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Betty Davis, funk pioneer and fashion icon, dies at 77

Betty Davis
Robert Brenner
Courtesy of the artist
Betty Davis

The incandescent, influential funk musician Betty Davis, who made a string of albums in the mid-1970s that helped to shape stylish, Afrofuturist strains of funk and hip-hop, died on Wednesday in Homestead, Penn., where she had lived since childhood, according to a statement from her record label. Danielle Maggio, a friend of Davis and a producer of Betty Davis: They Say I'm Different, told NPR that she died of cancer after being diagnosed only last week. Davis was 77.

Born Betty Mabry, she attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and later became a model, working with designers and appearing in magazines like Seventeen and Glamour. All the while, she was tinkering with a musical fusion of rock, soul, funk and blues.

In 1973, Betty Davis put out her powerful self-titled debut solo record. In the studio, she wrote, arranged and produced her own music – a rarity in her time, especially for a Black woman. On the record, her voice was confident and sexy; it demanded your attention. She released two more records: 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal. In 2009, Light in the Attic Records released her record Is It Love or Desire?, originally recorded in 1976.

In 1968 she married Miles Davis, who she exposed to her favorite music including Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Sly Stone. Their marriage didn't last long. Miles Davis was known to be an abusive partner – in a 2010 interview with Neil Spencer of The Observer, Betty said that she and Miles "broke up because of his violent temper."

By the end of the '70s, Davis had largely exited the public eye. As extroverted as she was on her records and on stage, Davis was far more reserved off stage. She didn't give a lot of interviews, but in one she gave in 1974, with an Army Reserve DJ named Al Gee, she talked about making slow, deliberate choices in the music business.

"I've known a lot of musicians and I know what they've gone through," she said. "I know a lot of pain that they've gone through. And so I really wanted to get into the business the right way. I really had to be say, 'OK, this is what I want to do, and this is why I want to do it.'"

Davis' music would go on to influence a new generation of artists, who found inspiration in her funk pioneer spirit. "I love Betty Davis," artist Janelle Monáe told Complex in a 2018 interview. "She's free, and she's one of the godmothers of redefining how black women in music can be viewed. I respect her a lot and she's opened up a lot of doors for artists like myself."

In 2007, the reissue label Light in the Attic began a campaign of rereleasing Davis' albums, including the material she released in the 1970s as well as unreleased recordings. In a statement distributed after her death, the label said it has plans to reissue her final album, Crashin' From Passion, later in 2022.

It's hard to imagine an Erykah Badu or an OutKast without Betty Davis. And she was powerful enough to have that decades-long reach all on her own terms.

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Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.