Saturday, August 11, 2012
is an American funk, rock and soul singer. She was also Miles Davis's second wife.
BackgroundShe worked as a model, appearing in photo spreads in Seventeen, Ebony and Glamour. In her time in New York, Mabry met several musicians including Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
Born Betty Mabry in 1945, Betty Davis grew up in Pittsburgh and Durham, North Carolina, where she cultivated her love for music. She spent hours listening to her grandmother’s vast blues collection: B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and Elmore James — among many others — and began writing songs at age 12. Her first song was a sweet ditty called “I’m Going to Bake That Cake of Love,” perhaps an indication of what was to come with its sensual connotations.
At 16, she left Pittsburgh for New York City, enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology while living with her aunt. It was there that she soaked up the Greenwich Village culture of the early 1960s, hanging around folkies and absorbing their blues-like purity. In recollections from those close to her, Davis was said to be quick to make friends; and just as quickly, Davis associated herself with frequenters of the Cellar, a hip uptown club where young and stylish people congregated. It was a multiracial, artsy crowd of models, design students, actors, and singers, and Davis soaked up the youthful creativity like air.
To support herself, she took up working as a model while being one of the stars of the Cellar, where she played records and chatted people up. Michael Lang, her future record-label boss, remembers Davis as “very unique and self-possessed.”
Yet the seeds of Davis’ musical career were planted through her friendship with soul singer Lou Courtney, who produced her first single, “The Cellar,” and which had simple, catchy lyrics like, “Where you going fellas, so fly? / I’m going to the Cellar, my oh my / What you going to do there / We’re going to boogaloo there.”
The single was a local jam for the Cellar. Yet Davis’ first professional gig wasn’t until she wrote “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers. Their 1967 album was a major success, but Davis was already moving on with her modeling career. As to be expected, she was successful as a model, with striking good looks and a bohemian style, but she felt bored by the work. According to Oliver Wang’s They Say I’m Different liner notes, Davis says, “I didn’t like modeling because you didn’t need brains to do it. It’s only going to last as long as you look good.”
Marriage to Miles DavisMabry met Miles Davis in 1967 and married him in September 1968. In just one year of marriage she influenced him greatly. The Miles Davis album Filles de Kilimanjaro included a song named after her and her photo on the front cover. In his autobiography, Miles credited Mabry with helping to plant the seeds of his future musical explorations by introducing the trumpeter to psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and funk innovator Sly Stone.
It is believed that Hendrix and Betty Davis had an affair that hastened the end of her marriage to Miles Davis, but Betty denies this. What's more, Hendrix and Miles stayed close after the divorce, planning to record until Hendrix's death. The influence of Hendrix and especially Sly Stone on Miles Davis was obvious on the album Bitches Brew, which ushered in the era of jazz fusion. The origin of the album's title is unknown, but some believe Miles was subtly paying tribute to the woman whose intersecting relationships helped spur the album's genesis. In fact, it is said that he originally wanted to call the album Witches' Brew — it was Betty who convinced him to change it.
Music careerAfter the breakup of her marriage with Davis, Betty moved to London to pursue her modeling career. She wrote music while in the UK and returned to the US with the intention of recording songs with Santana. Instead, she organized a group of West Coast funk musicians to make her own recordings.
Her first record, Betty Davis, was released in 1973. It used the following musicians:
- Neal Schon (Santana/Journey) - guitar
- Doug Rodrigues (Buzzy Linhart, Lenny White) - guitar
- Gregg Errico (Sly & The Family Stone) - drums
- Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone and eponym of Graham Central Station) - bass
- Patryce Banks (Graham Central Station) - percussion
- Willie Sparks (Graham Central Station) - drums
- Hershall Kennedy (Graham Central Station) - horns
- Greg Adams (Tower of Power) - horns
- Mic Gillette (Tower of Power) - horns
- Skip Mesquite (Tower of Power) - saxophone
- Merl Saunders - electric piano
- Pete Sears - acoustic piano
- The Pointer Sisters - background vocals
Material from the 1979 recording session was eventually used for two bootleg albums, Hangin' Out In Hollywood (1995) and Crashin' From Passion (1996). A greatest hits album, Anti Love: The Best of Betty Davis, was released in 2000.