Melvin “Detroit Soul Ambassador” Davis, musician, singer, and activist, discusses his relationship to Detroit music, his career, and the impact of COVID-19.
Gholz 00:51 I’m on the phone here with Melvin Davis, “Detroit Soul Ambassador,” Detroiter, for a long time. Mr. Melvin Davis how are you feeling today?
Davis 01:03 I’m feeling great and greetings to all Detroiters and all the people all over the world that love Detroit music. And it’s a pleasure to be speaking to you on this Easter Sunday.
Gholz 01:13 Yeah. And thank you for taking a moment on Easter Sunday. I know these holidays are serious for Detroiters. And I also know it’s a very unique one, so I’ll get right to it Melvin, just really quickly, but for an audience who may not know you, our audience absolutely knows you, you’ve done a couple of concerts for Detroit Sound Conservancy. You played our Salvaging Sound exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum. You recently played the Blue Bird Stage at the Walter Reuther Library and turned it out. We had a great response to that event earlier this year. But for those people who might not know who you are, how do you describe yourself? When you meet someone who doesn’t know your music and your reputation? How do you describe who you are and what you do?
Davis 02:01 Well, I’m a 77 year old music legend, because you have to be a certain age to become a legend. And I love the city and I’ve been doing music all my life and the music is loved all over the world and it’s really an honor to represent this great city with the professionalism and the dignity and the creativity that it deserves. And it’s really a pleasure to do music all over the world. I’ve been to nine countries. I’m a drummer, keyboard player, writer. And I’ve written 600 songs, I’ve been with seven record labels. I’ve had my own record label, Rock Mill Records, since 1971. I’ve been a BMI writer since ‘61 and I’ve written for many artists like J.J. Barnes, Johnnie Taylor. I even wrote Lonette McKee, the actress, her first song called “Stop! Don’t Worry About It.” And I’ve written for C mantra. I’ve written for Edward Hamilton and the Arabians. So then you can look me up on the internet. So I don’t want to go on and on about my accomplishments, accomplishments and stuff, but I’ve been doing music for 60 years and, uh, it’s been an honor and a pleasure to do that.
Gholz 03:17 And when you were a musician, you know, just to briefly talk about, cause you and I talked, uh, about your drumming when we last saw each other a little bit. What, what, uh, were, were there other musicians in your family or were you the first, uh, of your, uh, musician crew within your family, or did you come from a family of musicians?
Davis 03:37 Uh, actually I’m the first professional musician, but I come from a very talented family. And, uh, my grandfather, he never did anything professionally, but he was a great singer, he played harmonica, he played piano, very hard working, uh, a very honorable man. And, um, my mom was a good singer. She never sang professionally, but she had a great voice. But, uh, I’m the first in my family to do it, uh, on a professional basis and, uh, it’s been great.
Gholz 04:04 And, and what’s your, do you still have some affection for the drums? I know most of the time when I see you, you’re singing, you know, you’re out front. Your, you’re telling the stories, you’re making the connection with the audience. That’s your main, uh, bag now. But do you, do you have an affection for drums and do you still drum when you can or no?
Davis 04:23 Uh, not really. Uh, because like right now I feel it’s more important that I reveal the historical, uh, essence of, of the city of Detroit because this, this Detroit really is one of the greatest music Meccas on planet earth. And I call it the headquarters of rhythm and blues because this city has recorded more rhythm and blues recordings than any other city on the planet. We’ve had 300 fledgling record labels. And of course everybody knows about Motown, but really the story is much deeper than Motown. Motown is our crowning glory, but the roots go much, much deeper.
Gholz 04:57 Yeah, absolutely. And you and I really met because of those deep roots, uh, not that long ago, five or six years ago maybe now when you walked into United sound systems, you were working on a documentary at the time, you know, and, and you were, uh, making those connections for me, we were at United Sound Systems trying to preserve that building and, uh, advocate for its legacy and United, you know, has a history long before Motown. What were some of those other labels that people who listen to this might go and explore after we get done talking? What are some of those, those record labels that people should really, um, should know?
