on February 9, 2022.
© Andy Kellman & John Bush /TiVo
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