AN INTERVIEW WITH DON DAVIS
Don Davis was born on October 25, 1938 in Detroit, and has been influenced by music ever since
he can remember.
"First it was the church. My family went to church three times a week, and the music was to me
the most attractive thing about the church. Then in school I started playing trumpet,
then I went to saxophone, and finally in high school I went to guitar."
Those days his main interest was jazz.
"I did mostly recording sessions, early Motown sessions. When I started playing those sessions,
I eventually was asked to join a label called Thelma Records, which was Berry Gordy's first wife's
record label. Her mother asked me to come in. The first recording session I played on was a
J.J. Barnes recording session called `Won't You Let Me Know' (on Kable in '60).
Thelma's mother was involved in that. Then I went from there to starting my own label which
was a joint venture with Thelma and myself and which was called Daco, which was Davis and Coleman."
Thelma was operating in the early sixties and had, among others, Robert Ward,
recording for it. Daco in '61 had The Fabulous Playboys (aka The Falcons), Little Leon Payne and
Coke Willis & The Gleepers. After Daco Mr. Davis has formed also Groove City and Groovesville
"1960 and '61 were my last years at Motown. Then I went to Indianapolis and stayed there till '64.
There I was in a group called The Psychos, believe it or not. We played various clubs
around Indianapolis. I stayed there for three years, came back and started playing local sets
at home. Then I went to Golden World as an a&r director. I stayed there until it was sold.
Then I went to Stax Records. My first record with Stax was in '67 with Carla Thomas,
`Pick Up The Pieces'."
Those days Don was actively also running his Groovesville label and even had small hits with
Steve Mancha (I Don't Want To Lose You, Don't Make Me A Story Teller) and J.J. Barnes
(Baby Please Come Back Home, Now That I Got You Back).
"I was going through some lows, when J.J. was leaving my label. Then a disc jockey named
Wash Allen called me and asked me to meet Al Bell at Stax Records. We got together
and put together `Pick Up The Pieces'."
The biggest success Don, however, had with Johnnie Taylor (starting from Who's Making Love)
and The Dramatics. "I gave them a release in '68, but I signed them back in '70
and brought them to Stax. I signed them up, because I had Tony Hester in there, and I
thought he would do a good job on them."
Don was also dealing with another magnificent group, The Dells. "The Dells was always
one of my favourite groups. I gave their label (Chess/Cadet) a call one day and said
'hey, listen, I'd like to cut a record on Dells. I'll pay for it, and if I get a hit,
I want 25 000 dollars'. They said 'that's fine, we'll make it fifty thousand
if you get a hit and you'll do the whole album'. So I cut a record `Give Your Baby A
Standing Ovation' (a gold record in '73). Then, of course, I did The Dells and
The Dramatics together."
Don hit platinum with Johnnie Taylor's Disco Lady and gold with Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr.
on You Don't Have To Be A Star, both in '76. "Marilyn was very disgruntled in the way
I operated. She felt that since I didn't come exactly on time, I wasn't worthy of producing
another record. Also, when the first album came out, Billy Davis had produced another
record that had nothing to do with my production. Without letting me know they put
that other record out, until the record company demanded they take it off.
She also felt that instead of me cutting twelve sides for the first album,
they would only use ten, and the other two exercised I should pay for.
It was a lot of little nip picking, which let me know that she was just basically
dissatisfied. So they went to another producer, and that was the end of that."
Don has also worked with David Ruffin, Cissy Houston, Ronnie McNeir and Bobby Womack.
"Bobby was always one of my favourite artists. I've always wanted to do him. He was very
cooperative with me, enjoyed it, but I just couldn't get a hit record on him.
I also did in those years Robin Trower (out of Procol Harum). I had a couple of
gold albums with him, but that was, of course, rock 'n' roll.
In the eighties, when there was the disco era and it was sort of like the dark ages moving
over to music, as far as I was concerned, I was getting out of the music business. I still
have the United Sound studio, and the biggest user is George Clinton.
We do other artists rent-only, Aretha Franklin, Anita Baker, The Winans."
Don names Gordon Lightfood's '70 hit, If You Could Read My Mind, his favourite tune together
with Ray Charles' album version of Drown In My Own Tears. Of his own production
his number one is Johnnie Taylor's I Believe In You. He thinks highly of
Luther Vandross, the old Wilson Pickett and the old Aretha stuff, Bobby Womack,
"but the most outstanding, the most accomplished and the gifted one would probably be Ray Charles."
"Today, as far as the black music is concerned, the real power singers and the idiosyncratic
singers like Johnnie Taylor have pretty much passed through an era they were once in favour.
That era has yielded to another one, rap movement and music that is very techno, the records
that do not depend on vocalist but depend on music style."
© Heikki Suosalo
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