BILLY DAVIS (1932 - 2004): A & R Man at Chess Records during the Golden Age of Chicago Soul
Billy Davis, the Detroit songwriter and producer turned advertising executive, has died at age 72 at his home in New Rochelle, New York, following a lengthy illness. He was predeceased by his wife, Patricia Hardy, who died in 2003, and is survived by his son, Shawn, and his sister, Gladys Adams.
Early in his career, he worked with a number of R&B stars, writing and producing hit records, notably for Jackie Wilson, and subsequently for Motown and Chess, two of the most significant labels in the history of black American music. Later, Davis helped to write one of the most famous TV jingles of the 1970s, 'I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke', and went on to become a senior figure in the American advertising industry.
Roquel (Billy) Davis was born on July 11th, 1932, in Detroit, where he attended Northern High School, Wayne State University and the Maurice King School of Music. His early musical experience had its roots in that city, with its vigorous scene, and in his extended family. "My career started early, singing on street corners," he said in an interview. "There was a doo-wop group for every neighborhood and talent shows every week." In the early 1950s, a cousin, Lawrence Payton, started a group called the Four Aims. Davis, who acted as their manager, recorded a demo of them singing his songs 'Kiss Me Baby', 'Could It Be You' and 'All My Life', and sent them to the Chicago-based Chess Records. Although Chess was more enthusiastic about Davis's original material than the group itself, it signed the Four Aims to the label in 1956, changing their name to the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers. The company released one Davis-penned single by the group, but it flopped, and they soon returned to Detroit. Chess gave several of his compositions to its other artists, including 'See Saw', a hit for the Moonglows, and 'A Kiss From Your Lips', recorded by the Flamingos.
Back in Detroit, Davis began dating Gwen Gordy, the sister of rising local songwriter and entrepreneur, Berry Gordy Jr. Using the pseudonym Tyran Carlo, he and Berry Gordy began writing songs, including 'Reet Petite', 'Lonely Teardrops', 'That's Why (I Love You So)', 'To Be Loved' and 'I'll Be Satisfied', all hits for Jackie Wilson, another of Davis's cousins. At first, writing for Wilson was reward enough in itself. "We didn't even know we were supposed to be paid," he told The Detroit News last year. When Davis and Gordy finally asked for money, it caused a break with Wilson's manager, and the two struck out on their own.
In 1958, Davis and Gwen Gordy started Anna Records, named after another of the Gordy sisters, while Berry Gordy followed suit with the Tamla label the following year. The Tyran Carlo/Berry Gordy songwriting partnership continued with numbers like the Miracles' 'Got A Job', 'Jim Dandy Got Married' by LaVern Baker, 'Who Wouldn't Love A Man Like That' by Mabel John and 'You Got What It Takes', a big hit for Marv Johnson late in 1959. Davis and Gordy also jointly managed the Miracles and Marv Johnson. Barrett Strong's 'Money (That's What I Want)' was released first by Tamla, and then on the Anna label, which enjoyed better distribution via Chess, resulting in a national hit. Eventually, the Anna label and its artists were absorbed by Motown.
When, in 1960, Etta James recorded 'All I Could Do Was Cry', another Carlo/Gordy song, its success prompted Davis's switch to Chess to head up their A&R department. Other Billy Davis compositions cut by Etta James would include 'Seven Day Fool', 'Pushover', ''Pay Back', 'Two Sides (To Every Story)' and 'In The Basement', a duet with Sugar Pie DeSanto. Chess, which had been strongly associated with the blues via the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, was looking to shift into the emerging soul market: Billy Davis was its man. His first role at the company was running the short-lived Check-Mate label out of Detroit, releasing singles by many artists that would later find fame at Motown. Davis relocated to Chicago in 1962 and set about building for Chess an in-house team of writers, arrangers, producers and musicians. During the mid-'60s he produced and/or wrote many great recordings by the Dells, Billy Stewart, Mitty Collier, Jackie Ross, Litttle Milton, the Gems (from which sprang Minnie Riperton), Tony Clarke, Laura Lee, Jan Bradley, Joy Lovejoy and many others. He had his biggest hit in 1965 when he produced Fontella Bass's classic 'Rescue Me', modelled closely on the Motown sound.
These records caught the attention of the McCann-Erickson Agency in New York, who tempted Davis to join them in 1968. Soul music's loss was the advertising world's gain. The company was one of the first to take pop music seriously as a way to sell consumer goods. Davis helped create a jingle for Coca Cola based on 'Mom, True Love And Apple Pie', a song by British writers Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. Recorded under the title 'I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke', the song was a failure when it was first played on the radio in 1971, but when it was re-recorded for a television spot, this time sung by an enormous children's chorus, it caught on. Later, Davis rewrote it as 'I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony)', as recorded by the Hillside Singers and the New Seekers. His other successful jingles included 'It's The Real Thing', 'Have A Coke And A Smile', 'Coke Is It' and 'Things Go Better With Coke', as well as others for Nescafé, Miller Beers, Sony and Nabisco. He eventually rose to senior vice-president and music director at McCann-Erickson.
But Pepsi, not Coca Cola, was the beverage of choice when he was a teenager, he told the Detroit Free Press, because a Pepsi Cola was a nickel, while it took two to buy a Coke.
(Compiled by Mick Patrick from various online obituaries and other sources, including the books Chicago Soul by Robert Pruter [University Of Illinois Press, 1991] and To Be Loved [Headline Books, 1994], the autobiography of Berry Gordy, Jr.)
Roquel (Billy) Davis, songwriter, producer and advertising executive: born July 11, 1932 - died September 2, 2004
We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.
Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.
Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.
Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.
Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.