Davis 05:39 Well you have a lady here that was, her name was Johnnie Mae Matthews. And she had a big hit record called “My Little Angel.” And she also had Timmy Shaw with a big record. Uh, “Send Me Back to Georgia.” And actually Johnnie Mae had the Temptations before Barry did. She had the Supremes before Barry did. They were the Primes and the Primettes. And, uh, the first record that, uh, the Temptations had out, it was under a group name called “The Distance” and the record was called Come On. And, uh, she was really a tremendous influence on my life. I wrote songs for her. You can look it up on the internet. And uh, one’s, one’s called, uh, uh, “It Won’t Matter at All. And uh, I wrote about four songs for her and she was really a very energetic person. She loved the music. Then there was also Mike Hanks who owned D-Town records and a couple of his artists were Dee Edwards had a big hit record and Lee Rogers had a big hit record.
Davis 06:38 The Fabulous Pips were a big act, Hanks was really a, a great guy. He wasn’t a talented person, the gifted person that Barry Gordy was, but he loved the business, every bit as much as Barry. But there was only one Barry Gordy of course, and I admire and I feel that he’s did a lot for Detroit and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. But there was so many other talented people that made this city the great music Mecca that it is.
And as far as my drumming, I started out playing drums and singing at the same time. And I had a group called the Jaywalkers. And in that group, David Ruffin was in that group. As a matter of fact, David Ruffin lived with me for two and a half years before the Temptations. And, and Steve Mancha was in that group and he was a tremendous artist on the Groovesville label. Cornelius Grant, the musical director for the Temptations when they became very, very popular and very famous.
Davis 07:33 He was in the group and also my cousin Leroy Emmanuel, who was a guitar player for the Fabulous Counts. And he also has a group for the last 20 or 30 years called LMT, out of Canada. And we did 19 gigs in seven countries and it was a tremendous opportunity for us to get back together and sort of reminisce and go over some of the stuff that we used to do and some new stuff. And, uh, that was my first group, the Jaywalkers. And then of course I played with, uh, Lyman Woodard and Dennis Coffey. And the Lyman Woodard organization. And we had a couple of albums out and I was a Motown drummer and I was a personal drummer for Smokey Robinson, played on “Tears of a Clown” and traveled with them and played with all the other Motown groups. Um, the Originals, uh, played a few gigs with, uh, with the Supremes, played many gigs with Martha and the Vandellas.
Davis 08:27 And, uh, it’s just been an honor. I’ve been doing music, like I say all my life and, uh, it’s, uh, it was a, a great experience and I don’t think that would’ve happened in any other city. Not for me
Other than Detroit. And I’m also also a member of, uh, the Detroit Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame. And I got a lifetime achievement award from, uh, the Detroit Music Awards last year for all the stuff I’d done, like I say, I’ve written about 600 songs and I recorded for many record labels and, uh, my big record was called “It’s What You Want” when I was with Holland and Dozier on the Invictus label. So I’ve been doing this for a really long time and uh, thank goodness I’m still doing it. And, uh, I’ve traveled to many countries. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to do a gig this year in May and Benidrom Spain.
Davis 09:18 And of course that’s been canceled because of the situation that the planet is in right now with the, with the, uh, coronavirus and, uh, all of the musicians and well, everything is suffering because of that right now, whether it’s sports, whether it’s music, whatever it is. So, uh, we’re sort of all in the same boat where that’s concerned.
Gholz That’s, that’s a good way to segue there. I mean I do, I mean obviously people need to explore your, your, your catalog and some of the different musicians and labels and that’s, you know, obviously with some of the work that DSC does. But let’s talk about that impact. Obviously your hopefully safe and sound and sticking to one place. Do you want to describe sort of, you know, give us, you know, give us, give us a health check here. Melvin, how are you feeling?
