Visible Women

Forgotten Women: The taboo-smashing queen of funk

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. This week, we take a look at the life of Betty Davis, the unapologetically sexual funk-soul singer who paved the way for Rihanna. 

“I said you said I was an evil wench, oh/Didn’t ya, didn’t ya/You said I was an alley cat,” sings righteous funk pioneer Betty Davis (NOT the legendary actor Bette Davis) on Nasty Gal

Many of her songs are considered classics – but only to serious music fans. Girlboss Sophia Amoruso named her fashion label after one of her songs – but no-one really knows that either. Betty herself knew, and influenced, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, but they became much better known. Yet Davis led the way for female musicians talking openly about sex. Without her, we’d have no Rihanna, no Missy Elliot, no Nicki Minaj or Peaches.

Born in 1945, the young Betty Mabry fell into fashion modelling, becoming a scenester in Sixties New York, partying
 with Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. But music was always her real thing. In 1964 she released her debut single, Get Ready For Betty

In 1968, aged 23, she signed with Columbia and released the single Live, Love And Learn, produced by trumpeter Hugh Masekela (also her boyfriend). Later that year she married another trumpet player, jazz legend Miles Davis. The marriage only lasted a year, but hugely affected both of them.

She introduced him to psychedelic rock and a whole new wardrobe, while she kept the Davis name when she relaunched her recording career with 1973’s funk-soul album Betty Davis

Betty Davis

Davis stood out. She had incredible style (today she’d be massive on Insta). Onstage she wore leotards and platform sandals. On the cover of Betty Davis, she’s giving years of leg in hot pants and silver thigh-high boots. 

Nasty Gal, her third album, has her roaring into the camera lens, turquoise eyeshadow up to her eyebrows, in a negligee, heels and fishnets. And her music was something else: bass-driven grinding guitar funk with raspy singing and raunchy yowling that verged on the orgasmic. Davis became notorious for her unapologetically explicit lyrics and low-down and dirty sound.

The men she knew and loved – including (possibly) Hendrix and (definitely) Eric Clapton – inspired her songs. In a 2007 interview, she talked about the S&M-influenced He Was A Big Freak, saying it “wasn’t written specifically about Jimi, but he liked turquoise a lot, so I got the line: ‘I used to beat him with a turquoise chain’.” 

The world wasn’t ready for her. Her work was pulled from the radio and criticised for its frankness, even as men with similar takes had huge hits. She addressed the negative attention in songs such as Don’t Call Her No Tramp and Dedicated To The Press, a feminist outpouring of rage at the injustice faced by female artists.

Davis’s growling erotic anthems never hit the big time. Her label rejected her fourth album and, refusing to compromise, she retired from music in the early Eighties, returning to her home town, Pittsburgh, where she lives today.

“Betty was a free spirit,” Miles wrote in his 1989 autobiography. “But talented as a motherf***er.” 

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. Find out more about the campaign here, and see more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Getty Images / Josie Jammet