Hard as it may be to believe, but Paul Davis -- a soft-rock singer/songwriter who passed way on April 22 at the age of 60 -- ranks high among the most successful singles artists on the Billboard charts, an achievement he rarely receives any credit for. Then again, Davis was so easy-going he tended to glide under the radar -- his soft rock is so soft it didn't command attention. Instead, it soothed, without ever seeming saccharine, even as synthesizers started to creep into his warm grooves in the early '80s.
Davis had two big hits in 1982 with the gorgeous "Cool Night" and the irrepressibly goofy "'65 Love Affair" (whose doo-wop pastiche didn't quite match the year Paul celebrated in the title, but when it comes to nostalgia, who really nitpicks?). The '80s surely weren't his decade; the '70s were, and his career had the trajectory of so many singer/songwriters from that decade. He began in the country-rock circuit, where he was discovered by the legendary Bert Berns, who signed him to Bang as a solo act. He scored his first big hit in 1974 with "Ride 'Em Cowboy." Despite the title, the song didn't feel country. It was gentle and hazy, a soft-rock song through and through, and it helped set the stage for his defining hit, "I Go Crazy," a sweet lovelorn ballad that entered the charts in August of 1977 and stayed there for a record-shattering 40 weeks (a feat unheard of at the time). With its analog synthesizers, lush harmonies and shimmering surface, "I Go Crazy" effortlessly evokes the late '70s, which is a large part of its charm, but it's not an artifact of its time, it's an emblem of its era, one of the best arguments for all the glories of soft rock. It not only had the sound and feel, but it had a gently insinuating melody delivered unhurriedly by Davis, who managed to croon without getting corny. He cut a handful of singles as strong as "I Go Crazy": there's the aforementioned "Cool Night," but also 1978's "Sweet Life" and 1980's "Do Right," three songs that were equally as soft and soothing as his career-making hit, songs that rank among the best of his genre.
Soft rock started to fade in the early '80s, one of the many casualties of the shifting fashions of the MTV era. After all, bearded singers did not make stylish videos -- if they made them at all, that is -- and soft rock turned icy and cold due to the increase of synthesizers. As the sounds shifted, Davis faded into the background, turning first to contemporary country-pop (where such soft, hazy surfaces survived until the late '80s), but after 1988, he no longer actively recorded, easing into a retirement in his native Mississippi. From all reports he had a low-key retirement that fit his music, and although he wasn't recording, those songs lived on, as they will continue to do now that he's gone.
"Ride 'Em Cowboy"
"I Go Crazy"