Davis 10:02 Well, I’m feeling well and uh, of course I’m, I’m very diligent with my mask and my gloves and my antiseptic spray and I hope everyone out there is doing the same thing because that is so necessary for us to be able to defeat this, uh, this situation. And of course we are in a bad situation right now, but trust me, it will pass. Because even though we may not be handling it in the best way, there are tens of thousands of very diligent, very talented, very gifted people that are looking for an answer to this and it will be found. And we will get on the other side of this and get back to, you know, being the kind of country and the kind of planet that we usually are, but there willl be a difference when this passes. We won’t be the same, but uh, of course we will prosper. There’s no doubt about that in my mind.
Gholz Let’s talk a little bit about that, before the pandemic. You know, obviously, you know, there’s a long history here, we don’t want to go over all of it, but just, you know, there’ve been some ups and downs, obviously in your career as in all careers. How is it to be a working musician in Detroit? Obviously you’ve had great opportunities and your, obviously you’re, you’re very grateful for those opportunities, right? But what have been some of those sort of the basic struggles of being a musician, you know, uh, in, in, in Detroit?
Davis Well, I’m sure for me, uh, it’s, it’s been like for so many others that, uh, you know, you, you put forth your best effort constantly and then when you do have some success, you know, you’ll be very fortunate if you get paid.
Davis 11:36 But, you know, it depends on your motivation. You know, if money is your motivation, then you won’t be very happy in Detroit. But if your motivation is to continue this great legacy and to do everything that you can and connect with the universal forces of creativity, which is my motivation and you have to love people. If you don’t love people, then you probably are in the wrong business when it comes to entertainment because that’s what it’s all about. Without them, there would not be us. So I love people. I love, uh, you know, like when I come off stage, I don’t go dry off or anything. I’ll walk right off the stage until the people, because that’s the reason that I’m, that I’m doing what I’m doing. And I do the same exact show, whether there’s three people or 30,000. Because my motto is when I hit the stage, the first person I’m trying to entertain is Melvin Davis.
Davis 12:24 Because if I’m not having a good time, I feel like, why should you? But Detroit is probably one of the most talented cities on the planet. And, uh, you know, it’s a pleasure to represent this city. Like I say, with the professionalism and the energy and the spirituality that, uh, that has made us great. So I will continue to do that. But, uh, Detroit, as I say, it’s an amazingly talented city and it has great opportunity, but it’s one thing about the city. When you have a lot of great people, the competition is fierce.
There’s a good side to that. And there’s a, there’s a not so good side to that. The good side is that competition creates greatness. If you don’t have competition, someone to measure yourself against, you probably won’t reach your pinnacle. But, uh, Detroit with the greatness that, uh, that it has, uh, displayed to the world.
Davis 13:22 Um, it just makes it a little bit tough. Every artist can’t be super successful,
And I’ve probably had out at least a hundred songs and I had 1 million seller, which was “Crawl Before You Walk” on the Invictus label. And I had some success Groovesville with Golden World, because our Golden World was a really big label here. They had Edwin Starr, they had, uh, um, “Whole World is a Stage,” what was the name of that group? The Fantastic Four. And, uh, and they had Pat Lewis, they had the Debonairs, you know, they were a very successful record label. And they eventually ended up selling the Motown
Motown is like General Motors.
o doubt about it. You know, Motown, I mean, Motown is kind of world famous. So you know, the competition, you’re going to have a hard time competing with Motown. But yeah, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s the marketplace, you know, and, uh, you had to compete.
Davis 14:21 But one thing about Detroit, I’d say the reason that we’ve had so much success is because we had so much opportunity. Because no matter how good you are at whatever you do, without opportunity, it’s going to kind of not have very much meaning.
So I’ll always be grateful to this city, even though they’re extremely spoiled because of how much talent is here. You know, so I can understand that. But, uh, it’s, it’s a great city and the fans are great. And, uh, I just hope we continue to, um, I want to thank you Carleton because it’s people like you that are, that are going to really reveal the legacy because so many of these people that created this great, uh, legacy, they’re dead and gone. So it’s going to take youngsters like you to like sort of tell the story of what happened and how it happened. It’s not so much what happened, but what was the cause, what were the other ingredients? What were the other components that made this a superstorm, you know, come to its head and become, you know, the Motown legacy.
