Before Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj, funk singer Betty Davis was at the forefront of displaying unfiltered sexuality in a genre dominated by men. In her short career, Davis influenced the careers and lives of a handful of musical legends in their own right, becoming something of an cult icon herself.
Davis was born Betty Mabry on July 26, 1945 in Durham, N.C. and raised between North Carolina and Pittsburgh. Influenced by several Blues greats, Davis wrote her first song at 12.
After graduating from high school at 16, Davis headed north to New York to study music and fashion. Davis found success as a model, and her images appeared in Ebony, Elle and Glamour. However, Davis didn’t find modeling mentally challenging and shifted gears. According to a 2007 interview, Davis was part of the New York party scene and had several dalliances with various men in the entertainment business.
Davis caught her first break in music in 1967, this after writing the hit “Uptown (To Harlem)” for The Chamber Brothers.
She then married legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis the following year, who was one of her late-night conquests. The short-lived marriage had a profound effect on both couples. During that time, Davis moved into jazz fusion, and his wife introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Davis’ marriage to Miles didn’t last and she moved to London to work on songs. When she returned to the States in 1973, Davis released a self-titled project, the first of her three albums. The following year, They Say I’m Different hit the shelves. Davis’ last official LP was 1975’s Nasty Gal.
Davis, who was also romantically linked to Eric Clapton, sang in an aggressive, rock-influenced style. Coupled with her sexually free image and often provocative stage outfits, the industry didn’t know what to do with her at the time. Funk/rock/R&B artists like Joi and Janelle Monae are part of her legacy.