It's nearly 9 p.m. on a damp day's night. The Eastpointe record store Melodies and Memories is all but empty, save for manager Gary, and he's 15 mouthfuls deep into his ninth story of the evening, when this tall black dude steps in through the store's double door. The manager's face fixes on him.
Gary quickly steps over to shake this guy's hand.
"Gary, my man," the tall guy replies. His voice is rugged. He strolls in with a certain grace, like he could be a man of 70, but his face looks years younger. He has these killer muttonchops and his coif is perfect, as if he had just stepped out of a Motown studio circa 1959. He has old-school flash, a sense of style reserved for the very few who can actually pull it off. It's not every day you see a cat like this.
"Do you know who that is?" Gary asks, his face beaming. "That's Billy Davis!" Davis nods in kind, rather modestly.
"Ask any blues guy about Billy Davis," Gary continues. "They'll tell you he's the real deal. The cat played with Hank Ballard during the '50s, '60s. Monster guitarist. And with a million stories." Gary nudges Davis' arm. "Hey Billy, tell us the Hendrix story." Davis looks up from digging through a pile of Motown DVDs, turns toward us, brushes his knuckles across his goatee, and says, "Well, back during that time, in 1959, we recorded a song that Stevie Ray Vaughan had a big hit on some years back in the '80s called 'Look at Little Sister.' "We [Hank Ballard and the Midnighters] had recorded that, and it was big, so a lot of musicians came out to our shows, especially to see what I was doing; I had a double solo on the song. And some college kids came out, they chartered a bus. And they told me: 'We just came out to see what you play in person because on the record it sounds like you're playing a violin or something.' That was in Seattle, and Jimi [Hendrix] happened to be there."
Davis continues, "Jimi found our trumpet player, Pat Paterson, and pleaded with him to meet the guitar player. Now, I'm in the dressing room — and the room's full of beautiful chicks — and Pat comes and tells me: 'Man, there's a guy out here that wants to meet you.' See, [Jimi] just kept bugging him. Pat came back about two or three times, and he's like, 'Please come and just say something to him, he is just bugging me.' So, I walked out into the hallway and Jimi's standing there with a big smile on his face. We started talking and, next thing I knew, before I left, he'd invited me to his house to meet his father. And I went over there. Why I did it, to this very day, I don't know, because I had never seen the kid before in my life. But, it was just something about him. He had a real beautiful smile and just looked like a good-hearted person and I just took to him."
Gary cuts in. "You taught him how to play?" Davis looks at him and his reserved countenance stays unchanged — it's as if he doesn't get excited about much, and this is just another dusty story out of his past. But his silent look says everything. Gary collapses into laughter.
"Fuck, that's incredible," Gary says. "Man, Billy's like some living legend, huh?"
It's true, this guy Billy Davis has done of a lot of things, once popular as a guitarist to stars.
In fact, his personal recording and performing history reads like a laundry list of some soul and R&B greats, from David Ruffin to Jackie Wilson to Martha & the Vandellas. He was a session man in Memphis at Willie Mitchell's Hi Records. He was best pals with James Brown, hobnobbed with B.B. King and, later, white-boy blues fanatic Bruce Willis. Sam Cooke was a fan. He helped teach Chubby Checker dance moves for "The Twist" early on. He pissed off Berry Gordy, and later rode around Manhattan in the back of limos with his friend Jimi Hendrix, who stayed in close contact with Davis until his 1970 death.
Davis was a Midnighters front guy, just behind Hank Ballard, from 1959 until when Ballard pulled the plug in 1965. (Davis came aboard when the group re-formed in the '80s.) He played on many of Ballard's million-sellers. And he could dance, while hitting all the right guitar notes, like a mofo. He was a chick-magnet too, and some nicknamed him "the Face" because of his striking good looks.
Davis was a superstar sideman then, with big tours and big records, but he wasn't so lucky as solo artist — a "bridesmaid never a bride" sort of thing. His major label solo deals, with A&M and Buddha Records, went nowhere a long time ago.
