Betty Davis was the evidence of cool hoped for and the proof of funk felt. The musician, who died on Wednesday at 77, was the subject of a 2017 documentary, “Betty: They Say I’m Different,” but her face rarely entered the camera’s frame. Most of all we see her hands—those hands, accented by periwinkle polish and turquoise rings, that grabbed the world by its cahoonas.
Davis (née Mabry) was born in Durham, North Carolina near the close of the second World War. The exact year once had a touch of elasticity, but the fireball was a Leo—she was born on July 26— to the core. During her documentary, her aunt, Elenora, revealed that she enjoyed being alone in her youth and loved to read. Holding up a press photo of Davis, she said, “She was an unusual person back in those days.” In the black and white image, Davis’ long legs are covered by metallic, thigh high boots, paired with booty shorts and a button down tied tight in the front. An inverted trapezoidal afro frames her face, which is nearly overtaken by her smile.
At 12, she relocated to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. The city was enjoying the tail end of a Black arts renaissance, with jazz’s hopping sound and joie de vivre running through the streets. Davis’ own psychedelic groove incorporated jazz, along with the blues and its seed, rock n’ roll—she cited B.B. King and Big Mama Thornton as influences.
Davis wrote her first song, “Bake a Cake of Love,” within a year of the move. Throughout her life, she maintained that she would have preferred to slink into the comfort of being an obscure songwriter versus a singer.
Davis attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, a time that she said “had a lot to do with [her] makeup as a person.” She made money juggling writing material for singers and modeling as a part of Wilhemina’s roster. It was also during this time that she met rock’s bubbling Black stars, Jimi Hendrix and and Sly Stone.
She married Miles Davis, who was 19 years older than her, in 1968. Responsible for reinvigorating his swagger, their time together is marked by his sonic and sartorial experimentation. His album “Bitches Brew” is said to have been inspired by his wife and her friends and it is a testament to her fly. Her face also emblazoned on his “Filles de Killemanjaro” album cover. They split one year after their union amidst claims of violence that stained all of the trumpeter’s marriages. “Every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” she said during the documentary.
The fruit of their breakup was the debut of Davis as a singer. No longer could she hide behind her pen. Her sensual sound was ready to take center stage.