GREENSBORO — "Funk Queen" Betty Davis, with her daring personality and sense of style, was a pioneer for artists who couldn't be easily categorized.
Her former husband, the late and legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, once called her "Madonna before Madonna."
Backing Davis in the 1970s was a group of twentysomethings looking to make their mark. They didn't know it at the time, but they would become pioneers, too: Carlos Morales (guitar), Fred "Funki" Mills (keyboards and vocals), Nickey Neal (drums) and Larry Johnson (guitar) — all hailing from her native North Carolina.
Morales, who died in May, was the only one from Greensboro. The other three were from Reidsville. Morales would use his time with Davis as a launching pad to play with Julian Lennon, Natalie Cole and other well-known entertainers while living between California and London.
Suffering from chronic lung disease, he came back to Greensboro in recent years where he quietly lived out the rest of his life.
In a post on Facebook, Lennon said Morales gave him "some of the best memories anyone could ever have."
This weekend, Mills and others are coming together in Greensboro to celebrate Morales with a musical tribute. That event coincides with the North Carolina premiere of "Betty: They Say I'm Different," a documentary about Davis that includes footage of Morales and the rest of the band.
Ticket sales will benefit the guitarist's parents, who are both in their 90s and live near N.C. A&T.
"A lot of people in Greensboro," Mills said, "didn't know how far he went."
'He had a drive'
Morales, who played tuba with the Page High School marching band and briefly attended A&T, was a natural on the guitar.
"Most every musician realizes or knows that we didn't choose music, music chose us," Mills explained.
The easy-going Morales had musical tastes ranging from Jimi Hendrix to The Beatles, who he had seen on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Born Carlton Jr., to audiences he was known as Carlos.
"He had a drive," Morales' younger brother Michael said, "about being something more than a guy who played guitar here and there."
Davis, who was from Durham but as a youngster spent summers in Reidsville with her grandmother, had already put together a touring band in 1975 when she went looking for another guitarist and found Morales. At the time, he was honing his skills in nightclubs across the state with a Greensboro group called the Mighty Majors.
"He had rhinestone eyeglasses," recalled Mills, who lives in Durham. "He always seemed ready for the big stage."
Once they started playing for Davis, things moved very quickly for Morales, Mills and the rest of the band.
"She was kind of like our big sister and she knew everybody," Mills said.
While on the road, it wasn't uncommon for the band to find themselves rubbing shoulders with celebrities such as comedian Richard Pryor, boxer Muhammad Ali and actor Roger Moore.
When Davis wasn't touring, the group found a lot of work playing colleges and nightclubs on the East Coast under the name Funkhouse, and would become trailblazers in the funk era.
"It was their first success on their own," said Phil Cox, the director and producer of "Betty: They Say I'm Different."
Having already been established as "Betty's band," they got calls to open up for different acts, including funk groups Mother's Finest and Graham Central Station.
After Davis was dropped by her record label, she decided to take a break from the music industry — which is chronicled in the documentary.
Meanwhile, the guys still found themselves in demand. That was until disco became popular.
It was the end of one era and the start of another.
"You never think it's going to stop," Mills said, "and then it does."
'Carlos, this is Julian Lennon'
The band went their separate ways, finding new projects and ways to collaborate with other artists.
Morales left for California and later London, and concentrated on performing as well as writing music.
Eventually, he would get the chance to write and record with John Lennon's son, Julian, among other established artists.
"It was kind of like fate — or whatever you want to call it — put them together," Michael Morales said.
According to Michael, a mutual acquaintance introduced his brother to Lennon. "He said, 'Carlos, this is Julian Lennon. Julian, this is the best guitarist I've heard in my life.'"
A 1980s article in Rolling Stone magazine references Morales as a constant personal and professional presence in Lennon's life, with notable contributions on his first album, which solidified the British singer's status as more than the son of an icon.
"Carlos co-wrote three songs on that album and Julian recognized him, but he didn't take care of his money, which happens a lot in this business," Mills said.
Mills, a Vietnam veteran who served two tours before being hired by Davis at 28, retired from performing in 2014 not long after being diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
The band came back to Greensboro in 2016 — after not having been in the same room for decades — as Cox was putting the documentary together.
"There was just this loving energy between them," Cox said of the footage.
Between 2018 and 2019, the band performed together after screenings of the documentary to help promote the film.
It was this past spring in Canada when Mills last saw Morales, who was noticeably frail.
"I kind of kick myself because I didn't pay attention like I should have," Mills said.
Mills recalled later sending Morales a text about an article he saw that mentioned Funkhouse. Morales never responded.
By then, his parents were taking care of him.
And then Morales was gone at age 65.
Michael Morales recently saw footage of the band's performance at a music festival in France that had been posted to YouTube.
Performances of "Betty's band" backing Davis is racking up millions of views on the channel.
"It’s good that they are getting the recognition that I think they deserve," Michael Morales said. "That style of music ... that was the basis of funk. Carlos and Fred and those guys, they were right in the middle of it."
Sunday's benefit will be a reunion of the band without Morales. But they'll reminisce as if he were there.
"I think he would say," Mills believes, "it was a great journey."