ROQUEL ‘BILLY’ DAVIS
Born 11 July 1932, Detroit, Michigan
Billy Davis is not exactly a household name, but he prepared the groundwork for Tamla- Motown Records with Berry Gordy and was an important figure in the development of soul music. He learned his trade as an apprentice to four record men : Joe Battle, Syd Nathan, Leonard Chess and George Goldner. He has worked with Jackie Wilson, Etta James, Fontella Bass and many others.
Davis grew up in the ghettos of Detroit. “In school I was Roquel”, he told John Broven, “and when I got outta school, I was Billy. Roquel was a difficult name to pronounce.” Initially, his ambition was to become a singer. From 1953, he sang with a number of vocal groups, first the Thrillers (who made one single for Big Town in 1953), who became the Five Jets (they had three releases on DeLuxe in 1954) and then the Four Aims, who soon developed into the first version of the Four Tops. All the A-sides of these records were written by Davis, and in some cases also the B-sides, though the label owners would usually claim a co-writing credit.
It was Joe Battle who encouraged Davis to concentrate on songwriting. Battle had a record shop with the largest selection of R&B records in Detroit and also operated two tiny record labels, J-V-B and Von. Davis worked for Battle for about two years, then switched to Syd Nathan’s King label (recording for its subsidiary DeLuxe) and in 1956 he got involved with Chess Records. Leonard Chess was willing to record his group, the Four Tops, if he could also record two of Davis’s songs : “See Saw” (a hit for the Moonglows, # 25 pop, # 6 R&B) and “A Kiss From Your Lips” (which became a # 12 R&B hit for the Flamingos). Davis would go on to write many other songs for Chess artists, even for Chuck Berry (who had enough songs of his own) : “Too Pooped To Pop” (1960, a # 42 hit).
In 1957 Davis set up a songwriting and business partnership with Berry Gordy and began using the songwriting “nom de plume” Tyran Carlo. Their first success was “Reet Petite” by Jackie Wilson (Davis’s second cousin), which was a moderate hit in the US (# 62, late 1957), but a # 6 hit in the UK and even a number one there when it was reissued in 1986. Jackie Wilson’s first seven Brunswick singles all featured a Gordy-Carlo composition on one side. Six of them were hits, the greatest success being “Lonely Teardrops” (# 7 pop, # 1 R&B, 1958). Gordy and Davis also wrote songs for George Goldner’s labels (End, Gone), like “Got A Job” by the Miracles, an answer to “Get A Job” by the Silhouettes.
Both Davis and Gordy started their own label in 1959. Gordy launched Tamla Records in January 1959 and Davis called his label Anna, after one of his two partners (Gordy’s sisters Anna and Gwen). Anna Records was successful with “The Hunch” by Paul Gayten (# 68) and with the future classic “Money” by Barrett Strong (# 23, also # 2 R&B). But the label didn’t last long. After his romantic relationship with Gwen Gordy came to an end, Davis left Anna and Detroit and accepted a position as A&R man at Chess in Chicago, where he would stay until 1968.
With Billy Davis in the producer’s chair, Chess made a seamless transition from 1950s blues and R&B to 1960s soul. Among the soul classics that Davis produced were “All I Could Do Was Cry” by Etta James (1960), “We’re Gonna Make It” by Little Milton (1965) and the Top 10 hits (pop) “Rescue Me’ by Fontella Bass (1965) and “Summertime” by Billy Stewart (1966).
Davis also created radio commercials for Coca-Cola with Bass, Little Milton and others. These were so successful that McCann-Erickson, Coke’s advertising agency, offered him a full-time post in 1968. There he helped to introduce real songs into advertisements instead of nonsensical jingles. The highlight was “I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke” (aka “It’s the Real Thing”). This collaboration with the English songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway was later rewritten to become the New Seekers’ international hit “I’d Like To Teach the World To Sing” (1971). Davis rose to the rank of Senior Vice-President at McCann-Erickson.
In 1988 he started his own successful company in Manhattan, Billy Davis Enterprises, which handled music publishing, motion pictures and other entertainment fields. Billy Davis died of natural causes in New Rochelle, N.Y., in September 2004. He was 72 years old.
Further reading : “From Motown to Manhattan : In Almost Perfect Harmony”, which is Chapter 17 in John Broven’s book “Record Makers and Breakers” (2009, p. 319-340).
Obituary : https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/sep/13/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries
Acknowledgements : John Broven, Dave Laing.
Dik, November 2016
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