Gholz 15:24 Well, let’s talk about some of those ingredients, you know, and let’s talk about, a little bit about what you would like to see. So before we, before we move to the future, cause I do want to, I don’t want to just talk about the past month. I know you’re, I mean you were, we’re playing just, just a month ago or so with us. So I want to talk about that future moment that’s coming and when we get fast together we’re, we’re able to come together again just right now in terms of your, your cohort, the musicians, your singers, the other musicians you work with, how is everybody, how’s your sense of how everybody else is? How’s everybody else doing in this, in this, in this pandemic? How are people feeling? Are you talking to your, you know, the, the background singers?
Davis 16:07 Sure. I am. Yeah. Yeah. It’s very difficult because that’s, when that’s your livelihood, you know, and your livelihood has been just sort of like taken out from under you. It’s like everybody else is laid off, that’s not working. All the sports figures. I mean, I do realize they’re much more wealthy than us, but you know, no baseball, no basketball and hockey, no football, you know, no concerts. No, you know, in other words, we have to do what we have to do because this pandemic is, is, is the alpha dog on the planet. You know, it doesn’t matter whether you’re rich, whether you’re a billionaire, whether you’re a king or a queen or a president or a prime minister. The alpha dog is corona because we are all subject to its will right now. And the only thing that’s going to really solve that situation is a vaccine.
Davis 16:59 I know they like to talk a lot of stuff about this and that and you know, maybe this will happen and I hope this will happen. All those words mean nothing. We’re living in a situation today where it’s hour to hour, day to day, and that’s the way we have to take it. And that’s the way we have to deal with it. So I just hope that everyone will be diligent and for all of us to do exactly what we’re supposed to do because we all have a responsibility in this. And I see people walking around with no gloves, no mask, you know, and, uh, they’re making a big mistake because this is something that can, I realize that probably 80 or 90% of the people that catch this will survive it. But that’s not the point. The point is, is that the, the world is shut down. We have no economics, you know, I mean, all the schools are closed. So we have to do what have to do as individuals to make sure that we take the steps necessary to see our way to the other side of this terrible situation. And I hope that everyone will be smart enough to do that. I really do.
Gholz 18:03 When you, when, when we all, uh, one of the things that we want to talk about today is that, uh, uh, we work together, um, DSC, uh, get, uh, help to put some music together for a podcast a year or two ago.
The Crimetown compilation.
Yeah. And then we had this concert that you were so good enough to play for. And I did some DJing and you guys performed and you, and, uh, our friend Drew Schultz, our, our common friend, a Drew Schultz went into the studio and did a version of, uh, “Politicians in my Eyes”
And, and, uh, we’re gonna release that DSC. We got more news about that later, but we’re gonna put that together as a 45 and release it later this year, which is exciting and something to look forward to honestly, uh, definitely a bright thing that’s going to come out of this year. Um, but can you just tell a little bit about, uh, you didn’t know the song. This is a song by the group Death, uh, called “Politicians in My Eyes.” They recorded at, at United, uh, in the 70s. But you didn’t know about it at the time. What did, what’d you think of the song?
Davis 19:10 Oh, I thought it was a good song because Death, I thought was a very innovative group to do what they were doing at the time that they were doing it, which was I believe back in the 60s. And uh, you know, it was, it was a pleasure to hear some of the stuff that they recorded that I had never heard. And uh, Crimetown was revealing a lot of my music on their shows. We did a number of a number of podcasts and they’re still available, actually you can look them up on the internet.
Gholz 19:38 Linked on our website. Yep, absolutely. We’ll link to it. Definitely.
