Betty Davis, the pioneering US singer and musician who was dubbed the “Godmother of Funk”, has died aged 77.
Davis blazed a trail with her raw brand of funk and sexual lyrics that would go on to influence stars including Prince and Madonna.
News of her death was confirmed on her website by her friend Constance Portis.
Tributes have been paid to Davis by stars including US rocker Lenny Kravitz and the estate of Prince, which wrote about her influence on him.
#BettyDavis 07/26/1945 – 02/09/2022
This lady was hip before hip was hip. Her musical and fashion expression had no boundaries, and she influenced the likes of Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix. ‘Nuff said. Rest in paradise, Queen. pic.twitter.com/cbj0mQFiRM
— Lenny Kravitz (@LennyKravitz) February 9, 2022
Prince’s estate noted how the late star once referenced Davis’s work in an interview, saying “this is what we aim for”.
Born and raised as Betty Mabry in North Carolina, Davis became a mainstay on the 1960s New York music scene, with tracks like Get Ready for Betty. Her 1967 song Uptown (to Harlem), which she wrote for the Chambers Brothers, recently re-emerged in Questlove’s Oscar-nominated documentary, Summer of Soul.
“I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love,” she told The New York Times in 2018, in a rare interview after the release of the documentary Betty – They Say I’m Different. “When I was writing about it, nobody was writing about it. But now everybody’s writing about it. It’s like a cliché.”
She was the second wife of jazz star Miles Davis, and although they were married for just a year, she’s widely credited with helping to turn the trumpeter and bandleader on to the era’s rock, introducing him to artists like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. His subsequent jazz-rock fusion phase brought the classic album Bitches Brew.
“Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she said in the documentary about their turbulent time together.
The recordings they made together were shelved after they split, but she finally released her self-titled debut album in 1973.
Betty Davis was one of the first black women to get recognition for writing, arranging and producing her own albums, such as They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal. But she disappeared from the music industry at the end of the 70s.
While her music was not commercially successful, she has proved to be influential for the generations that followed.
Janelle Monae has previously described Davis as “one of the godmothers of redefining how black women in music can be viewed”, while Erykah Badu once commented: “We just grains of sand in her Bettyness.”
‘Multi-talented music influencer’
Male rappers including Ice Cube and Talib Kweli have also sampled her work.
After a brief stint living with silent monks in Japan, she moved back to the Pittsboro area of North Carolina and stayed out the limelight for most of the rest of her life. “When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
In a statement on her website, Portis, her friend of 65-years, described her as a “a multi-talented music influencer and pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, and fashion icon”.