Betty Davis was one of those names that had come across my radar, but in truth I knew little of her music or her personally, apart from the fact, she had married Miles Davis at some point. That all changed for me, when I sat and watched the excellent documentary ‘They Say I’m Different’ from 2017.
It was a fascinating insight into a life and career, which had obviously had many ups and downs. Since hearing about her death in the last month or so, I thought it time to give her some Speakeasy love.
She was born Betty Gray Mabry, named after her mother, in Durham, North Carolina, officially recorded as being in the summer of 1945, though Betty herself always insisted it was 1944. She discovered a love of music around the age of ten, whilst listening to the records owned by her mother and grandmother, who were both lovers of the Blues. Her first composition, ‘I’m Going To Bake That Cake of Love’ was written by the age of 12. Her family then relocated to Homestead in Pennsylvania, after her father Henry, found work in a steel mill there. Upon graduation from the local High School aged 16, Betty enrolled at The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York .
Brother Chuck – ‘She knew she was going to be something, and we all knew it. We just didn’t know what.’
Whilst there, Betty dived eagerly into the early counterculture lifestyle to be found in the Greenwich Village area of the early 1960s. A favourite hangout was The Cellar, where she found the folky & arty crowd to be of her liking. She was soon part of the inner circle of multiracial models, actors, singers and designers that frequented the club, at which Betty, on selected nights, would be the promoter and DJ.
Due to her striking good looks, she was approached to be a model. She was good at it too, and quickly found work, resulting in fashion spreads in magazines like ‘Seventeen’ ‘Ebony’ and ‘Glamour’, as well modelling for the designer Halston.
Whilst all that was going on, her love of music was never far from the surface and whilst in NYC, she became friends with the likes of Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix. As Betty Mabry she began a recording career and released a single for the DCP label in 1964 called ‘Get Ready for Betty’ and then joined Roy Arlington for the southern soul sounding ‘I’ll be There,’ under the name of Roy and Betty and she also wrote ‘Uptown’ (to Harlem)’ for the Chambers Brothers. However, to support herself financially, she knew she had to concentrate on her modelling career for the time being, though she found herself increasingly bored with work.
‘I didn’t like modelling because you didn’t need brains to do it. It’s only going to last as long as you look good.’
Whilst part of a couple with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, then living in New York, she recorded for the Columbia Record label, releasing the single ‘Live, Love, Learn.’ Then after splitting up with Masekela, she began a relationship with Miles Davis. She was 19, he was 31 and the two later married.
‘I went to hear him at a club in New York called the Village Gate, and he invited me for a drink. And that’s how we met. I thought he was interesting. He had a great sense of humour.’
Miles put her on the front cover of his ‘Files de Kilimanjaro’ album, dedicating the track ‘Mademoiselle Mabry’ to Betty. Her flamboyant dress sense and introduction of Miles to the likes of Hendrix, slowly saw the jazz great lose the suits and start wearing the colourful garb of the day. It changed his musical sound too. Suddenly, it all got funkier with a dash of psychedelic on the side. Betty also suggested to Miles to change the title of his forthcoming album from ‘Witches Brew’ to ‘Bitches Brew’.
It was all far from roses round the door, however. The marriage was volatile to say the least and all over inside a year. Miles later stated in his autobiography from 1989 that Betty was ‘too young and wild’ and reported that Betty and Hendrix had had an affair. He also admitted, ‘I’m just not the kind of cat to be married.’
Betty vehemently refuted those accusations, saying later…
‘I was so angry with Miles when he wrote that. It was disrespectful to Jimi and to me. Miles and I broke up because of his violent temper. Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis.’
Escaping New York for a bit to let the dust settle, she rocked up in London in 1971 and picked up her modelling career. She then returned to the states and began recording again, with the likes of Carlos Santana, The Pointer Sisters, members of Tower of Power and Larry Graham. The album ‘Betty Davis’ was released in 1973 and she followed that up with ‘They Say I’m Different’ in 1974 and ‘Nasty Gal’ in 1975. She had minor chart success at best, with ‘If I’m In Luck, I Might Get Picked Up’ in 1973 and ‘Shut Off the Light’ in ’75.
Her unapologetic, sexually charged lyrics and raunchy stage outfits, including wearing her underwear on stage when appearing at Ronnie Scott’s in 1975, meant that mainstream success in the States was hard to come by, though she found more of that in Europe.
‘I’m very aggressive on stage, and men usually don’t like aggressive woman. They usually like submissive women, or women that pretend to be submissive.’
Carlos Santana recalled Betty as ‘indomitable – she couldn’t be tamed. Musically, philosophically and physically, she was extreme and attractive.’
She signed to Island Records in 1976, via her then boyfriend, the singer Robert Palmer, but those recordings never saw the light of day at the time, and then she was dropped by the label.
She had had enough of the music business, and grown tired of the politics involved, so took herself off to Japan. Whilst there, she studied with a silent order of monks.
‘I just got very quiet.’ She said later.
Her father then died and 1980, and so Betty returned to Homestead, to be with her mother. She herself, then had a breakdown of sorts as she came to terms with the end of her musical career.
‘When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it, that there was nobody else was knocking at my door. I went to another level. It was no longer about the music or anything, it was about me losing a part of myself. It was devastating.’
Over the intervening years, her music was sampled by the hip hop generation, so she found herself with a new fanbase. Furthermore, past recordings were beginning to be reissued, with talk of other lost work finally seeing the light of day. Included in that, music produced by Miles Davis and Teo Macero and played on by the likes of Herbie Hancock and Alphonse Mouzon.
Then came the documentary in 2017, directed by Philip Cox, who tracked down Betty living in a house with no internet, mobile phone, or car.
‘This wasn’t a woman with riches or luxury. She was living on the bare essentials.’
After years of trying to persuade her to take part in the doc. she finally agreed saying, ‘I figured it would be better to have them cover me when I was alive than when I was dead.’
With the renewed interest in her and her music, her first new song in 40 years was released in 2019 entitled ‘A Little Bit Hot Tonight.’
Sadly, Betty Davis died from the effects of cancer on 9th February 2022 , still living in Homestead, Pennsylvania.
MIles Davis – ‘(she was) something like Prince, only as a woman; If Betty were singing today, she’d be something like Madonna. She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis. She was just ahead of her time.’
Carlos Santana – ‘She was the first Madonna, but Madonna is more like Marie Osmond compared to Betty Davis.’
“I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love. That emphatically included sexuality. When I was writing about it, nobody was writing about it, now everybody’s writing about it. It’s like a cliché. I never got any woman-man situations going on with the music. Everyone was very cooperative. The music that I made, I never had any problem with the musicians. I’m very pleased. I think I lead a very, very good life. I have very good friends, and that’s all you want in life, is to have people that love you.’
Amen to that.
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 2 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Rhoda Dakar
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THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 1
THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Gary Crowley
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