Don Davis: Electrifying Mojo Interview

Don Davis (1938-2014), musician, record producer, and banker, is interviewed by radio personality the Electrifying Mojo in this on-air interview.

Click the image above for the YouTube audio for this interview.

Click here to learn more about our work to help preserve United Sound Systems Recording Studios.

Transcript produced with permission from The Electrifying Mojo, Summer 2020.

The Left Side to the Right Side

Don Davis    00:00:00    I want to reach as many people as that possibly can. Let them know that they should realize their visions. They should push their visions and that they can, that they can achieve their visions. So not that I would change anything in the past, but I have changed what I do in the present.

Electrifying Mojo   00:00:39    Profound.  Very profound.   If we were to take this interview and break it up into segments, it could turn into a best seller on the left side to the right side. The wit, the wisdom, the depth, the dreams of Mr. Don Davis. CEO, United Sound. CEO, First Independence Bank. CEO of human experiences.  He has had his highs, he has had his lows but he’s stayed on his toes. And if there were to be one single word that would summarize this entire lyrical experience it would be, from what I’ve gathered, if you believe it, you can receive it. If you’re doing it, don’t stop until it’s done. 

Don Davis: Don’t quit. 

Electrifying Mojo: My special guest, Mr. Don Davis, the CEO of the First Independence Bank, the CEO of United Sound, the mind traveler from the left side to the right side, from the right side to the left side. With a very profound, provocative, and contemporary perspective on both sides. If we could take the knowledge and the motivation and the character and the depths of Mr. Don Davis and put it in a capsule, you would not have to go outside in the rain. 

Mojo: YouTube channel information   00:03:00   You’re listening to the Electrifying Mojo Rare Moments. If you like this video, hit the like button. If you wish to subscribe, hit the subscription button. If you like this video, hit the like button. If you wish to subscribe, hit the subscription button.

I Am Somebody

Electrifying Mojo   00:03:39    Let’s begin now to trace the life of Mr. Don Davis. He’s here in the studio now, he’s my special guest. A man who’s made some remarkable accomplishments in the music industry, in the human industry, in the banking industry, in the character industry, in the integrity industry. And what he’s been able to do is combine all of those pluses into multiple pluses. When America was making the transition and considering topical subjects like civil rights for all of its citizens, sociologists around the world and around the country were pointing out how maybe self-esteem had something to do with a person rising up and reaching out and stretching out and doing all of the things it was possible to do. Don Davis knew that in order to build esteem, since people always listened to radio, since people always sang songs, Johnnie Taylor, hotter than he’d ever been in his entire career, recorded this song produced by Don Davis, written by Don Davis, a song called “I Am Somebody.” “You are somebody,” and all of the people who had never even considered the topic began singing all over America. 

Click to listen to Johnnie Taylor, “I Am Somebody.”

Electrifying Mojo    00:08:41    That’s Don Davis on guitar riding out on Johnnie Taylor song right there, “I Am Somebody, You Are Somebody.” Ladies and gentlemen, I guess we kept you waiting long enough. Now we’d like to introduce the man, Don Davis, the CEO of First Independence Bank, CEO of United Sound, the CEO of his own destiny and what a destiny. And when you take a look at what Don Davis has accomplished, from a guitar player to owning a bank, to owning one of the most successful recording studios in history, United Sound. Don, if we were to just start listing people who’ve worked at United Sound where would the list begin? Where would it end?  

The List…

Don Davis    00:09:43    Well Mojo, that list would begin long before I even owned it. It’d begin with people like Charlie Parker, people like Miles Davis, people like Johnny Lee Hooker, people like Mary Wells. And by the time I put my hands into it, people like the Dramatics, people like Johnnie Taylor, Marilyn McCoo, Billy Davis, people like Albert King, people like . . . anybody that was making records. Anybody that makes records. People like . . . you want to hear this?

Electrifying Mojo  00:10:33    Parliament-Funkadelic

Don Davis   00:10:34     Yes. Parliament-Funkadelic.

