Funk’s greatest secret


isten to any of Betty Davis’ songs and you will say she’s a different kind of star. Not the kind fabricated by smart managers and profit driven record labels, but an authentic and uncompromising woman who was way ahead of her time. What happened to funk’s greatest secret?

When Betty Mabry was 12 years old, she sat down at the small desk in her bedroom in Homestead, Pennsylvania to write her first song. She called it I’m Going to Bake That Cake of Love. It would be the unofficial start of her way too short career in show business.

Young Betty moved to New York five years later to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology and quickly made her name as a model. The sixties were wild and so was Betty, who became a familiar figure in hip uptown clubs like The Cellar.

As long as you look good

In 1964, she recorded her first (appropriately titled) single Get Ready For Betty, which failed to impress the American public. Her persona did all the more though: everyone who met Betty was amazed by her rebellious character and sensual appearance. Her modelling career was very successful, but she felt bored by the work. “I didn’t like modelling because you didn’t need brains to do it,” she later said. “It’s only going to last as long as you look good.”

Betty’s good looks may have had something to do with her becoming Miles Davis’ second wife in 1968 — hence the name Betty Davis. Although the marriage lasted only a year, the couple influenced each other tremendously. Betty introduced Miles to psychedelic rock and helped him reinvent his clothing style to match the funkiness of the seventies, while Miles put Betty on the cover of his 1969 album Filles de Kilimanjaro and wrote songs for her. The reason he filed for divorce was quite juicy: Miles accused Betty of having an affair with Jimi Hendrix, a claim Betty has always denied.

Funk no more

After a cool-off period in London, Betty returned to the US to record her first album, simply called Betty Davis (1973). Two more records would follow, They Say I’m Different (1974) en Nasty Gal (1975). They weren’t a commercial success at the time, but are considered funk classics nowadays. Betty’s live shows sent shock waves through the music world because of the sexuality of her performance. Her deep, gravelly voice, spicy outfits and explicit lyrics were so far ahead of their time that a lot of people couldn’t handle it. This included the record executives: Betty’s refusal to compromise on her artistic vision ultimately led to the end of her career.

While recording her fourth album, which wouldn’t be released until 2009, Betty suddenly left the studio and never looked back. Apart from a brief reappearance in Tokyo in the 1980s, the queen of funk funked no more. She had a nervous breakdown after her father’s death, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and disappeared from the public eye. She returned to Homestead to lead a quiet life with her mother, becoming a cult figure, a myth almost.

She died from cancer in February of this year, leaving behind a legacy that will live on for centuries to come. Fashion icon, music innovator, seventies star that should have shone a lot longer — Betty Davis deserves all these labels, and many more. Funk’s greatest secret is waiting to be discovered over and over again.