Davis was born Betty Mabry in North Carolina in 1945, and grew up listening to blues artists like Jimmy Reed and Elmore James. She wrote her first song, “I’m Going to Bake That Cake of Love”, at age 12. She moved to New York City at 16 to go to fashion school, and got work as a model, appearing spreads in major fashion magazines like Glamour and Seventeen. While in New York, she met musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, and recorded her first single, “Get Ready For Betty,” in 1964.
She recorded several more singles for Columbia Records in the ’60s, featuring arrangements from Hugh Masakela, with whom she had a relationship for a brief period. In 1969, she began a relationship with Miles Davis, who co-produced more of her recordings with Teo Macero. Columbia never released those tracks, however, and they were shelved for decades until eventually being released as The Columbia Years, 1968-1969 via Light in the Attic. During this period, Davis also appeared as a cover model on a handful of Miles Davis’ albums, including Filles de Kilimanjaro.
After Betty and Miles split up, she moved to London and began working with a group of West Coast funk musicians on music she wrote and arranged, culminating in her first full-length record, 1973’s Betty Davis. Davis began to develop notoriety for her sexually aggressive stage presence and songs, and radio stations faced pressure from religious groups not to play her music.
Davis released three studio albums during her career, 1973’s Betty Davis, 1974’s They Say I’m Different, and 1975’s Nasty Gal. She stopped making music after 1979, though in 2019 she released her first song in over 40 years, “A Little Bit Hot Tonight”.
Light in the Attic has set up a tribute page for the soul and funk legend.