Music

Farewell Betty Davis: Raw funk pioneer

The highly influential, one-of-a-kind artist was decades ahead of her time.

Portrait Of Betty Davis, New York 1969 photo: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Betty Davis, funk’s founding mother, famous for her rough, raw vocal style and sexually assertive lyrics passed away earlier this month, and although she hadn’t engaged with the music industry or the public at large in several decades, her departure is a blow.

A pioneer in a most combatant sense, Davis fought to make music her way, and when she realised that couldn’t be done, returned to the ether of her Pennsylvania home town and lived out the rest of her days in quiet obscurity.

She grew up with a love of the blues and exhibited a flair for composition early on, writing her first song at age 13. She moved to New York as Betty Mabry in the mid-1960s and fell in with the psychedelic scene germinating around Greenwich Village, befriending Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. She continued to write music and provided The Chambers Brothers with a hit record in 1967, the gritty, funky Uptown, hinting at what would become her own signature sound. 

The following year she met and married Miles Davis, and although their marriage only lasted a year, their influence on one another continues to reverberate through modern music.

At that time Miles, having been hot property a decade earlier with albums like Miles Ahead and Kind of Blue, had noticed that his gigs were now half empty, his records weren’t selling well and that jazz, as he noted later in his autobiography, “was dying on the vine”.

Somehow, despite maintaining a residency at New York’s Village Gate, he had failed to spot the buzzy psychedelic sounds emerging out of the Lower West Side. Betty introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix and he was galvanised by what he heard Jimi and his peers playing.

He made his first electric album, In A Silent Way in the summer of 1969, recruiting John McLaughlin on electric guitar and instructing him to “play like you don’t know how to play”. The album was well received. Rolling Stone called it “the kind of album that gives you faith in the future of music”. Miles’s new sound was born.

Always credited as a dapper dresser, under Betty’s guidance Miles was now swapping his starched tailored look for leather jackets and big sunglasses (“I filled the trash with his suits,” she said). His new look helped to re-establish his status as the king of cool. 

Betty left Miles owing to his violent temper – “Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she later noted. But she had rerouted Miles’s career. In 1970 he released perhaps his most influential album, the sprawling jazz-funk-rock masterpiece Bitches Brew (originally titled Witches Brew – rumour has it that Betty suggested the new name).

Bitches Brew broke convention in the same way Kind of Blue had done; taking what was current and catapulting it straight into the future, using techniques beyond the imagination of even the most avant-garde artists of the era. It’s a tidal wave of sound, owing to two electric pianos playing at once (Joe Zawinul in your left ear, Chick Corea in your right), along with several drummers and percussionists building on Miles’s sketches of melody. It became the sonic cornerstone of what we now call jazz fusion, and artists such as Brian Eno, Aphex Twin and Radiohead credit Bitches Brew as a seismic influence. 

Betty Davis began to record highly influential music of her own in the early 1970s, although it would not be widely recognised as such until much later. With a band that at various points consisted of Sylvester, the Pointer Sisters, Herbie Hancock and members of Hendrix’s own group, she settled on a raw, raucous funky sound. She moaned, growled and shrieked confrontationally about her own sexuality, kinks and desires, with songs like He Was A Big Freak and If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up.

Her live performances were legendary, she would strut around the stage provocatively, squatting and high-kicking. Carlos Santana described her as “the first Madonna”. Mainstream America did not appreciate her free spiritedness, and her music was banned from the radio. TV networks couldn’t risk allowing her to perform live. Record labels were left wringing their hands over how to market her. 

Betty retired from music in the late 1970s when Island Records refused to release her fourth and final album. Later, her influence on artists like Prince, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna herself led listeners back in her direction, and Seattle label Light in the Attic reissued her back catalogue in the mid-2000s. “I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love,” she reflected in a 2017 interview “When I was writing about it, nobody was writing about it.” 

Deb Grant is a radio host and writer @djdebgrant

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