Funk Queen Betty Davis (July 26, 1944 – February 9, 2022)

Funk Queen Betty Davis (July 26, 1944 – February 9, 2022)

American Blues Scene Staff

Her raw and revelatory style defied any notions that women can’t be visionaries in the music world

At 4:40 a.m. EST on February 9, 2022, visionary singer, songwriter, producer, and fashion icon Betty Mabry Davis began her eternal rest. 

Connie Portis, Davis’ friend of 65 years, says, “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. 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.” 

One can hardly imagine Prince, Erykah Badu, or Outkast without the influence of Betty Davis. Her style of raw and revelatory punk-funk defies any notions that women can’t be visionaries in the worlds of rock and pop. In recent years, rappers from Ice Cube to Talib Kweli have rhymed over her intensely strong but sensual music. Davis penned the song “Uptown (to Harlem)” for The Chambers Brothers and wrote the tunes that got The Commodores signed to Motown. The Detroit label soon came calling, pitching a Motown songwriting deal, which Davis turned down. Motown wanted to own everything. Heading to the U.K., Marc Bolan of T. Rex urged the creative dynamo to start writing for herself. 

Credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

A common thread throughout Davis’ career was her unbending DIY ethic, which made her quickly turn down anyone who didn’t fit with the vision. She would eventually say no to Eric Clapton as her album producer, seeing him as too banal. In 1968, she married Miles Davis and quickly influenced him on the magic of psychedelic rock along with introducing him to Jimi Hendrix—personally inspiring the classic album, Bitches Brew. She left the marriage, determined to carve her own path in the music industry. A pioneer as a music producer, songwriter and vocalist, Davis’ album credits include Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, Nasty Gal, Is This Love or Desire and Crashin’ From Passion

Davis died in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where she had lived since the age of ten. Davis participated in talent shows at the Homestead Community Center, attended Park Place AME Church, and graduated from Homestead High School before embarking on dual careers in modeling and the music business. After graduating from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, Davis worked as a model for Wilhelmina. She was one of the first Black models to be featured in Glamour and Seventeen, and she worked for designers Halston, Betsey Johnson, Norma Kamali, and Stephen Burrows. Off the runway, Davis defied genre and gender by pushing her voice to extremes and embracing the erotic. She articulated a kind of pre-punk, funk-blues fusion that had yet to be normalized in mainstream music – a style that few musicians have come close to replicating. As one of the first Black women to write, arrange, and produce her own albums, Davis was raw, unapologetic, and in full control, a visionary who disregarded industry boundaries and constraints.

In the 2000s, Davis was rediscovered by a new generation of fans, including John Ballon, who was instrumental in reviving her catalog of music via reissues on Light in the Attic Records, a project that received Davis’ full support. She also inspired a new generation of artists. Afrofuturist singer/actor Janelle Monae credits Davis as “one of the godmothers of redefining how Black women in music can be viewed,” noting that “she’s opened up a lot of doors for artists like myself.” Peaches describes Davis as “the original – in control, a sexual powerhouse and a vocal inspiration.” Erykah Badu adds, “We just grains of sand in her Bettyness.” 

More recently, Davis’ music was featured in television series such as Orange Is the New Black, Girlboss, Mixed-ish, and High Fidelity. Davis herself was the subject of a 2017 documentary film, Betty: They Say I’m Different. “Uptown (to Harlem),” her initial songwriting coup, was featured in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s 2021 Academy Award-nominated documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). In late 2022, Light in the Attic will reissue Davis’ final, and personal favorite, studio album Crashin’ From Passion.  

Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan says, “Our hearts are incredibly heavy today. 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. We are going to miss her so much.”

 

*Feature image credit: Robert Brenner

 

Layman – High Fidelity lyrics

[Verse 1]
Anywhere, anytime
Satisfaction is all that’s mind
Only yours, can give me mine
Say the word and babe I’ll cross the line
Cause my love is better than amphetamine
And all I really want is you to fiend for me
I don’t even know why
Cause deep down inside, I don’t feel a thing

[Hook]
Like a lover in a dream
It’s real as long as you believe
But if you get to asking why you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see you’ve been deceived
And I would need you if I could
But I’ll just please you like I should
If you’ve got a million dollar ride and you’re catching every light why look underneath the hood

[Chorus]
Just lay back and relax you can leave it all to me
We can light it up but don’t think to much baby that’s the key
If you believe in what you see
Your satisfactions guaranteed
Cause it’s a
High Fidelity
Reproduction of the real thing

[Verse 2]
Any way, Any why
Tell me what you need baby I’ll provide
Love is war, love is blind
But Baby I’m at peace and I can see just fine
Cause my love is nothing but a trick of light
It’s only for pretend, cause I’ve gone numb inside
And I don’t even know why but I’ll always try
To learn how I can love you right

[Hook]
Like a lover in a dream
It’s real as long as you believe
But if you get to asking why you’ll open up your eyes and you’ll see you’ve been deceived
And I would need you if I could
But I’ll just please you like I should
If you’ve got a million dollar ride and you’re catching every light why look underneath the hood

[Chorus]
Just lay back and relax you can leave it all to me
We can light it up but don’t think to much baby that’s the key
If you believe in what you see
Your satisfactions guaranteed
Cause it’s a
High Fidelity
Reproduction of the real thing

[Bridge]
As long as you believe
In what you see
You’ll keep getting what you need
And you’ll never know the difference from this and the real thing
Cause it’s a
High Fidelity
Reproduction of the real thing