First Published on July 9, 2020
The late Billy Davis was born on July 11th 1932 in Detroit. He started his career in the entertainment industry as a songwriter with Berry Gordy in Detroit during the mid 1950s, creating successful songs for his cousin the late Jackie Wilson, under the pseudonym of Tyran Carlo.
Their first major international hit was “Reet Petite” released in 1957 on Brunswick Records, which peaked at number six on the British Pop singles chart listings. Interestingly the record repeated its success in the UK Pop singles chart listings by going to number one on 27th December 1986, for 4 weeks, almost 30 years after its original release and selling in the excess of 700,000 copies, to be certified platinum by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry).
Billy Davis also did tremendous work with two legendary recording labels noted for their significant contributions to the popularity of Soul and R&B music amongst the record buying public, Chess Records and Motown Records. He was one of the key architects in the development of the soul music we so love today!
Davis was also involved in the setting up of Anna Records, which started in 1958 and was jointly owned by himself and Berry’s sister Gwen Gordy, whom he dated at that time, before it was brought out by Berry Gordy and became part of the Motown organization.
Davis decided to move to Chicago in 1962 in search of greener pastures where he could further develop the creative skills he had acquired while working in the Detroit Soul scene from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s.
In a typically brilliant move, Leonard Chess decided to offer him a contract to develop a strong R&B division at Chess, in line with Motown and Stax. With Davis present in the creative role as producer, songwriter and arranger in the Chess organisation, the opportunity arose to create a more soulful sound and to move the label away from the Blues-dominated sound of the label up to then. He persuaded Leonard Chess to hire musicians with a Jazz background and arrangers for long term session work.
Maurice White once said about Billy: “He taught me how to break down a song and build it up again.” The knowledge White obtained from Davis during recording sessions was the foundation that helped him become a formidable band leader, record producer, record label owner and songwriter in his own right.
The production skills Davis developed whilst working with Gwen Gordy’s Anna label in Detroit can be heard on such classic tracks as “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James (a Gordy/Davis song from 1960) and “Rescue Me” by Fontella Bass. On “Rescue Me”, which was produced live in the studio, you can hear the Motown influence, but with a Chicago soul sound put into the mix.
It was the first and only number one R&B and Soul hit on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles Chart for a female at Chess Records.
The single, which reached the top on 30th October 1965, typified the new Chess, built on a bed-rock of Louis Satterfield’s bass and Maurice White’s drums, powered by Gene Barge’s horn section and propelled by the call-and-response of singer and background vocalists.
The second stage of Davis’ creative career made him a very important figure in the advertising industry around the globe. On the strength of the gold record “Rescue Me” and other major hit records on Chess, Billy caught the attention of the McCann-Erickson advertising agency in New York. They made him an offer he could not refuse and so in 1969 the agency hired him as jingles songwriter. Davis first major assignment at the agency was to help Coca-Cola develop an international brand across all the markets where the company was trading, based on the old advertising campaign slogan “It’s the Real Thing”.
Davis was assigned to create several songs with songwriter Roger Cook and creative director Billy Backer, who was responsible for The Coca-Cola Company account. The actual recording session occurred in London, England, with the New Seekers, a British recording group. Out of the studio session a song was born that would impact people around the globe for generations and established Coca-Cola as a major leader in the soft drinks market for a long period. The song was entitled “I’d Like to Buy The World a Coke and Keep it Company”.