Davis's one-story Southfield home is littered with pricey trinkets and rock 'n' roll memorabilia, all rich with personal significance and collected from his years of touring. Davis is divorced now, and he shares the house with his 30-year-old son. On a tour of the home, the guitarist arrives at what's perhaps his most prized artifact, which sits on his made bed in a back bedroom. It's a sunburst Fender Jazzmaster guitar. Davis picks it up and lifts it slightly to an upward angle, maybe so the light will shine just right. "You know," Davis says, "when Hendrix got big, this is the guitar he gave me."
Later, while sitting comfortably in his living room, Davis reminisces about one particular night when he was 4 years old, the moment he says he "found his calling." He was rolling down a Memphis street in a cab with his mother.
"There was a blues singer called Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup," Davis says. "He had a record out called 'That's All Right.' And we were riding in the cab and it was playing and it just did something to me."
Crudup penned "That's All Right" in 1946, a song Elvis Presley's covered eight years later for his first single. The strained tenor and country-fried Delta blues rhythms of Crudup struck Davis hard. Hearing the song that night set in motion absolute career aspirations of a little Memphis boy.
Soon after he got addicted to Memphis radio, "I was listening ... constantly. I knew I had to play [guitar]."
J.C. "Billy" Davis grew up in Detroit, and, like so many here who preceded him, he was a Southern transplant, from Memphis, Tenn. His first name, J.C., doesn't signify anything, he says. He was called Billy for most his young life.
His pop was a farmer and had moved the family to Detroit, principally for a job. Davis' mom had found janitorial work around the city while Dad eventually became a minister — and stayed one until his 2009 death at 92.
The family had settled into Detroit's Black Bottom neighborhood in the mid-1940s. It was a fitting hood for kid Davis; this gritty, mostly African-American enclave near downtown was anchored by Hastings street, which housed Detroit's most fertile artists. With its high number of homegrown musicians proliferating its blocks, and music in the air at night, it didn't take Davis long to find a guitar and begin playing at 14.
Bosie Gatlin was one guy there who opened Davis' eyes.
"He used to sit out in the summertime with his guitar," Davis says, "his amp hooked up, just playing his tail off."
The awestruck kid would hang at Gatlin's home, sitting, listening and taking in all the blues the man could give. One day Gatlin taught Davis Muddy Waters' "Baby, Please Don't Go." It was a Davis fave, and Waters was a musician he was ready to emulate. "After he taught me how to do that, I was on my way then."
The Gatlin guitar lessons became part of Davis' daily routine. (Bosie Gatlin is still alive and plays frequently at a local church.)
Now, armed with a few licks, and having just graduated from Detroit's Miller High School, the 17-year-old hustled together some cats and formed his first serious band, called Billy Davis & the Upsetters.
The Upsetters became soon-to-be Motown founder Berry Gordy's first in-house live band, backing up artists Gordy was managing or looking at, such as Smokey Robinson and Marv Johnson. "[We were] before the Funk Brothers," he recalls." We did a lot of work for Berry, cabarets and stuff like that. He wasn't paying us anything for these little things, but he always said: 'Stick with me. If I make it, you guys will make it.'"
(Now, if you were to Google "Billy Davis" alongside "Motown," you'll most likely come across Roquel "Billy" Davis, the Motown songwriter and producer who also headed the A&R department at Chess records. That Davis died in 2004. J.C. Billy Davis met Gordy around 1956, and he wasn't a childhood friend as has been written.)
"One day, we were gonna play a gig for Berry Gordy," Davis says, his lips curving down into a frown. "We were all young guys, around 18, 19 and I had this bass player who was about 21. My bass player got with the other guys and told them: 'I'm tired of playing for Berry for nothing. Tell Berry he's gonna have to pay us or tell Billy we're not gonna do it.' So they wait until the day we're supposed to do the gig and they call me, ranting: 'Unless he comes up with some money, we ain't gonna do it!' So, I called Berry and told him about the situation. He then told me something I never will forget, words that just stuck in my mind. It was the first time I had ever heard that phrase. 'Your word is your bond!'"