Electrifying Mojo   00:10:35    Bootsy Collins.

Don Davis   00:10:36    Bootsy Collins.

Electrifying Mojo   00:10:37    Aretha Franklin

Don Davis    00:10:38    Aretha Franklin.

Electrifying Mojo    00:10:39    Anita Baker.

Don Davis    00:10:41   Anita Baker. 

Electrifying Mojo    00:10:44   I think it would be simpler to say who has not been to United Sound. I know Narada Michael Walden has been there. 

Don Davis   00:10:55    Yes.  Constant. Yes. 

Electrifying Mojo    00:10:56    I was at the studio one day and I was just walking around in the studio and someone tapped me on my shoulder…

Don Davis   00:11:10    Who was that? 

Electrifying Mojo  00:11:11  I turned around and, and I was embarrassed. I said, I know you from somewhere.

Don Davis    00:11:15     But you couldn’t remember?

Electrifying Mojo    00:11:16      I say your face is familiar. And someone walked behind me and said…’Aretha Franklin’. I said, yeah, yeah. Aretha. I knew it was you.

Don Davis   00:11:31    You said you knew it was her [laughter].  We’ve had the Doobie Brothers there. We’d just had and been fortunate to have just every major name, I believe, in show business.

Electrifying Mojo    00:11:42     Robin Trower.

Don Davis    00:11:43     Robin Trower, constant, yes.  

Your Wildest Imagination

Electrifying Mojo   00:11:47    The studio, United Sound Studio. When you bought into the studio, you said like, I want to own a studio. What were your dreams at that point? And when did your dreams exceed your wildest imagination?  

Don Davis    00:12:11    Mojo, I believe that dream first crossed my imagination long about 1955. I was just getting out of high school. And at that particular time, just getting ready to play my first recording session over there. We were recording an artist called J.J. Barnes. And J.J.. Barnes was recording a record called, “Baby, Please Come Home.”  [Listen via YouTube.] And as we recorded that record, I heard for the first time in my life, a studio sound. And I walked up to the owner of that studio and I said, “you know what? One day, one day I’m going to buy this studio from you.” Never realizing that what you believe and what you say will come true. That day did come. And that came in 1976. And as we wrote, and as we signed the closing notes on the studio, passing the ownership from Jim Siracuse to Don Davis, he looked at me and he said, “you know what?” He said, “I remember when you walked up to me one day and said, someday I’m going to buy this studio.” And he chuckled, and then he laughed. And he said, “now you’ve done it.” That was the first time, Mojo.  

Electrifying Mojo    00:13:48 What was that day like for you when you went home and you went to bed? After the signing, when you went to lunch with somebody, when did it feel like coming back to a studio that was yours?  Did you spend the night there that night?

Don Davis    00:14:06    Yeah, I spent several nights there in a row. And then another dream came across my mind. I said, “I want a place that I can walk into any time of night, feel comfortable, have a good vibe going through it because of the ambiance, start up the gear and feel like working.” And after I thought that thought, we put up one studio and when we saw we had a little more room left in the back, we put up second studio. Then we saw, we had a little room up upstairs; and we put up a third studio.   And that didn’t just all happen in one month or two months. What basically happened is that when that first studio went up, Mojo, [I] found myself working around the clock. Then other people wanted to get in and work also. So then it put a demand for what left the demand for a second studio. Then that one started filling up. And then as you know, as you mentioned a little earlier, George Clinton started coming in. The Parliament-Funkadelic ran me out of the studio. But we put up a third one, that’s the way that went.  

Where The Funk Was Born

Electrifying Mojo    00:15:33    I might as well tell everyone right now that it was at United Sound Studio, where “Flash Light” was born. 

[Listen to “Flash Light” via Spotify]

Don Davis    00:15:44    That’s exactly right.  

Electrifying Mojo    00:15:45    It’s where “One Nation Under a Groove” was born.

[Listen to “One Nation…” via Spotify]

Don Davis   00:15:49  That’s exactly right. 

