Carl Davis … Hit Maker Extraordinaire Carl Davis, a record producer and music impresario who helped shape the sound of Chicago soul on classics like “Duke of Earl” and “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” died without fanfare on Aug. 9, 2012 at the age of 77.
Carl Henry Davis was born in Chicago on Sept. 19, 1934, to a family full of musicians. But “he couldn’t play a note,” his brother George said in a recent interview. Instead, his talent was recognizing hits, which he refined while working for the popular disc jockey Al Benson in the mid-1950s. Carl Davis got the job because he knew how to use a typesetting machine. But with a reputation as a hit-spotter, he entered the record business and rose quickly. “Like Berry Gordy, he understood the modern recording industry of the ’60s and ’70s, and really understood how to make hit records,” said Robert Pruter, who has written several books about soul and R&B music in Chicago. Though Chicago’s soul scene was less celebrated than those of Detroit or Memphis, it was rich with talent, and Carl Davis was at the center of it through the ‘60s and ’70s. He worked with Curtis Mayfield, Major Lance, Jackie Wilson, Tyrone Davis, the Chi-Lites and many others in a number of capacities, including producer, scout, manager and record company boss.
In Mr. Pruter’s book “Doowop: The Chicago Scene,” Davis explains how a half-formed vocal riff he heard during a 1961 rehearsal with a minor group, the Dukays, resulted in one of the biggest songs of the era, Duke of Earl. “Through the door I kept hearing… I thought they were saying, ‘do cover,’ ” he recalled. “They said, ‘We’re just rehearsing our next session. We haven’t even written all the lyrics to the song yet.’ And I said, ‘Run it down, let’s hear it.’ They started, and the song just knocked me out. I said, ‘Let me tell you something. If you don’t cut this song tomorrow, there ain’t no session.’ ” Credited to the group’s lead singer, Gene Chandler, and produced by Davis, “Duke of Earl” was released on the Vee-Jay label in late 1961. It stayed at No. 1 for five weeks in early 1962 and was Vee-Jay’s first million seller.
In 1962, Davis was hired by the Columbia subsidiary Okeh as director of A&R, or artists and repertory making him one of the first African American A&R directors for a major label. His productions there, particularly upbeat tunes by Major Lance like “The Monkey Time”, “Hey Little Girl” and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” — most written by Curtis Mayfield and arranged by Johnny Pate — crystallized a new Chicago sound. With punchy brass, Latin-tinged percussion and elegant arrangements, it was sweeter than Motown and cooler than Stax. In a 1982 interview with the music journalist Dave Hoekstra, Mr. Davis gave his view on the difference between the Motown and Chicago soul sounds. “Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame,” he said. “We in Chicago tend to start with the artist, put him there and frame everything around him.”
After leaving Okeh in 1965, Carl Davis worked at the Brunswick label, where he recorded Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” and songs by Barbara Acklin and Gene Chandler. He also released numerous songs by the Chi-Lites, including “Oh Girl,” a No. 1 hit in 1972, and “Are You My Woman? (Tell Me So),” which was prominently sampled in Beyoncé’s 2003 hit “Crazy in Love.” Marshall Thompson, the last original member of the Chi-Lites, said the group was not too fond of “Oh Girl.” “I thought it was too white and poppish,” Thompson recalled. “We were black Chicago artists trying to make it. Carl said we had to take the song to ‘The Flip Wilson Show.’ We did and it debuted on the charts at No. 1. I’ve been in the business for 52 years and I never knew anyone who had an ear like Carl’s. “Thompson, who sang baritone on the Chi-Lites hits, said, “He made sure your lyrics were pronounced properly. He didn’t care how you spoke — your language could go all kinds of ways — but when you got in the studio you could understand every word this man helped produce. In a session we’d say something like ‘peoples.’ He’d stop the session and say, ‘There are no peoples. It is “people.” ’ I haven’t missed a meal since I met Carl Davis.” Mr. Davis’ ear for diction even made him a perfect sparring partner for American poet Muhammad Ali. In the early 1960s Mr. Davis recorded then-Cassius Clay singing the Ben E. King hit “Stand By Me” in a New York studio with Sam Cooke coaching Clay on the vocals. He also founded the labels Dakar, home to Tyrone Davis (no relation), and Chi-Sound, whose acts included the Chi-Lites and Manchild, where the R&B singer and producer Kenneth Edmonds (aka Babyface) got his start. Mr. Davis connected with singers in a direct manner that translated to the listener. His other major hits ranged from the 1970 smash “Turn Back the Hands of Time” by Tyrone Davis to the Dells’ beautiful “Stay in My Corner,” which was a hit in 1965 and 1968. One of Mr. Davis’ most under championed artists was Walter Jackson, who turned the listener’s heart inside-out on his cresting 1964 ballad “What Would You Do.” Jackson had polio and performed on crutches, but Mr. Davis was enamored with his powerful voice and produced most of Walter’s great Okeh and Chi-Sound recordings. He also produced the late Major Lance who had five national hits between 1963 and 1965 that are still played in the Beach Music clubs of the Carolinas, including the spritely “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” written by Curtis Mayfield. According to Davis, “Major was no Johnny Mathis, So I had to create a musical environment in which he could work.” Davis and accomplished Chicago jazz player Johnny Pate supported Lance’s vocals with a searing brass section centered around trombones and baritone sax. The Davis-Pate arrangements gave “the Chicago Sound” its timeless dance appeal.
By the early 1980s, with soul music long out of fashion, Mr. Davis closed Chi-Sound, his last label. His autobiography, “The Man Behind the Music: The Legendary Carl Davis,” published in 2011, gives details of his later jobs as a security guard and a chauffeur. But in 2007 he revived the label, which was still active at the time of his death. In addition to his brother, Mr. Davis survivors include his wife, Dedra; his children, Pamela, Carl Jr., Tre, Julio, Carleen and Jaime Davis and Kelli Morris; and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Generations of Chicagoans danced to the sweet soul music of Carl Davis. It didn’t matter if the songs were fast or slow or the beat was high or low. The music crossed racial barriers, no easy feat during the ‘60s and ’70s. The “Chicago Sound” template can properly be traced from Davis-produced vocalists like Chandler and Jackson through Donny Hathaway and R. Kelly, whose old-school sound is the centerpiece of lush arrangements. Unfortunately, Mr. Davis was sadly unheralded in a Chicago more identified with the blues than the soul music that he produced.