Davis pleaded with Gordy — by then, was laying the foundations for Tamla and Motown — and Gordy turned a deaf ear. "I can't make these guys play, I tried to tell him. But that was it. We didn't do the gig and that destroyed our relationship as far as business."
Davis claims the event didn't much damage his friendship with Gordy. "We would hang out together, but he would never talk business. When I would mention it, he would put his hands to his ears saying, 'I don't wanna hear it, Billy. I don't wanna hear it.'"
After the Gordy fiasco, Davis moved on. In 1958, the teen guitarist was still hoping to make it big. He formed a few local groups and played clubs around the city. He was gaining some local notoriety until one day he was approached by some shady characters with "connections."
"There was a guy, a hustler-type guy, a pimp, and he wanted to be our manager," Davis says. "We didn't have money, so we let him manage us. But he knew a lot of other people and he knew this group called Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, a very hot group at the time. So he brought one of the guys from the Midnighters, Henry Booth, out.
"After the show, [Booth] says that the Midnighters were looking for a guitar player and asked if I was interested. I thought he was just pulling my leg; I didn't take it seriously. But, [later,] he called me up."
It turns out that Ballard's guitarist Cal Green had been picked up by the cops, clamped on a pot bust, so Davis was invited to audition for the vacant spot in the lineup.
Davis was a student of the Midnighters sound, and he promptly aced the local audition.
A few days later, they called Davis and asked if he could be ready ... ASAP. "I'm still not believing this," Davis says. "I'm thinking: 'These guys ain't coming here.'"
In 1959, Ballard and the Midnighters were already an established group. The fresh-faced 18-year-old guitarist was literally stepping directly into stardom, was suddenly lifted out his Black Bottom neighborhood into one the most innovative R&B acts of the '50s and '60s, a complete show and a proven hit-making machine. The Midnighters had buses full of fans following them from city to city.
It should be noted that Davis was considered an actual "Midnighter" alongside the singers, and not a member of the backing band, because of his ability his play and do routines simultaneously. At the time the backing group included bandlander, tenor sax player Hank Moore, trumpeter Pat Patterson, drummer George DeHart and bassist Navorro Hastings. And the actual Midnighters were Ballard, Henry Booth, Sonny Woods, Freddie Pride (replaced in 1960 by Lawson Smith), Norman Thrasher and J.C. "Billy" Davis.
John Henry Kendricks, aka Hank Ballard, was so far ahead of the pop curve that his mores-challenging lyrics and pre-funk rhythms often got his songs (such as 1953's "Get it," "Annie Had a Baby," "Sexy Ways") banned from radio play by the FCC, on both black and white radio, for being offensive. It was because of black R&B groups like Ballard that white radio often refused to play black R&B. Still, Ballard is rightly, and widely, considered one of the first true rock 'n' rollers. His backing crew, the Midnighters — a group that grew out of Ballard's previous '50s combo the Royals — performed with seemingly effortless, professional musicianship and incredible dance moves.
In 1958, Ballard also wrote what's arguably his most famous song, "The Twist," and invented its dance. It was only a B-side to "Teardrops on My Letter," a cut that reached No. 4 in 1959 on the R&B charts. A year later, Chubby Checker's version hit No. 1. Checker went to the Midnighters to learn "The Twist" moves.
The song was huge dance hit, but according to nearly every documented source, it was recorded in 1958, a year before Davis signed on. The song's copyright only mentions writer Ballard, but Green was more than likely the guitarist.
"It was me on 'The Twist,'" Davis insists. "At least the version that was released. Cal Green did do a version of it, but I was on the one released by King [Records]."
"The Twist," of course, changed culture. "Now, most people remember his [version]," Davis says, "but when you meet collectors, they know we really did it."