Electrifying Mojo   00:15:50   It’s where “Knee Deep” was born. 

Don Davis    00:15:51   “Knee Deep.” 

Electrifying Mojo   00:15:52    Not just knee deep, totally deep.

Don Davis: Totally deep. 

Electrifying Mojo:  Deep inside the enclave of Don Davis’s dream.  

Don Davis    00:16:03    And that’s where the funk was born.  

Black Music Was Forbidden

Electrifying Mojo    00:16:06    The home of the funk, United Sound Studio. Don, let’s talk about the days prior to the studio. Let’s go back in time, way back in time to your first memory. And let’s trace that memory and those dreams up to the date that you signed for that studio. I do know one thing, the New Bethel Church played a part in that dream. As you were sitting on the pews, listening to the dynamic Reverend C.L. Franklin. Let’s just go back to those times and trace the shaping of a dream.  

Don Davis    00:17:00    It all started almost before I could remember. And that was every Sunday, every Wednesday, every Sunday night, going to that church, Little Rock Baptist Church. Listening to the choir sing, listening to the organs play. And that’s when that first music started germinating. Those first sounds started germinating and they kept getting bigger and bigger as I got bigger. Got so big that four or five years later, when we go to church at night, if the music wasn’t funky enough, my brother and I would sneak out and go around the corner where the sanctified church was. We’d go around there and listen to them jam a while, run back to our church and play like we were sleep. But those days, and in those days, Mojo, you couldn’t turn on your station and hear all this good music. Black music was forbidden. The only place that you could get it, was in the church or on WLAC late at night. And being kids, we weren’t allowed to stay up late at night, except on weekends.  We did the best we could until music finally came in to Detroit. Till it was finally born in Detroit and Black music was, had its beginning in Detroit, early on, on, on WJ… some station.

Electrifying Mojo   00:18:38      You can say it.

Don Davis    00:18:39    I can say it, I can say it?    

Electrifying Mojo Hey. 

C.L., Little Aretha, and Erma Franklin

Don Davis: And as that music was born and, and we were able to get that music all day, we then started emulating what we were hearing. Started buying records. Finally, I guess one of the real big boosts, as you mentioned, was the effect of the Reverend C.L. Franklin. I don’t think anybody could imagine what an influence one minister could have on a town. He changed the way of preaching. He changed the way of being able to come about with a good liberated gospel music. And we found ourselves and our peers there every Sunday, early for the broadcast, so that we could get a front row seat to sit down and listen to this man preach. Listen to this organ play. And after every sermon, Little Aretha would come up, they would put, pick her up and put her up on the pulpit. And she would sing and cool out everything that he did stirred up while he was preaching. We had great times then. Erma Franklin was amongst our peers then.  Erma was singing, Reverend Franklin was preaching, and Erma was putting up…. And Aretha was putting out the fires. We loved it. 

Detroit was a whole different place then, Mojo. And at that period, and as that time continued to develop, then along came a man, as we all know, named Berry Gordy. And in those days I was playing guitar. I was playing in the nightclubs every weekend, making that music, enjoying it, having the time of my life. But nobody ever dreamed that there would be a record industry in this town. Nobody.   And the early pioneers in that day, even before Berry Gordy was a guy named Robert West who founded the Falcons, who founded Wilson Pickett. And Robert West went over to Bristoe Bryant‘s place. And Bristoe Bryant had a little, two track tape recorder that he kept in his basement and they recorded over there one night in the basement, late one night, a song called “I Found Love.” It was a big record.  And that’s how the spark started here in Detroit on the Black side of music. And then later was picked up by Berry, along with Barrett Strong, and the Miracles. And you know, the story after that Mojo. 

Electrifying Mojo    00:21:46   The rest is history. 

Motown and Berry Gordy

Don Davis    00:21:48    The rest is history. And with that came opportunities to work, opportunities to learn your trade. And we’d go there at Motown in the early 50s and sit there and play all day, make records, learn our trade, enjoy it. And it was all we had to do. And we were thankful for it, but that’s how it was born.  

