Nearly 40 years ago, millions of people knew Davis’s songs when she was a funk legend, known for her sexy persona and her marriage to Miles Davis. Since the late 1980s, Davis has lived a quiet, unassuming life outside Pittsburgh, where most people don’t recognize her when she shops at the local Giant Eagle supermarket.
In the past few months, however, interest in Davis and her whereabouts has surfaced thanks to an independent documentary on her life titled “Betty: They Say I’m Different.”
The film has brought renewed attention to the elusive 74-year-old Davis, who was hailed as the queen of funk in the early 1970s but who mysteriously disappeared from public life in the ’80s. The documentary’s release brings publicity she has avoided for decades. Still, there’s been some positive aspects, including a phone call from singer Erykah Badu, who talked about her at a recent New York music festival where the movie was shown.
On Friday, the documentary about Davis will be shown at the Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club.
“I’m very excited because it’s being shown in all of these different countries and will be going to Johannesburg, South Africa,” she says.
“It feels very good. I’m really surprised myself that this is happening on this level,” Davis says.
The funk legend lives in a one-bedroom apartment for senior women run by Catholic Charities, and she is looked after by a select group of her childhood friends. “I didn’t just fade off the planet. I just started living a quiet life back here. I just decided that period of my life had changed,” she says.
A projector, not a singer
The film’s London-based director Phil Cox calls Betty Davis “the Greta Garbo” of the music industry because the reclusive Davis shuns interviews and photographers, preferring to be left alone. Cox was told about her in 2012 after he had produced a film that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and was looking for another subject. He became enthralled with the story of her short-lived fame and mysterious disappearance.
When Cox finally met Davis four years ago, he was surprised by the way she was living. At the time, she was staying in the basement of a house. No Internet. No cellphone. No car.
“This wasn’t a woman with riches or luxury. She was living on the bare essentials,” he remembers.
Davis influenced a generation of artists including Macy Gray and Janelle Monáe. Her songs have been sampled by numerous modern artists including rappers Ice Cube and Method Man and rocker Lenny Kravitz.
“Betty calls herself a projector, not a singer. She was not an Aretha. It was an unusual voice. She couldn’t be pigeonholed,” Cox says.
Her voice was raspy, not stylistic of many of the successful black female singers of the early 1970s such as Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick. And unlike Tina Turner, who had husband Ike on songs and on stage with her as her “archetype beside her,” Betty was a solo artist singing about her sexual prowess when she began recording her own music after her divorce from Miles, Cox says.
Grammy-winning singer Gray grew up listening to Davis’s music as a child in the 1970s when her mother played it in their home in Canton, Ohio. Gray remembers the raspy voice, the Afro, the thigh-high boots and in-your-face attitude.
“She had this badass, Foxy Brown vibe about her. She was the kind of girl that you want to be when you grow up,” Gray says.
Betty Davis influenced Gray musically, vocally and spiritually. “She seemed sure, free, bold and unafraid at a time when women and black people were supposed to feel afraid or limited. And then Betty Davis comes along and rose above that on her own. She presented herself as someone who wasn’t captive by all that. She seemed to fly and skip right over that and do her thing the way she wanted to do,” Gray says.
Simply Ms. Betty
Growing up in Homestead, Pa., a tiny steel-mill borough, my friends and I knew her as Ms. Betty. She lived on Glenn Street, about four houses around the corner from mine. I didn’t know Davis as an international music singer who recorded four albums (three released in the United States and a fourth released only in England). I remember my grandmother and mother and older family members would talk about only how she had once been married to legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Then their comments would be followed by a sigh and the words “Poor Betty.”
It wasn’t until I arrived at Howard University in Washington in 1987 that I learned my childhood neighbor was once an international star. When I would tell my professors where I was from, I would always say, “A small town outside of Pittsburgh. You probably never heard of it? Homestead?” And without missing a beat, the professor would say, “The town where Betty Davis is from?” I would always be puzzled. How did they know my neighbor, this woman who lived with her mother Mrs. Mabry, where my friends and I would shovel snow for them each winter for a few dollars?
Davis was born in Durham, N.C., but moved to Homestead when she was in kindergarten. Like many black families who migrated from the South to Pittsburgh, including my grandfather, Davis’s father got a job in the steel mill.
Davis, her parents and her brother settled in a small house around the corner from my house.
Life with Miles Davis
After graduating from high school at 17, Betty Davis took a Greyhound bus to New York, where she enrolled in the city’s Fashion Institute of Technology. There, the 5-foot-7-inch Davis worked as a runway and magazine model, all the while writing songs.
“I started writing music when I was 12 years old. I used to drive the neighbors crazy, because I would be singing from my mother’s kitchen all the time,” she says. “I would put music to lyrics that I wrote. It’s a gift.”
In 1966, Davis went to a Greenwich Village club, where she saw a jazz trumpeter playing.
“I went to a dance concert, and I saw this great-looking guy in this suit. I thought he was fantastic-looking. I contacted a photographer I knew and told him about this guy. My friend said it sounded like Miles Davis. I had no idea who he was,” she says with a laugh.