Davis 19:42 Yeah. But, uh, I thought the song was good because, you know, I’m not a real political person, but let’s face it, politics are a part of life. If you’re living then, uh, you’re being affected by the politics of, of whatever nation you’re living in. So I thought it was a good idea for me to do it. I didn’t do it the way they did it. I did it the way that I would want to do it, but you can check out both versions and make up your own minds. But it’s just speaking about what we’re all living through. You know, trying to, you know, have faith and uh, and uh, and believe in a, in a, in our governments and stuff. But, you know, they have to be responsible and I hope that they will be more responsible than they have been because we’re depending on them. That’s what they’re being paid for is to do the wise thing for all of us, for the nation. So that’s, that’s kind of what that song was about, you know?
Gholz 20:33 it makes me think of that, that energy or that song, you know, it’s, it’s uh, one of the things that when it was rediscovered, there’s a documentary about Death a couple of years ago and, um, you know, this all-black Detroit to prodo punk group. You know, they weren’t, you know, they sort of predated sort of the Clash and Sex Pistols of some of this stuff. They, they really were sort of in response to sort of, you know, Iggy and Alice Cooper and that sort of MC5 feel, you know, that was coming out of that sixties era. What did you make of sort of punk and sort of like that, that high energy as opposed to the sort of the R&B that was your, your bread and butter. I mean that was what you were writing for and have written for for so long. What do you, what do you make of that kind of punk energy? What, what’d you think of it at the time when that kind of stuff was coming out in the 70s?
Davis 21:20 Well, I did some of it because I don’t, I don’t know if he was familiar with it, but Wayne Kramer and MC5 and I had a group called Radiation and we were, we were into merging rock and rhythm and blues. Before there was an incident where the group had to break up. And you know, you’d probably hear about that, I don’t want to talk about that right now, but, uh, I love music and I love music that that grows. Because you can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over. Every generation has to have their own everything, their own language, their own music, their own clothing style. So I was a hippie in the 60s. I was the one down on Plum Street every time they opened the door at, uh, at the, um, at the Grande Ballroom, I was there. Uncle Russ put on a lot of great shows.
Davis 22:12 That was the first time I had the opportunity to see Cream live. And Eric Clapton is my all time favorite guitar player. And that was the first time I saw him live. AndI had to walk up to the stage because I didn’t believe that he and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, three guys were actually making all that music.
So it was an opportunity to see the energy that could, you know, that came out of the rock music and uh, they sort of ruined it. But, uh, because they tried to commercialize it. But at first when it came out, it was very, very forward-looking and uh, you know, they were onto something. But then once they, once they tried to commercialize it and make it, you know, for the masses, it sort of lost its, uh, its variety because variety, as they say is the spice of life. But the music business loves to commercialize everything because then they can sort of make a template and continue to do the same thing and make money. But the creativity gets lost in that, when you, when you approach it in that manner, when it’s just for the money.
So, so, so to get back to your question, I love any type of innovation in music. I love it.
Gholz 23:26 You’re a, uh, on a, on a personal note, my uncle who passed away a couple of years ago, he, he went to those Cream shows at the Grande and it just, his storytelling about that when I was a kid, I, you know, really turned me on to a whole bunch of stuff that, you know, I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten into, you know. And, um, he was a, he was a high school kid at Cranbrook and they took them to the Grande Ballroom as a, uh, as like a field trip. Because these young kids, you know, going into go see Cream, you know, all in their little suits, you know, they all had uniforms.
And they took their jackets off. The story is they would reverse their jackets and put their ties around their heads so that they could, you know, try to try to, you know, look,
Look the part a little more. Yeah.
Melvin At that time it was in its infancy and uh, the style and everything was being developed, you know, right on, at the moment. So I guess, uh, you know, like they had to do what they felt and that’s what caused it to become a reality is doing what you feel because you don’t have a template that you can, you can say, well, I’m going to do like this or like that.
Davis 24:40 When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, you know, it’s up to you to sort of create the style and the image.
And they did a tremendous and they did a tremendous job at it. Yeah, I know. It inspired the heck out of me.