Electrifying Mojo   00:22:17    What, what, you had to just talk about the impact that Berry Gordy had on this town. Where would you start and where would you stop?  

Don Davis    00:22:33    Well, I would say the impact was, first of all, his ability as a man to do two simple things. And I would say two simple words, really, would sum up this man’s success. And those two words are, don’t quit. And Berry had a many, many, many false start before he got it going, but he never quit. And he always had this dream and he kept his eye on his dream. As you know about Mojo, Berry first started out writing for Jackie Wilson. And, quite frankly, he didn’t really like the way he was getting paid on those records and felt that he could do a better job if he were able to control it himself. And that’s what he began to do early on in the Motown days where he would manufacture his own records, make sure he got paid and make sure everybody else got paid. And his desire to kick off the Motown label came out of a desire to control his destiny. And many times with the Jackie Wilson situation, he was not able to do that. He even tried it early on with the Marv Johnson‘s on, on  “Move Two Mountains” as you know, one of Marv Johnson’s early hits on I believe it was Mercury Records. I’m sorry, United Artists Records. And still was not able to control his destiny, but he had that dream. I must control my destiny. And with that, and with his eyes focused on that dream, he did it.

Let Me See You Do Another One

Electrifying Mojo    00:24:29     I guess you’ll, you’ll always have your doubters you know, no matter what you do.   But when you had convincingly silenced all of the doubters, what started to happen then for Don Davis at United Sound?

Don Davis    00:24:46     Well Mojo you’re right.  You always have the doubters. You always have those that are on the sidelines saying, “Let me see you do another one. Let me see you do another one.” And we kept doing other ones for 12 or 13 years. The thing that, uh, really turned me on, Mojo, about Detroit it wasn’t the fact that I was born here. It wasn’t the fact that I was reared here. It was just the fact that there was so much energy here. There were so many people who wanted to do it. And I think I got my biggest, my biggest boost once the studio was open, from the George Clinton Funkadelic Movement.  Here were a bunch of guys, specifically George, who had the work ethic. Who didn’t want something for nothing. Who believed that if he had to get it, he had to stay there until he got it. If it meant all day and all night, he stayed there until he got it. And reliving and reseeing and reviewing myself through other people like George gave me more momentum to keep going and keep doing what I was doing.

But I have to tell you that in 1968, when “Who’s Making Love” came out, I was out of Detroit. I was then in Memphis, Tennessee. And for me, the Memphis sound was the only sound that really, really turned me on. And I loved the Motown sound. I played on many Motown records, played on many Motown hits, but I devoured the Memphis sound. And so when I went to Memphis in 1968, I stayed there until 1976 and I was sort of crossing the Memphis music with the Detroit music. And I kept crossing it until such time that, 1976, I said, look, I’m out of Memphis. I want to go home. I want to go back to Detroit. And that’s when we got involved with Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis and “You Don’t Have To Be a Star To Be In My Show ” and went on to do the La Bamba things. [Don Davis produced Howard Huntsberry‘s cover of Jackie Wilson‘s “Lonely Teardrops” for the La Bamba soundtrack. Link via Youtube.]

From Music to Money

And which turned out to be one of the greatest soundtracks of that year. You know, that was a Grammy album and, you know, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis was a Grammy album. And, you know, “Who’s Making Love” was a Grammy. And  we wound up at the end of the record career with, three Grammy awards and five Grammy nominations. And at that time, I think the time about 1976, when George [Clinton] and the Parliament-Funkadelic sort of just pushed me out of the studio, I knew I needed to go someplace else. And that’s when I started looking in other areas.  And I decided to get out of the music business for a while. Never really could shake it though, but I decided I would get out and get into another kind of business. That’s when I got involved with the banking business.  

Electrifying Mojo    00:28:19    So let’s talk about that crucial move from music to money. Staying with the M’s.

