A wildly flamboyant funk diva with few equals even three decades after her debut, Betty Davis combined the gritty emotional realism of Tina Turner, the futurist fashion sense of David Bowie, and the trendsetting flair of Miles Davis, her husband for a year. It's easy to imagine the snickers when a 23-year-old model married a famous musician twice her age, but Davis was no gold digger; she turned Miles on to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone (providing the spark that led to his musical reinvention on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew), then proved her own talents with a trio of sizzling mid-'70s solo LPs.
Born Betty Mabry in North Carolina, Davis grew up in Pittsburgh and had decamped to New York by the early '60s, where she gained entrance into hipster musical circles courtesy of the clubs she frequented — and one she worked at, the Cellar. She first recorded around that time, and also put out a 1964 single for Don Costa's DCP imprint. Her first major writing credit, "Uptown" by the Chambers Brothers, came in 1967, before she'd turned 20. One year later, she met Miles Davis in New York, and they were married by the end of summer 1968. Though their marriage didn't survive the end of the decade, Betty Davis was tremendously influential to Miles, introducing him to psychedelic rock and even influencing his wardrobe. Miles' 1968 LP Filles de Kilimanjaro featured her on the cover, and he wrote the final track ("Mademoiselle Mabry") for her.
Miles divorced her in 1969, explaining later in his autobiography that she was "too young and wild" for him. (He also suspected her of an affair with Jimi Hendrix, an allegation she denies.) By the beginning of the '70s, Betty Davis began work on a set of songs and tapped a host of great musicians to bring them to fruition: Greg Errico and Larry Graham from Sly Stone's band, Michael Carabello from Santana, the Pointer Sisters, and members of the Tower of Power horn section. Her self-titled debut album finally appeared in 1973, and though it made no commercial impact at all, it was an innovative collection with plenty of blistering songs. Even more so than a soul shouter like Tina Turner, Davis was a singer for the feminist era, a take-no-prisoners sexual predator who screamed, yelled, grunted, purred, and cooed her way through extroverted material like "Anti Love Song," "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him," and "He Was a Big Freak." Religious groups protested many of her concert appearances (several were canceled), and radio outlets understandably refused to play her extreme work.
Davis hardly let up with her second and third albums, 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal, but they too made little impact. Though she would have made an excellent disco diva, Betty Davis largely disappeared from the music scene afterward. An aborted 1979 session has been released on multiple occasions, once as Crashin' from Passion and also as Hangin' Out in Hollywood. Early in the 21st century, Light in the Attic Records reissued Davis' three released studio albums, and also issued for the first time her 1976 unreleased recording, Crashin' from Passion, as Is It Love or Desire? ~ John Bush