Betty Davis (1945-2022)

They Say I'm Different Album Cover
They Say I'm Different Album Cover
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Betty Davis was a model, singer, songwriter, and the second wife of trumpeter Miles Davis. She was born Betty Gray Mabry on July 26, 1944, in Durham, North Carolina. Her mother, Betty, was a nurse, and her father, Henry, was a steelworker. Mabry spent most of her time on the farm of her grandmother, Beulah Blackwell, in nearby Reidsville. Blackwell introduced her to blues music. At the age of twelve, Mabry wrote her first song entitled “I’m Gonna Bake That Cake of Love,” and began performing in local talent shows. The Mabry family relocated to Homestead, Pennsylvania where her father accepted a job at the Pennsylvania Steel Mill. She graduated from Homestead High school in 1960 and moved to New York City.

Mabry enrolled in the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) but quickly made her presence known in Greenwich Village, frequently performing at The Cellar, a private uptown club located at Broadway and West 90th Street where she played her music. There she met musicians Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. Mabry worked as a model for Ebony, Glamour, and Seventeen magazines, when she recorded “Get Ready For Betty” and “I’m Gonna Get My Baby Back” in 1964, and “I’ll Be There” with Roy Arlington under the names ‘Roy and Betty.’ She wrote “Uptown (to Harlem)” for The Chambers Brothers in 1967.

Mabry began working as the DJ, MC, and Hostess at The Cellar, and dated trumpeter Hugh Masekela, with whom she recorded several songs including “Live Love and Learn,” and “It’s My Life,” before breaking up.

Mabry soon began dating jazz musician Miles Davis and the two married in September 1968. Davis introduced her husband to Jimi Hendrix, and they began to collaborate on music. The 1968 Miles Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro features both Betty on the cover and a song named after her, “Mademoiselle Mabry,” however the marriage ended after just one year. Ms. Davis moved to London around 1971 to continue her modeling career, while dating her boyfriend at the time, musician Eric Clapton. She returned to the U.S. and in 1973 released her first self-entitled album Betty Davis. Davis wrote all the songs and produced her next two albums, They Say I’m Different (1974) and Nasty Gal (1975) with the help of boyfriend Robert Palmer.

Davis’s controversial style gained negative attention from the NAACP, which urged a boycott of her work. The civil rights organization claimed she projected negative stereotypes of black women. Although she was successful in the U.K., Davis was barred from performing on television in the U.S. and dropped from her record label, Island Records.

After the death of her father in 1980, Davis suffered depression and went on a year-long sojourn to Japan before returning to Homestead, Pennsylvania. In 2007, the record label, Light In The Attic, re-released Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different. Two years later they released Nasty Gal and her fourth but unreleased album Is It Love Or Desire. In 2019, Davis released her first single in 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight.” After a battle with cancer, Davis, now called The Queen of Funk, died in her home in Homestead, Pennsylvania on February 9, 2022, She was 77.