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Melvin Davis

Melvin Davis never scored the crossover hit that would have made him a star, but few artists on Detroit's soul music scene had a more impressive résumé than Davis, a singer, songwriter, drummer, and bandleader who worked with everyone from Smokey Robinson and David Ruffin to Wayne Kramer and Dennis Coffey. Davis was born on August 29, 1942, and as a child, his family moved back and forth between Detroit and Milledgeville, Georgia, where his grandparents had a farm. As a boy, he developed a passion for music, seeing Little Richard perform at a juke joint near the family farm and hearing Sam Cooke with the Soul Stirrers at a church potluck dinner. At the age of 17, Davis joined the Navy and in his spare time began teaching himself to play the piano and guitar and started writing songs. In 1961, he released his first record, "I Don't Want You" b/w "About Love," on the local Jack Pot label, and his next single, "Playboy" b/w "I Won't Be Your Fool," was issued by the fabled Fortune Records, home of such local legends as Andre Williams, Nolan Strong, and Nathaniel Mayer. While Davis had already established himself as a powerful vocalist and skilled pianist, he also took up the drums and landed a regular gig at the Ebony Club in Muskegon, Michigan with his band the Jaywalkers, which included a promising young singer named David Ruffin. The Jaywalkers played regularly all over Michigan and cut a session for Fortune, but it was never released, and Davis' next record, "Wedding Bells" b/w "It's No News," appeared on the short-lived Ke Ke label. Davis then formed an alliance with Mike Hanks' D-Town Records, and cut "Find a Quiet Place (And Be Lonely)" for their Wheel City imprint in 1965; while the record barely made a ripple on its initial release, it later became a staple at Northern Soul weekenders in the United Kingdom. By this time, Davis was also attracting notice as a songwriter, and in addition to writing material for himself, his work was being recorded by noted Detroit acts such as J.J. Barnes ("Chains of Love"), Johnnie Mae Matthews ("Lonely You'll Be"), Lonette McKee ("Stop, Don't Worry About It"), and Jackey Beavers ("I Need My Baby"), with producer Don Davis frequently turning to Melvin for material. In 1966, with the Jaywalkers long gone after Ruffin left to join a vocal group called the Distants (they enjoyed greater success under the name the Temptations), Davis formed a trio with guitarist Dennis Coffey and keyboard man Lyman Woodard. The trio played a long and successful standing engagement at Detroit's Frolic Show Bar and later at Maury Baker's Showplace Lounge. Coffey ended up producing some sessions for Davis that led to a deal with Mala Records, where Davis enjoyed a regional hit with ""This Love Is Meant to Be" b/w "Save It (Never Too Late)." As soul and R&B took on a tougher, more psychedelic tinge as the '60s wore on, Coffey's guitar style evolved with the times, and Davis played drums on his first solo album, Hair and Thangs, while Woodard's keyboard work also became more experimental and Davis' drumming helped anchor his newly renamed Lyman Woodard Organization. In 1970, Davis signed on as the drummer in Smokey Robinson's road band and spent two years touring with the legendary singer and songwriter, as well as playing on several studio sessions, including "Tears of a Clown." Meanwhile, former Motown producers and songwriters Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland had founded Invictus Records and released a single created by their studio team that was issued under the name 8th Day. H-D-H needed a band that could tour behind the record, so Davis became 8th Day's lead singer (Woodard was on keyboards), and later he was the voice behind their biggest hit "You Got to Crawl Before You Walk." However, as 8th Day evolved into a proper, self-contained group, they found themselves at odds with Invictus, and Davis decided to strike out on his own, forming a label called Rock Mill Records and a soulful hard rock band called Radiation, with Davis and Dave Penny on double drums and guitarists Wayne Kramer (formerly of the MC5) and Mark Manko. Radiation gigged regularly in Detroit but failed to click in the recording studio, and as Rock Mill's releases faltered in the marketplace and Detroit club gigs became scarce, Davis got out of music full-time, taking his first day job at the age of 42. However, as "Find a Quiet Place (And Be Lonely)" took on a new life in the U.K. and collectors began discovering Davis' other rare sides, he started playing occasional shows in England and licensed his Rock Mill material to reissue labels in Japan and Europe, while Vampisoul Records collected some of his finest '60s material on the anthology Detroit Soul Ambassador. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi
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