Ballard and the Midnighters toured incessantly, often lighting up the Chitlin' Circuit, the string of clubs and bars in the South and East that served as an entertainment pipeline for black artists at the time. And, as Davis says, his spot in the Midnighters allowed him to turn up the amps and "let 'em fry."
Now, both Davis and Ballard grew up in Detroit and were Southern transplants — Ballard was from Bessemer, Ala. Geologically, Ballard and Davis had to be on similar wavelengths. It was probably why Davis says Ballard allowed him to crank his guitar up and integrate feedback into the group's rock 'n' roll — one of the first to do so — and Davis says he discovered feedback by "accident," while messing around.
Davis also says that when he was with Gordy, his feedback would always stick in Gordy's craw. Though Davis never recorded with the Motown founder, he says that "Gordy had a lot of people around at the time, like Smokey, but Gordy just was doing cabarets and stuff like that. It wasn't a big thing yet. But Gordy said the feedback was just noise. So when I got with Hank Ballard, I got a chance to do it." Davis may have had his amp cranked onstage, but those guitar wails never made it to any of the seven Midnighters' albums he played on, from 1959's Singin' and Swingin' through 1965's Those Lazy, Lazy Days.
Ballard had three lead guitarists through the late '50s up until the group's 1965 dissolution. First, there was Arthur Porter. Later, Ballard enlisted Cal Green, who's the most important guitar figure in the saga of Hank Ballard, his distinctively raw and blazing leads simply oozed out of the Midnighters' mid- to late '50s hits. After Green's pot bust, Davis was picked up in 1959. Green returned to the band in 1961, but jumped ship a month later because the group had developed a completely different dynamic. Davis says he and Green, who died in 2004, stayed friends.
Davis became a real showman not long after joining the Midnighters. He had this energetic stage presence, accented with spins, twirls and flips.
"It was just a spontaneous feeling," Davis says of performing. "I can't really plan, like a lot of guys. I just go straight by the way I feel. My inspiration was T-Bone Walker. He'd be playing his guitar down low like he's doin' the splits. And there was another guy, Eddie Curtman. He was a local Detroiter and I had known him since I was a teenager. He was the first one I ever saw do a back-over flip with a guitar, you know? That impressed me a lot, and I used to do that too. But, all that other stuff — playing with my teeth — one night I just started doing it. Didn't plan it, didn't know what I was doing or how it was gonna come out. What I was doing on stage was something nobody was doing. Hank didn't tell me what to do."
In fact, Ballard would give Davis 30 minutes to open the shows. He'd go out and do flips and bite guitar strings. It's no wonder guys like Jimi Hendrix became huge fans. If Davis had a diverse bag of onstage tricks, he considered himself a guitarist first and a performer second. "Guitar was my thing," Davis says. "I grew up wanting to learn it. Doing tricks was just an expression of my love for guitar."
Davis had met the teenaged Jimi Hendrix back in 1959, in Seattle, becoming a sort of mentor to the future legend, teaching him what he knew about guitar, becoming to Hendrix what old Boise Gatlin was to him.
Expanding on the tale, Davis says, "I used to take my Strat and we'd mess around. He didn't have an [electric] guitar at the time. He had a little acoustic. I used to go to his house and show him stuff, and he just fell in love with it."
According to Hendrix historian Steven Roby, co-author (with Brad Schreiber) of the upcoming Hendrix book, Becoming Jimi Hendrix: The Untold Story of a Musical Genius, Davis was thought of highly by not only Hendrix, but his friends as well.
"While interviewing others in the book, Mr. Davis' name kept coming up," Roby says. "People would say, 'Oh, I hadn't thought of him in years. How is he?'"
Lithofayne Pridgon, Hendrix's girlfriend from 1963 to 1966, also remembers Davis. "She spoke highly of him," Roby continues. "And that he was good friend of Jimi's."
Davis also met B.B. King, one his own personal heroes, in '59 and bonded with him over a fifth of Cutty Sark. "That was the greatest," Davis says. "His was playing in Atlanta, Ga., at the Magnolia Ballroom, and we were playing some other place in Atlanta. .... But I was telling people, 'Man, I want to meet B.B. King!' I was excited."
