Betty Davis, Hard Funk Pioneer, Dead At 77

Betty Davis
Courtesy of Robert Brenner
– Betty Davis

Betty Mabry Davis, a multi-talented music influencer and pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, model and fashion icon who was credited with inspiring then-husband Miles Davis’ landmark fusion of jazz and more contemporary sounds, died early Feb. 9 at age 77.

Artists such as Prince, Erykah Badu and Outkast were heavily influenced by Davis, as well as a legion of women artists for whom she was a visionary. 

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. Heading to the U.K., Marc Bolan of T. Rex urged the creative Davis to start writing for herself.

A common thread throughout Davis’ career was her 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,” according to the statement announcing her death. 

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.

Connie Portis, Davis’ friend of 65 years, says, “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. Today we cherish her memory as the sweet, thoughtful, and reflective person she was…There is no other.”

Betty Davis
Gems / Redferns
– Betty Davis


Davis embarked on dual careers in modeling and the music business after graduation from high school in Homestead, Penn. 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. 

As one of the first Black women to write, arrange, and produce her own albums, Davis was raw, unapologetic, and in full control, with a disregard for 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. 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)” 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.”