Don Davis    00:28:30     Staying with the M’s, Mojo. There’s three of them. That move is about a six year passage. You know, sometimes scientists say that we’re either creative or we are analytical. And the creative mind is the left brain mind, and the analytical mind is the right brain mind. And I know for a long time that I was the left brain mind because I was a very creative person. And I also knew that for me to get over to the analytical side, I would have to change my mind. I’d have to move my mind. It was a six year journey going from one side of my mind to the other. And don’t you believe for one minute Mojo, that it’s not true. There is such a thing as the left brain and the right brain. And when you try to mix the two, there’s a terrible perilous passage that you have to go through. When you don’t really know left from right. And I spent many a night anguishing and trying to cross that passage. And when I finally did, it was beautiful.

So now I’m ambidextrous, if you will, I can go from one side to the other, but it hasn’t been without cost. It hasn’t been without pain. And it hasn’t been without hurt. Because there was many days after I’m very forsaken and I was leaving one part of my life and taking on a new life. And I thought I was forsaking one part of me.  But as luck had it, the right people came along and showed me that this could be done, that those sides could coexist.  And they also warned me that it wouldn’t be easy, but that it could. So I did struggle with that for a good 6-8 years, long passage.  In fact it was the longest journey I’ve ever taken in my life. From one side to the other, one side of the brain to the other. 

The First Black Bank in Detroit

Electrifying Mojo   00:31:03      I’ve, uh, done quite a few interviews in my life. But this is the first one that I could actually feel the audience coming closer and closer and closer and closer to the radio with each passing word, knowing that if they ought to reach the full potential of their dream, then they would have to listen very carefully to these words that you’re speaking, because they represent a road map from the left side to the right side and a resolution on what the end possibilities could represent, being able to go from left to right. And you’ve not only gone from left to right, you’ve done it with such a resounding conviction. You have the first Black bank in this city, I do believe. One of the few Black banks in all America. I think a bank, just opened not long ago, I think in New York. And I do believe I heard on the interview that, they had counseled with you because for those who want to do what you, have been able to do it’s not necessary that they take that long journey. They can consult with the journeyman. 

How does it feel knowing that you have crossed from the left to the right, able to interchange the two and still maintain a contemporary perspective in both categories?

Don Davis   00:33:23    Mojo it’s an ever-growing fulfilling feeling. And I say that because right now, today, I have decided to stick my little toe back over on the left side and indulge myself in some more music. And I don’t think I would have done that if I had not met a couple of young talents that were yearning to make the passage themselves. And one such talent is a young man out of Detroit called KD, Anton Reed. Anton is a poet. Anton is a rapper. And Anton has given me something to look forward to and live forward for. Because he has shown me and he has recreated in me, my youth. I love talent. And the one thing that’s fulfilling about all of this is that if I can in some way, pass on, give on to other talent that’s in the city or that’s around me, then my living would be worthwhile.  

The Dramatics

Electrifying Mojo    00:35:18    About a month ago, your name came up, I was talking with Ron Banks, L.J. Reynolds, Willie Ford, and the guys. You know what they told me? They told me that you’d had a, an impact. They told me that original impact came when the music and they knew they wanted to do it. They wanted to be stars, not just to be stars, but because they thought they had something to say, they, they wanted to, uh, shape the world and they wanted to make life much more dramatic for people who listen to radio. And they — you said, “Look, fellas, there’s a guy named Tony Hester, and I’m gonna introduce you to this guy. And I would tell him about you,” that you called Tony and said, “Tony, I want you to help these guys, man, you know, and see what you can do for them and go check them out at this little place that’d be playing,” and he did.  And, and they went over to Tony’s apartment and Tony said in a real slow voice, “Well, I got some, a play for you guys, I want you to listen to and take a listen to it. And I’ll play a few things for you and we’ll take it from there.” And he put on a song, “Some People are Made of Plastic, Some People are Made of Wood.”