Gholz Yeah. Let’s, let’s, uh, you know, I, I want to be conscious of your time, it’s Easter Sunday and I’m trying to try to take a deep breath over in my world too and not try to overwork too much. But in our last, last couple of minutes here, what are you looking forward to? Uh, obviously staying healthy, but beyond staying healthy and making sure your family’s healthy, which I know you’re trying to do. Uh, what, what else is, when we come back together in 2020, what are you looking forward to? Hopefully some touring, the music, we were just talking about the seven inch. We’ll hopefully drop later this year, but what else? What else? You know, it’s still early in 2020. So what are you looking forward to when the worst of this is over?
Davis Well, I know that it will be over and uh, and, and, and how and when it’s going to end. That’s the part that we don’t know, but I know that it will. And I’m just looking forward to continuing what I’m doing. To inspire youngsters to continue this great legacy that Detroit has presented them with, because it’s their story. So that’s why I do everything that I can like you do to tell the story and to like, you know, complete the story of the other record labels and the other hundreds of artists and musicians and producers and writers that, uh, that, that, that participated in Detroit’s great legacy. And I’m going to be looking forward to getting together with my cousin Leroy up in Canada and we’re going to be cutting a few tunes and, uh, I’m going to be working with, uh, Drew Schultz.
Davis 26:19 We have plans on cutting a couple more tunes and doing shows and continuing, uh, to represent Detroit the way that it should be. That’s what I plan on doing when this is over and everyone should be woodshedding. And this is an opportunity for you to perfect your talents and your skills and to be even more ready than you are right now. And just to, uh, you know, just spread the word and spread the music and the love to the world from the city of Detroit.
Gholz Yeah, it’s definitely a definitely a time for woodshedding and, uh, um, you know, a time to take stock. Melvin, I appreciate, um, just on a personal note, we’ve talked about this before, but I just want to say it on the record that, you know, we’ve, uh, I picked up the phone a number of times to call you to talk to you about things that were of concern to me, uh, you know, in the scene and the culture and things that just didn’t quite make sense to me. And you’ve always answered the phone, which, first of all, I appreciate you picking up, but also, um, you know, adding some advice and some wisdom and making me feel like, uh, you know, it’s not all for naught, you know, cause there are moments where you just want to give up some days and you always make me feel like, well, you could do that, but there’s, there’s other opportunities here.
Davis And like I told a young man in, in, in, in Flint, um, like I, I think I told you like it can be kind of painful. You know, some of the things that happen to you when you’re putting forth your best effort and you don’t get the results that you’re looking for. But I just want to say this to everyone that’s in that position. Embrace your pain because your, your answer and your, your relief is on the other side of it. Don’t let your pain cause you to quit because that’s what it’s trying to do. But you’re stronger than that and you will become stronger if you go through the pain and embrace it and then you realize that there’s an answer to every question and there is a solution to every problem. So just continue to be faithful, be strong, be creative and let nothing stop you and whatever your talents are, hone them, perfect them, and drive it straight down main street.
Gholz 28:34 Well, uh, I think that that’s a good Easter message as any and, uh, we’ll, we’ll take it from there. Melvin, I really appreciate you picking up today. Um, and uh, just thank you so much and we’ll talk to you soon and we’ll uh, see you later this year. Uh, face to face.
And I want to thank you Carleton for everything that you’re doing and that you have done and that you’re going to kind of continue to do and you just be diligent because what you’re doing is necessary and uh, you know, you’re, you’re getting the message out to a lot of people and it’s going to take time and it’s going to take perseverance, but you’re a young man, you’re strong, you’re intelligent, you’re talented. So just continue to do what you’re doing because, believe me, people out there want to hear what you have to say and may want to participate in what you have to do.
Well, ladies and gentleman, I didn’t ask him to say that, but everybody, the uh, the great Melvin Davis soul ambassador of Detroit, uh, Melvin, we’ll talk to you soon. I’m going to hang up and, uh, hopefully this got recorded. Talk to you soon.
Thank you. Much love to the planet. You guys be safe and be healthy.
All right, bye. Bye.
Bye bye now.