The young guitarist went down and met King at the Magnolia. "I'm nervous," Davis says. "In my head, I'm freaking out." But King and Davis wound up killing a fifth of Cutty Sark. "And me and him got to arguing over who'd buy the next one."
Davis stayed in contact with King over the years. "We've remained friends ever since that first meeting.
Heading into the '60s, Ballard and the Midnighters dropped two more R&B chart-toppers "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go" and "Finger Poppin' Time."
Davis says he slowly became Hank's right-hand man. He talks of the events that led to the creation of the Grammy-nominated song "Finger Poppin' Time": "One time we were in something of a café down in the South. We were getting something to eat one day and a lady came in. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her and one guy says: 'Hey, girl, what's going on?' She said, 'Oh, nothing, baby. It's finger poppin' time!' So, Hank looked at me and said, wide-eyed: 'Did you hear what she said? I'm gonna make a song off that!' So, he wrote it down and when we got back to the hotel he tells me to go get my guitar and we end up making 'Finger Popppin' Time' and that goes on to become a Top 10 hit."
Davis was never credited as a songwriter on "Finger Poppin' Time" or any other Midnighters song. In fact, most of the Midnighters never received songwriting credit and, consequently, never received royalties either.
Most recording artists in those days didn't much pay attention to details, such as what they actually contributed to the writing of a song. Davis says that beginning in late '58, when the band switched from Federal to the King label, Ballard began having everything under his name. So aside from live performances and touring earnings, the Midnighters only received money for recording sessions paid by the union; they got no song or album royalties.
Around 1960, Davis had also cut a solo side, — "Spunky Onions," a modified version of a live Midnighters instrumental — after being coaxed by his band mates to do it. They knew Don Robey, the legendary exec-songwriter who had a reputation for fostering talent in blues and R&B artists. He founded the Peacock and Duke labels in Houston.
The moonlighting Midnighters called themselves Billy Davis & the Legends for this one-off.
"When we went in to record it," Davis says, "Sonny, the bass singer, put the words to it. He called it 'Funky Onions.'" In the social atmosphere of the early 1960s "funky" was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser to the suits. "Now, the guy that owned the company asked us, you know, 'What's the name of the song?' 'Ah, it's called 'Funky Onions.' He's like; 'Funky? Oh, naw, you can't use that! You gotta come up with something else, something clean.' He wouldn't let us use it. So Sonny kept kicking it around. He came up with 'spunky'. He said let's called it 'Spunky Onions'. And they recorded it. But, just a few years later, everybody was using the word funky, but they wouldn't let us use it then!"
Suddenly, in 1962, Davis got drafted and shipped off to Ft. Knox, Ky., for basic training before heading to South Korea for 13 months. His star booty had to be put down. Sort of. While stationed, he'd entertain, playing the service clubs, and his commanding officers would send for him because they knew he could play country music. "And they'd be around drinking, these captains and lieutenants."
While stationed, Davis got Jimi Hendrix to take his spot in the Midnighters. "When I got drafted, Jimi went to the paratroopers and got out on a medical. Davis convinced Ballard to audition Hendrix as his replacement. Ballard did. Hendrix got the gig, but it was short-lived. Hendrix soon got the boot.
"They called me back," Davis laughs, "telling me that guy can't play! Well, Jimi played with a lot of people, but he'd always blow it because he'd go up front and interfere with them." Davis pauses, considers for a moment, and then he says, "When he became a superstar, we were just like we were before," he says. "He never changed. Despite his fame and all that, he never let it go to his head."
Davis returned from South Korea, and by then Ballard and the Midnighters' hit-making power had begun to wane. The Beatles and his old friend Gordy had changed culture in the months he was away. Returning was like stepping into another world. Davis rejoined the group, but, by 1965, the Midnighters were relying on touring to support themselves. Davis was making about $100 to $150 bucks a night then, a figure that steadily dwindled to near pennies as the band lost steam.
