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Funk legend and longtime Pittsburgh resident Betty Davis dies at 77

Mike Canton
Mike Canton

Pioneering funk singer and style icon Betty Davis has died.

Davis, who was 77, grew up partly in Pittsburgh and lived the past four decades here. She emerged in 1960s New York as a model and songwriter, and was the second wife of jazz legend Miles Davis. She earned cult status in the 1970s with futuristic stage costumes and a series of raw funk albums including “They Say I’m Different” and “Nasty Gal.”

Davis was born Betty Mabry in North Carolina. Her family moved to Pittsburgh when she was 12. At 16, Davis relocated to New York City, where she enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology, became part of Manhattan’s music, art, and fashion scenes, and met Miles Davis.

Her recording career included three albums and two chart singles, “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” and “Shut Off The Lights.” But by 1979 her recording days had ended, and she returned to Pittsburgh, where she lived largely outside the public eye.

However, recent years have seen a Betty Davis revival of sorts. In 2009, she released “Is It Love or Desire?,” an album of material recorded in 1976 but never previously issued. In 2017, the documentary “Betty: They Say I’m Different” put her back in the spotlight and sparked renewed interest in her music. She is now recognized for her vocals, forthrightly sexual songwriting, and artful stage presence — all considered ahead of their time — as well as for being a big influence on Miles Davis’ career, guiding him, for instance, toward the jazz-rock fusion of albums like 1970’s landmark “Bitches’ Brew.”