Don Davis, here in 2009 with gold and platinum records for music he wrote or produced or that was recorded at his recording studio, once said, 'The music industry chose me.' He died Thursday after an illness. (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Grammy-winning producer Don Davis, a Detroit native who started as a session guitarist at Motown but became an influential producer, studio owner and business executive, died Thursday after a brief illness. He was 75.
Mr. Davis began his music career playing guitar on some of Motown’s earliest sessions, including Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” for Berry Gordy’s Tamla label in 1960. Mr. Davis often said how much he admired Gordy’s famous “quality control,” watching as he rehearsed his artists endlessly, when he was getting Motown off the ground.
“Don was a classy man, such grace and poise,” said Motown star Martha Reeves, who was “second cousins twice removed” with Mr. Davis. “I was overwhelmed by his accomplishments. He really could play the guitar, too, but he set it aside to run the studio and record other musicians.”
“I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Don Davis, one of Detroit’s great icons,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a statement. “Don was the epitome of Detroit’s can-do spirit, having founded Michigan’s only minority-owned bank, First Independence, which he used as a vehicle to uplift countless residents of our city throughout the years. His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will endure and should be celebrated all Detroiters. My prayers go out to the Davis family.”
Davis’ early recording credits cover some of the most-loved record companies from the golden era of Detroit pop/R&B: Northern, Thelma, Golden World, Ric-Tic, Revilot and Groovesville, which he founded.
George McGregor played drums with Davis in the Don Davis Trio, which played R&B “leaning to jazz,” and later co-produced many records with him. The two met as young musicians in 1955 in Detroit; McGregor went to Eastern High School, and Davis was at Central.
“He was an excellent guitar player, excellent,” McGregor said. He recalled the last song on the last session he played on with Davis as musicians at Golden World, before Gordy bought the company and studio (and made it his Motown Studio B).
It was a frenetic little ditty called “Cool Jerk,” recorded on the Capitols. McGregor played drums and Davis was on guitar, along with Ray Monette (guitar) and Bob Babbitt (bass), and other Funk Brothers. “The last time I spoke to Don, we were laughing about that particular record, and what it did,” McGregor said. “Cool Jerk” was a dance floor sensation in the summer of 1966, reaching No. 2 on the national R&B charts, No. 7 pop.
“And we each got $10 for the session,” McGregor said, laughing. “One 10-dollar bill. It was the last song on the session, too, they were running out of union time, so we cut that record in five minutes! Two takes. But everybody loved everybody, everybody wanted to be part of a hit.”
More and more, Mr. Davis moved behind the controls in the studio, and he became an acclaimed Detroit-based producer for the legendary Memphis label Stax, helming such hits as Johnnie Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” in 1968, a No. 5 national hit critic Dave Marsh described as “just about a perfect blend of Southern and Northern soul.”
“He did a tremendous job at Stax,” McGregor said. “ He had more room to do what he wanted to do and the full backing of those people. He had a very good ear for knowing how to assemble and put hits together, he was good at that.”
Pat Lewis sang backup on Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love,” “Cheaper to Keep Her” and for most of the other records Mr. Davis produced, starting at Golden World (which later became Motown Studio B) and Groovesville, and at United Sound as well. She cut several records for him as a solo singer as well.
After she sang backup at United Sound on Isaac Hayes’ smash hit album “Hot Buttered Soul” for Mr. Davis in 1969, Lewis was scooped up by the Stax star to go out on the road with him.
“Don was real easy to work with in the studio,” Lewis said. “I’m a background vocal arranger, and he would let me have my way in the studio. He would just say ‘OK, put that on,’ or ‘go more into that.’ He’s part of the reason why I’m like I am today, because I consider Golden World and Groovesville the school I went to. They won’t have any more like that.”
Taylor’s genre-defining “Disco Lady,” produced by Mr. Davis in 1976, was the first single to be certified “platinum” by Billboard, well beyond gold.
As a producer, Mr. Davis had learned from Gordy and the Motown production team how to leaven R&B with enough sweet soul to make a pop smash.
Mr. Davis bought the legendary United Sound Systems recording studio at 5840 Second in 1971. The studio opened in 1933. During Mr. Davis’ tenure, it’s where George Clinton practically lived when it was Parliament-Funkadelic’s home studio. He also recorded The Dramatics and all of his Stax sides at United Sound.
“Aretha Franklin also made her home at United Sound,” Reeves said. “I know he encouraged Berry Gordy to open his studio in the house (Hitsville, at 2648 W. Grand). United Sound was famous, people around the world were aware of it, and of Don.”
Other notable artists Mr. Davis worked with include The Dells, Harvey Scales, Rose Battiste, The Staple Singers and Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. ( “You Don’t Have to Be a Star”).
“The music industry chose me,” Mr. Davis told The News in 2009. “If there is a gene for music, I had one. I used to try to crawl up in the record (player) speakers. Early on, my mother bought a piano. In her mind, a piano is a great thing to have in the house. In the South, everybody had a piano. I never took any lessons, but I always played it. I started playing early on in grade school, trumpet and saxophone.”
Despite his long career, Mr. Davis said he felt music was a youth-oriented business, so he became a banker in 1970. At the time of his death he was president and CEO of First Independence Bank, Michigan’s only African-American-owned and operated commercial bank. Mr. Davis was a longtime supporter of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, and his bank came under scrutiny during the City Hall corruption probes, with federal prosecutors levying a $250,000 fine against it in October. It was unclear what banking activity prompted the settlement, but the bank’s name came up repeatedly during the trials involving the Kilpatricks and contractor Bobby Ferguson.
He may have stepped aside as a music producer, but Mr. Davis’ influence is still felt, as the music he produced is heavily sampled by artists including Jay-Z and Destiny’s Child.
Mr. Davis, who lived in West Bloomfield Township, is survived by wife Kiko, and three children.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Swanson Funeral Home in Detroit.