Money issues finally caught up with the band. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters were done, after 12 albums and dozens of singles, at a gig in the Bahamas.
"Hank had drew up all the money in advance and he had worked the band for two weeks doing a few shows a night," Davis remembers. "When it came time to pay, Hank didn't have any money to pay out and it had got physical, and if it wasn't for the security guards, Hank would have got it bad from the band, because they roughed him up. Because of that, Davis says, this version of the Midnighters would never come together again."
Billy Davis split for Memphis, Tenn. Budding Producer and vice president of Hi Records Willie Mitchell (he would soon become responsible for Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ann Peebles and others) hired the guitarist as a kind of session man. Davis was eager to do some experimenting.
" [This] was before Al Green came in," Davis says. "I'd found out about the wah-wah pedal. So, I took it to the studio and I said, 'Man, this is a new sound, nobody's doing it. I wanna use this on my stuff.' They told me that it wasn't the Memphis sound. I told him: 'This is going to be big.' I argued with him for weeks, but he wouldn't let me do it. So, I told myself that I just wouldn't use any effects. I didn't get it out there when I wanted to. Other people had used it years later and would tell me that I was trying to copy from them. But I wasn't. That's why, to this very day, I don't use it."
At Hi records, Davis never recorded anything big; rather, he just played with a thing Mitchell had where he'd bring in impersonators of big name music figures. It was a very short-lived gig.
Undaunted, Davis decided go it alone, wandering through studio gigs and session shows. His country-blues style was suddenly in demand. Davis camped out in New York, freelancing to whomever. He played with Jackie Wilson and Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, among others. Most of star liaisons were onstage bookings, but Davis recorded too, and says that's his lead on Wilson's "Higher and Higher."
In New York, Davis met manager and songstress Bunny Jones, who used her connections to help ink several record deals for Davis. A&M released his first solo single "You Put Me in a Groove," in 1968. The song had that same ballroom-floor rumble blues of Arthur Crudup, wrapping it around the jump soul he'd perfected with Ballard. The single had promise, but A&M had a problem: the label didn't know what to call the music. His solo cuts weren't quite R&B nor were they pure rock 'n' roll, nor were they strictly blues, soul or country. The sound landed somewhere between the raw pop-soul of early Motown and the blues of John Lee Hooker, with some James Brown funk and a bit of Bakersfield country thrown in: Sawdust vocals and sharp, precise guitar attacks.
"They tried to out me as an R&B artist, but then people would hear it and they didn't know what to think," Davis says.
"You Put Me in a Groove" dropped to zero fanfare. So A&M balked and dropped Davis.
The guitarist was not happy.
A year later, he cut a single with Buddha records and released "Stanky (Get Funky)." The tune was an ode to his guitar, showcasing the same biting staccato he'd honed with the Midnighters. It was funk infused with James Brown-ish horn bleats and slinky bass lines. Again, Buddha didn't know what to do with Davis and "Stanky (Get Funky)" flopped. Buddha canceled his deal.
The single, however, has become a bit of a collector's item in England, one of the more sought-after 45s, fetching upward of $200 dollars when it swaps hands.
"Now, I was with A&M, I was with Buddha, and they didn't know how to categorize me," he says. "It's just recently that people had begun to tell me. Jackie Wilson told me first, because I played with him. He said, 'It's got a country feel to it.' But I didn't know it. I grew up listening to country and blues and I had no idea that it had that kind of effect. People to this day tell me the same thing. 'Even when you do that hard blues, it's still got some country.' But I had no idea."
Davis took to drinking and women over the years, the former was a "problem," he says, that lasted into the 1990s, but Davis swears the booze never got in the way of his life and music. He says he never had a drug problem, but had done his fair share of uppers for the tours and long nights. He is an admitted womanizer, and claims to have had affairs with both Zola Taylor of the Platters and singer LaVern Baker while she was still married to comedian Slappy White.
