Carl Davis

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Producer and A&R man Carl Davis played a large part in Chicago soul of the '60s and '70s, although his contribution is usually unfairly overlooked by rock historians (as, indeed, Chicago soul as a whole…
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Producer and A&R man Carl Davis played a large part in Chicago soul of the '60s and '70s, although his contribution is usually unfairly overlooked by rock historians (as, indeed, Chicago soul as a whole is to some extent). As producer and A&R director for OKeh Records, he got hits with Major Lance that helped define the Chicago soul sound, as well as working on lesser-known but quality soul discs by Billy Butler and Walter Jackson. After the mid-'60s, much of Davis' efforts were focused on the Brunswick label roster, where he developed a stable of outstanding soul talent including the Chi-Lites, Tyrone Davis, Barbara Acklin, Young-Holt Unlimited, and Jackie Wilson. Davis also produced some notable records by soul stars Gene Chandler and Mary Wells.

In the early '60s, Davis co-ran the small Chicago Nat label, which had a small hit with a single, "Nite Owl," by the vocal group the Dukays. This was produced by Davis, as was another cut by the Dukays, called "Duke of Earl." This was issued as a release by Dukays' singer "Gene Chandler," and was a classic number one hit bridging doo wop and soul. Around the same time (1962), Davis became producer and A&R director for the Columbia subsidiary OKeh, and got a series of soul and pop hits with Major Lance, the one performer, aside from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, who gave Chicago soul a trademark sound. This was characterized by peppy, brassy arrangements (by Johnny Pate) and danceable, upbeat songs with a Latin tinge. He had a lot of help in this regard from session musicians and arrangers, such as Johnny Pate. Although Mayfield was recording for ABC-Paramount, he was a vital associate to Davis and OKeh during the mid-'60s, writing a bunch of great material for Lance and Billy Butler (Jerry Butler's brother). Davis and Mayfield also did some sweeter, more ballad-oriented soul with Walter Jackson. Davis worked carefully with Mayfield to extract material that Curtis thought would be inappropriate for the Impressions, usually because it was more pop-slanted and lyrically simple; of course, Mayfield was also holding back some prime material for the Impressions' use.

Davis did not limit his production sessions to OKeh artists in the mid-'60s. He continued to produce Gene Chandler throughout the '60s, as the singer shook off the novelty tag that might have stuck with him for the "Duke of Earl" hit and became a popular straight soul singer. Indeed, Curtis Mayfield also fed some good extra-Impressions material to Chandler that were made into hits, such as "Rainbow," "Man's Temptation," "Nothing Can Stop Me," and "Just Be True." Davis also produced (with Gerald Sims) Mary Wells in the mid-'60s, not long after she left Motown, including one of her biggest post-Motown singles, "Dear Lover." Like others who recorded Wells after she left Motown, though, Davis was unable to get her career back on the superstar track. After leaving his position at OKeh, Davis worked at A&R and production for Brunswick Records, which recorded the bulk of top Chicago soul in the late '60s and '70s. He helped revive, albeit briefly, Jackie Wilson's career by collaborating with him on earthier, more contemporary soul material than he had been getting in previous years, particularly on the hit "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." Brunswick also had memorable hits by Barbara Acklin ("Love Makes a Woman") and Young-Holt Unlimited's instrumental "Soulful Strut," which came about when the vocal track was stripped from a number Acklin had recorded, and the backing track issued on its own.

As the '60s turned into the '70s, Davis' greatest triumphs were with romantic records that have been pegged as "sweet soul" and "soft soul." Davis formed the Atlantic-distributed Dakar label in 1968, its biggest artist being Tyrone Davis, who had sensual hits with "Can I Change My Mind" and "Turn Back the Hands of Time." Back on Brunswick there were also harmony soul smashes by the Chi-Lites, one of the biggest soul vocal groups of the '70s. The prosperity of Chicago soul began to ebb after the mid-'70s, as did the profile of Davis (along with many other soul-specializing producers throughout the U.S.). Carl Davis died from pulmonary fibrosis at his home in Summerville, South Carolina, on August 9, 2012; he was 77 years of age.