Born in 1945 according to most sources (though she claims 1944), Betty Mabry grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and just outside Pittsboro. On her grandmother’s farm in Reidsville, North Carolina, she listened to B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, and Elmore James and other blues musicians. One of the first songs she wrote, at the age of twelve, was called “I’m Going to Bake That Cake of Love.”
Aged 16, she left Pittsboro for New York City, enrolling at the Fashion Institute of Technology while living with her aunt. She soaked up the Greenwich Village culture and folk music of the early 1960s. She associated herself with frequenters of the Cellar, a hip uptown club where young and stylish people congregated. It was a multiracial, artsy crowd of models, design students, actors, and singers. At the Cellar she played records and chatted people up. She also worked as a model, appearing in photo spreads in Seventeen, Ebony and Glamour.
In her time in New York, she met several musicians including Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. The seeds of her musical career were planted through her friendship with soul singer Lou Courtney, who produced her first single, “The Cellar” with simple, catchy lyrics like, “Where you going fellas, so fly? / I’m going to the Cellar, my oh my / What you going to do there / We’re going to boogaloo there.”
The single was a local jam for the Cellar. Yet her first professional gig was not until she wrote “Uptown (to Harlem)” for the Chambers Brothers. Their 1967 album was a major success, but Betty Mabry was focusing on her modeling career. She was successful as a model but felt bored by the work. According to Oliver Wang’s They Say I’m Different liner notes, she said, “I didn’t like modeling because you didn’t need brains to do it. It’s only going to last as long as you look good.”