WASHINGTON — Betty Davis, the trailblazing funk singer and fashion icon and ex-wife of jazz legend Miles Davis, has died at the age of 77.
According to multiple media reports, Davis died early Wednesday morning in Homestead, Pennsylvania, where she'd lived since childhood. A longtime friend told NPR that Davis was recently diagnosed with cancer.
Davis was a trailblazer for musicians -- particularly Black artists -- when in 1973 she wrote, arranged and produced her own music for her self-titled debut solo record, a rarity in that era. She released two more records: 1974's They Say I'm Different and 1975's Nasty Gal. In 2009, her record Is It Love or Desire? was released more than 30 years after it was originally recorded in 1976.
Despite her musical ingenuity, Davis' songs never saw extensive limelight on the charts. Just two of her singles made it on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart: the No. 66-peaking 1973 single “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and the 1975 single “Shut Off the Lights,” which just barely got on the chart at No. 97.
Still, Davis' impact is undeniable: her eccentric outfits, funky rifts and distinctive bravado paved the way for a new generation of up-and-coming pop stars like Prince, Madonna, and Janet Jackson.
She married Miles Davis in 1968. In his autobiography, he credits Betty with exposing him to musicians like Jimmy Hendrix and Sly Stone, helping to plant the seeds of his future musical explorations.
However, their marriage was short-lived, and Betty said in a 2010 interview with The Observer that she and Miles "broke up because of his violent temper."
At the end of the 70s, Davis largely retreated from public life, making few public appearances and only rarely granting interviews to the press. She moved to Pittsburgh and never again recorded new music.
“When I was told that it was over, I just accepted it,” Davis told the New York Times in 2018. “And nobody else was knocking at my door.”
In 2007, record label Light in the Attic began a campaign of rereleasing Davis' albums. In a statement distributed after her death, the label said it has plans to reissue her final album, Crashin' From Passion, later in 2022.