But by the early '70s, everything had changed, and Davis was back in Detroit. The musical hardships and attendant hard living slowly sucked out the guitarist's desire to play. Davis married in 1972 and he slowly moved away from music, and eventually had two kids.
There is some bitterness when Davis looks back: "When I was with Berry Gordy back in the early days, with the band and my guitar and the feedback and all that stuff, he'd tell me: 'Man, we can't sell that type of stuff!' And I see, years later, that became the thing. But when I did it, nobody wanted to sell it."
By 1980, he had completely removed himself from music and would only sparingly pop up for the occasional local gig. His business relationship and personal friendship with Hank Ballard had all but disintegrated. Ballard became known for not being the most accountable musician; he'd cause canceled shows and late appearances. "It seemed like Hank was always a bit afraid of getting too big," Davis says. "When things were going too well, he would always do something to screw it up." The two hadn't spoken to each other in a more than a decade.
And for Ballard, James Brown had helped the lithe singer out by producing his great 1969 solo R&B funk album, You Can't Keep a Good Man Down, which promptly died on the vine. But after that, Davis says, Ballard simply "drifted into obscurity."
Then one day Sam and Dave called, sometime in the mid-1980s. "They called me up and they wanted me to back them up somewhere, and James Brown just happened to be the headliner. I hadn't seen James since the '70s. We were talking and James asks me: 'Billy, why don't you and Hank get back together?' I didn't know how to find him. James goes: 'Well, I got his phone number.' So, I called Hank and we started the group all over again. We got some Midnighters out in L.A. and started touring just like we did in the '60s." The re-formed group didn't record, but toured steadily into the late '80s, and continued through the '90s up until the very last years of Ballard's life. Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Davis considered Brown one of his best friends. "I remember being at one his headlining gigs in 1984 and the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News came in and wanted to interview him. And he said that he wanted to talk about 'my friend, Billy Davis,' and he wanted to brag about that. He said, 'Unless I can talk about him, then you don't have no interview.' And he got mad." There was no story.
In the meantime, Davis had begun working at Wolverine Human Services, a social service agency out of Grosse Pointe Park, from 1988 until his 2000 retirement. "I took that job because I always loved working with kids," he says. "I always had humanitarian feelings towards kids. I told Hank after we played a show in Reno, Nev., 'When I leave the band, I want to help kids, working with the youth.'"
In 2001, Ballard, along with most of the original members of the Midnighters, were inducted into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame, an institute operating out of Boston that annually honors early rock 'n' roll, soul and R&B groups. Hank Ballard & the Midnighters were among the first to be considered and inducted. The last show Davis ever played with Ballard was at that Hall of Fame induction. Ballard died later that year from throat cancer.
After Ballard's death, Davis reconsidered his solo options. He was writing songs, but he wasn't thinking in grandiose terms, like plotting some kind of untenable comeback; no, he just needed a means to record and play gigs, for his own soul. So he began to record.
No Cover Productions is a tiny Detroit blues label out of Clawson headed by Michael Boulan. Boulan had been actively seeking the all-but-forgotten Davis for nearly a decade to unearth and sign to his label. It turns out the guitarist lived right around the corner from him.
Under Boulan's No Cover banner, Davis has recorded a number of albums — including a Christmas blues album — doing the same thing he's been doing for the last 50 years, a sort of rattled, country-fried blues infused into his songs
You can find Davis, with his killer muttonchops, around the city, working intimate blues joints such as Detroit's Nancy Whiskey. He also tours Bermuda yearly and can be found on Michigan blues fest bills such as Heatstock.
For the guy who was there, but was scarcely written about, much less remembered, he says, "I may not have had the success I wanted. But the fact is, I'm still doing what I love, no matter what."
"The only thing I regret is not holding on to my money like I should have," he says, laughing. "It was a good time. A good time."
See Billy Davis at the two-day Heatstock Blues Festival (915 Garfield Rd., Fostoria) on Saturday, July 31. His set time is 6:30 p.m., performing just after Thornetta Davis. For complete information, call 248-398-6877.