Betty Mabry met Miles Davis in 1967 and married him the following year. They divorced a year after that but as Wikipedia notes, “In just one year of marriage she influenced him greatly by introducing him to the fashions and the new popular music trends of the era. In his autobiography, Miles credited Betty with helping to plant the seeds of his future musical explorations by introducing the trumpeter to psychedelic rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix and funk innovator Sly Stone.”
Betty Davis died on Feb. 9, 2022. Here’s my interview-based article on her, which was first published in 1974.
Though they may dress in $100 bell-bottoms and spend time off in palatial mansions, many recording artists play down the role of money in their lives. With complete seriousness, they represent themselves as totally dedicated creatures of the craft who would gladly forsake all the world’s riches for the ability to sing one line as it was divinely meant to be sung. Statements along this line are often less than honest, of course, but your average musician knows it isn’t exactly considered “good press” to be seen as being “only in it for the money.”
By contrast with these accomplished actors, Betty Davis doesn’t seem to care about her image. Describing herself as a “bread head,” she candidly admits that money is and always has been at the root of her musical ambitions.
When she was a teenager caught in a web of low-paying sales and clerical jobs, she explains, she hit on songwriting as a way to raise her income. At the time, she had no important contacts in the business and lacked professional experience; but the drive created by her desire to go for the dough, plus a good deal of luck, helped Betty to achieve quick success.
Most amateur songwriters find it virtually impossible to bring an unsolicited tune to the attention of established artists. Betty not only got the Chambers Brothers to listen to “Uptown,” a song she’d written with them in mind, but they recorded it, only days after they’d first heard it, on their Time Has Come Today album.
“I had found out that they were playing in New York,” Betty recalls. “So I just went over, told them I had a song for them, and sang it right there. I think my timing was perfect; they were just getting ready to go into the studio and they wanted new material and a new direction musically.”
Despite this rapid recognition for her work, Betty gave up songwriting shortly thereafter, because she felt she could make even more money as a fashion model. And, sure enough, soon after she entered that field, her pictures were appearing in Clairol ads and in magazines like Seventeen, Ebony, and Glamour. Betty was doing quite well for herself.
When she married Miles Davis at age 24, however, she abandoned her modeling career. She wasn’t particularly enjoying it and, with Miles to support her, money was no longer a consideration.
But a year later, the union ended, and Betty faced the problem of earning enough to support herself in the style to which she’d become accustomed. “Because when you’re married to a certain kind of man,” she explains, “you get used to certain things. You get into a lifestyle where . . . like I used to fly to the south of France about twice a year. You know, and I was able to get a car and ride through Central Park when I wanted to. Like those kinds of silly things. But you know, you get used to them.
“So after Miles and I split up, I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do now in order to keep living this way? You’re gonna have to make your own money.’ I didn’t want to get married again. I didn’t want to get with an old man just because he had bread or anything like that. And I didn’t want to go back to being a model.”
Deciding to again try her hand at composing, Betty recorded a four-song demo tape for Famous Music; she hoped those at the record company would like it enough to give her tunes to its artists and take her on as a staff writer. Since the firm was impressed not only by the songs but also by Betty’s singing, they signed her as a performer.
Did this please her? “Let me tell you the truth, the honest truth. See, I was pushed into being an artist. Writing was nice because I could make my bread in a quiet way. I look at concerts as a job that I have to do. And like I never wanted to record or be a performer, never wanted that part of the business.”
Seemingly in contradiction with this statement is the care Betty obviously expended in the making of her two albums, Betty Davis and They Say I’m Different. Both offer evidence not only of her talent for writing, arranging, and singing but also of her willingness to take the time to develop her musical ideas as fully as she can. In addition, not wanting to rely on studio musicians, Betty rounded up a crew of backup artists whose abilities she respected; she fashioned an impressive stage act with distinctive costuming, and she went to the trouble of producing the second record herself.
Asked about the apparent paradox, Betty says simply, “If I have to do something, I want to do it right.
“As for producing, that I wanted to do. See, Miles really inspired me to produce myself. He suggested it after he heard my first album. I said, ‘Oh, come on, Miles.’ He said, ‘I’m serious, why don’t you? If you can write it, you can hear it. And if you can do that, you can produce.’ He was right. And I love it. If I were a millionaire, I’d still want to produce. You know, I’m into that quiet end of the business.
“But the music itself, the recording and performing, is just something I can do; I don’t think about it, really. It’s like when you get up in the morning and wash your face—you just do it. I think about the music only on the level of, well, this is how I could make my living. Like the only thing I can really get out of this business is money. You know what I mean? That’s the only reason I ever decided to get into it on the level that I did.”