At another club days later, she ran into Davis again. This time, she says, the jazz legend sent one of his employees over to ask her out for a drink during one of the breaks of his set.
The two dated for two years. They were married in 1968 when he was 42. She was 24.
“I learned a lot musically. I always said to Miles, ‘I should have been born your daughter.’ Because our relationship was very enlightening as far as my music was concerned. He played a lot of classical music. I used to listen to Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky. That broadened my horizon as far as music was concerned,” she says. And she introduced him to contemporary musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone.
It was a brief but challenging relationship. In his 1989 autobiography, Miles Davis wrote about his relationship with the younger woman he eventually married.
Miles Davis put his new wife’s picture on the cover of his album “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” He described her as “a beautiful young singer and songwriter” whom he credits with influencing his personal and professional life. With her background in fashion, she got him to trade his button-down suits for leather suits and colorful scarves; he, in turn, urged her to sing. Miles Davis credits her with changing his style from classic jazz to the more popular style of jazz.
“If Betty were singing today, she’d be something like Madonna; something like Prince, only as a woman She was the beginning of all that when she was singing as Betty Davis. She was ahead of her time,” he wrote.
But things soured. While Miles Davis credits Betty with introducing him to a new sound and to musicians such as Hendrix, he wrote that when he and Hendrix began working together, he learned that Betty and Hendrix were lovers, which today Betty Davis denies.
“He wasn’t easy to live with. Do you know what I mean? We got to a point when I was very unhappy being married. I always said if you’re with someone, if you’re not happy, you shouldn’t be with them.”
A revolutionary figure
Decades before Vanity 6, Janet Jackson and Beyoncé bragged about being nasty, Davis broadly projected her sexual confidence in 1975 with her tune “Nasty Gal.” The album cover featured Betty wearing a negligee, lying down with her legs open.
“You used to love it when I’d scratch your back baby. I used to love it when you did it. When ya did it to me real good,” she screamed through her gravely alto, reminiscent of a Janis Joplin or Millie Jackson.
Dyana Williams was a popular radio disc jockey at Washington’s WHUR-96.3 FM, Howard University’s radio station from 1973 to 1975. Her on-air name was Ebony Moonbeams. Davis’s music was on constant rotation at a time when go-go music was rising in popularity, says Williams.
“It was the go-go capital. And folks who loved go-go understood her version of funk, R&B;, soul and rock,” Williams says. “Considering what was going on at that time musically with Sly, Jimi Hendrix, all the bands, funk was big at that time, in my opinion. Betty was the first woman to merge those genres successfully. She was a funk, rock artist. She was THE funk rock artist.”
Williams and Cox both likened Davis to such self-taught blues artists as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, strong women who bucked against the music industry while breaking down walls.
“We hadn’t seen images of women like we saw of her until she appeared. She was sexy, she was fashion-forward. She was very avant-garde and appropriate for the post-civil-rights era,” Williams says. “From the clothing and the content of what she was saying in her songs, she was revolutionary.”
As the documentary details, Davis often fought with record executives, most of whom were white men who tried to force Davis to perform a certain way. And although she had a large audience, the NAACP issued boycotts of black radio stations around the country that played her music, arguing that Davis and her lyrics were not positive role models for black America at the time.
“I thought they were for the advancement of colored people, correct? But they were stopping my advancement. They were stopping me from making a living,” Davis says.
“I wrote songs about sex, and that was sort of unheard of then. So that’s what I think my influence was. It was very sexually oriented,” she says.
Her independence, Cox says, is what ultimately led to the end of her career after battling with record executives.
“Betty dug her own hole. She refused to compromise or change,” he says. “Betty admits she destroyed her own career, by her own sheer will. She’s very warm and beautiful. But when Betty says something, she will not change.”
By the late 1970s, her label, Island Records, dropped her, and Davis was unable to secure another backer. Then in 1980, Davis’s father died while she was living out of the country. Davis moved back to Homestead to live with her mother.
As kids, we didn’t know about Davis’s father’s death. We did know that we would see this black woman, often wearing a bathrobe or pajamas, walking the streets with Noxzema all over her face. It was strange and almost frightening to see this almond-colored, black woman with a white mask walking through the town. As small town gossip would go, adults — thinking kids were out of earshot — blamed Davis’s decline on “living with that Miles” and “that fast New York City living.”
Cox and others who know Davis say the death of Davis’s father was something she struggled to overcome.
“Betty struggled with mental illness but didn’t want to talk about it,” Cox says. “Mental illness was there, yet she forged her own way out of it.”
Davis acknowledges that she had a “setback” after her father’s death. “That was about it,” Davis says.
Today, the Afro and thigh-high boots are gone. She wears “comfortable” shoes and keeps her salt-and-pepper hair simply combed. Davis says she was just doing the music she believed in, but that was a different time, she says, and now she is focusing on her “quiet life.”
“I like that nobody knows who I am when they see me. I like to live quietly,” she says “But it would be nice to be remembered that at one time, she made good music and she made people smile.”
Funkateers Ball Betty Davis Tribute, featuring Betty Davis’s original band, Funk House, will also be performing after the screening at Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club; Sept. 14 at 8 p.m. $30. Doors open at 6 p.m.