Betty Davis, the cult funk singer and ex-wife of jazz icon Miles Davis, died on Wednesday at the age of 77, leaving an undervalued yet groundbreaking body of work. Davis’ death was confirmed by Danielle Maggio, a close friend whose study as an ethnomusicologist focused on Davis’ work, to Rolling Stone. The cause of death, according to Amie Downs, communications director for Allegheny County, where Davis lived, was natural causes.
“It is with great sadness that I share the news of the passing of Betty Davis, a multi-talented music influencer and pioneer rock star, singer, songwriter, and fashion icon,” Davis’ longtime friend Connie Portis said in a statement Wednesday. “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. 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.”
Although their marriage lasted barely a year, Betty is credited with introducing Miles to rock music of the time, eventually ushering in the trumpeter’s jazz fusion phase, which began with 1969’s In a Silent Way and 1970’s Bitches Brew.
While recordings Betty produced with Miles’ band during their marriage were suppressed at the time, her self-titled first album was finally released in 1973 for Woodstock promoter Michael Lang’s Just Sunshine Records. Davis enlisted the help of Sly and the Family Stone producer Greg Errico, as well as a group of West Coast musical legends like as Larry Graham and Merl Saunders. Two further albums were released soon after: 1974’s They Say I’m Different and 1975’s Nasty Gal.
While none of the funk albums were a commercial success, Davis gained a cult following for her sexuality-laden lyrics, highlighted on songs like “Shut Off the Light” and “If “I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up.” Her candid, liberating attitudes trailblazed a path for artists like Prince and Madonna in the ensuing decade.
Following that three-year burst of material — and a year in Japan where she spent time with silent monks — Davis unexpectedly departed the music industry, relocating to the Pittsburgh region and living for the next 40 years without producing new music.
“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times in a rare interview in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
Davis’ music, on the other hand, developed a cult following over the decades, inspiring singers such as Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae. The newfound interest in Davis’ work led in a series of archival label Light in the Attic reissues honoring her legacy, including the first-ever printing of her unpublished 1976 fourth LP. “Our hearts are incredibly heavy today,” Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan said in a statement Wednesday. “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.” (The label will reissue Davis’ final and “personal favorite” album, Crashin’ From Passion, later this year.)
After being the focus of a 2017 documentary (Betty: They Say I’m Different) and an episode of Mike Judge’s Tales From the Tour Bus series, Davis released her first new song in over 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight,” in 2019. She had close friend Danielle Maggio sing it on her behalf.
In Rolling Stone’s Icons and Influences issue in 2021, Jamila Woods mentioned Davis as a major influence on her music. “That was probably one of the most motivating elements about her biography that I really gripped onto during the course of developing my last piece,” Woods said, referring to Davis’s confidence as a Black woman in the music industry during the 1970s. I believe I was thinking a lot about the feminine/masculine energy balance in my own body. And being in the sector I am in requires me to step outside of my normal thinking style rather frequently, which I was attempting to navigate.”
Woods added, “[I remember] instantly being struck by just the sonic quality of her voice,” she says, also referring to the emotiveness of Davis’ singing. It’s like she makes me want to listen to what she’s saying. And I don’t think I understood the power of just that for a long time, and she really helped me internalize that.”