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‘Empress of Funk’ Betty Davis dies


Marriage to a high-profile celebrity brings with it the possibility of losing one’s identity and becoming lost in the shadow of their spouse’s aura. Betty Davis, who died on Feb. 9 of natural causes in her Pennsylvania home, emerged from her brief relationship with iconic trumpeter Miles Davis, to make her own mark on the musical horizon.

Childhood friend Connie Portis announced her death with the following statement: “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.”

Betty Davis (born Betty Mabry in Durham, N.C., circa 1944) was a force of nature unto herself, too powerful to be subjugated by anyone. Her family moved to Pittsburgh as part of the Second Great Migration in the 1950s, as Blacks traded the rural south for the industrial north.

At 17, Davis moved to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and worked on the side in nightclubs and as a print model in Ebony, Elle and Glamour magazines. She indulged her musical aspirations by recording demos (“Get Ready for Betty” in 1964), and penning a song for the Chambers Brothers (“Uptown to Harlem” from the album “The Time has Come”).

A Fateful Union

“Madonna before Madonna. Prince before Prince – only a woman.

She was the beginning of all of that when she was singing as Betty Davis.”

—Miles Davis

These ambitions got a jump-start in 1966 when she met jazz legend Miles Davis. Theirs was a marriage that while brief, proved to be inspirational for both parties. Betty introduced him to rock superstar Jimi Hendrix and progressive soul pioneer Sly Stone of Sly & the Family Stone. Throwing out the elegant Italian suits he was famous for, she gave him a makeover with leathers and the flamboyantly psychedelic fashions in vogue. More importantly she served as his muse as he ushered in the new genre of “fusion” or “jazz rock.”

“His world was progressive jazz, plus he was a lover of classical music, so there were lots of things he hadn’t picked up on,” she said years later.

The year after their marriage, she graced the cover of the jazz great’s “Filles de Kilimanjaro” (“French for “females of Kilimanjaro,” a mountain in Tanzania), as he transitioned from the acoustical stylings of his early career to rock-infused riffs and rhythm and blues derived grooves.

Their union lasted just over a year, with the usual accusations and counter accusations that accompany domestic break ups. Miles said that Betty was “too young and wild,” while alleging she’d had an affair with Jimi Hendrix. She denied this, pointing to his legendary temper and physical abuse (behavior borne out by his prior marriage to dancer Frances Taylor, and later to actress Cicely Tyson).

They divorced and she sought refuge in Europe (after the release of Miles’ landmark “Bitches Brew” album), where she focused on finding her own voice by internalizing her pain.

“I told no one of how Miles was violent, so I wrote and sung my heart out,” she recalled decades later in a New York Times interview.

The eponymous album “Betty Davis” was the first of a three-album-run that included “They Say I’m Different,” and “Nasty Gal” in 1975. Critical acclaim doesn’t naturally translate to commercial success, possibly due to her aversion to conformity.

“I could always have recorded with (legendary producers) Clive [Davis] or Ahmet [Ertegun] but I would never truly know if I were being humored because I was Miles’ wife.”

Experience this musical goddess in performance at:

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Tags: National, Betty Davis, obit, entertainment, Miles Davis