Ron said he heard that and he wanted to flip. “I said, wow, what has Don done to us? Sending us over here, and I see this guy talking about some people are made of plastic?” They said, “‘Naw man,  we want a real hit record!” As Tony said, in a real slow voice, “This is a real hit record.”  And as they said, “the rest is history.” But he went on to say how this mystical figure Don Davis re-entered their picture once more after they had lost the lead singer and they were searching for someone, he said he was in New York and this guy came backstage and said, “I like what you guys are doing, man. But, uh, you know, I know you don’t have a lead singer anymore and I can sing.” And Ron said, “Sing something then.” And the guy broke out, Ron said, just blew his mind. And he never stopped thinking about this guy. And then when he got back to Detroit started talking to you and said, um, “You know, Don, we heard a guy in New York and said his name was L.J. or something like that. And, uh, he just kind of blew me away. And, of all the people that I’ve ever heard, this guy impresses me the most.  And the guy gave me his number and I went and lost the number.” And he said, you looked at him and said, “Excuse me.” And you went into the file cabinet, said, “here’s a guy right here. And you can find him up in Saginaw, his name is L.J. Reynolds.” 

Don Davis    00:38:56    That’s exactly right. Mojo. And as you know, LJ is, is one of the real talents too, around the city. And we look to hear in the very near future, we look to hear a lot more from LJ. I think that he’s got a remarkable solo career. Right, right before him now. He is another one of those real, real hard workers. Believes in sweating it out, believes in perfection, and believes in giving it his all. Doesn’t want to half-step; never will half-step. When you see artists like that, that again gives you what you need to keep pushing on.  

I’m About The Black Community

Electrifying Mojo    00:39:53    Let’s talk about the other side of the brain, just for a second. In the banking industry, if you were to, if you were to take a look at your whole life, again, going from the left side to the right side, and now from the right side to the left side, if you could change anything about your life, what would you change? 

Don Davis     00:40:26    Not one iota, not one iota. The only thing I think that I would change is I think that sometimes there have been cases where I could have given a little bit more encouragement and I didn’t.  And so I don’t ever want to be remiss with that again. Because I want to encourage everybody with the talent, roll their sleeves up and get with it because we need this talent. We need to save our talent. And I want to, as a, as I think Mojo, not really say I would change anything so much is that I have changed. And what I’m about right now is getting our young Black entrepreneurs in step. Those that I can help, those that I can encourage. I’m about our school kids, getting them in step, giving them a vision. Or helping them to realize their own visions. I’m about the Black community. I’m about giving and sharing anything that I have with our community, that’s going to perpetuate our community. I don’t want us to be, and I don’t want to think about us on reservations, being useless. And as long as I can breathe, and as long as I can move and interact, I want to reach as many people as I possibly can. And let them know that they should realize their visions. They should push their visions and that they can, that they can achieve their visions. So not that I would change anything in the past, but I have changed what I do in the present. 

Don’t Quit

Electrifying Mojo    00:43:18   Profound, very profound. If we were to take this interview and break it up into segments, it could turn into a best seller. On the left side, to the right side,  The Wit,  The Wisdom, The Depths, The Dreams of Mr. Don Davis CEO, United Sound. CEO, First Independence Bank, CEO of Human Experiences. He has had his highs, he’s had his lows, but he’s stayed on his toes. And if there were to be a one single word that would summarize this entire lyrical experience, it would be from what I’ve gathered, if you believe it, you can receive it. If you’re doing it, don’t stop until it’s done.  

Don Davis    00:44:47    Don’t quit.  

Electrifying Mojo   00:44:49    Mr. Don Davis. It has been a very rare experience. It’s been one of the most inspirational motivational interviews I’ve had the pleasure to do. As I said earlier, I see this as being, uh, Don Davis speaks to Detroit part one.  There will be many sequels. 

Don Davis    00:45:20    Mojo, it would be my pleasure to come back anytime and rest assured when you got room for me, I will be back. 

Electrifying Mojo    00:45:38      My special guest has been Mr. Don Davis.  The CEO of the First Independence Bank. The CEO of United Sound.. the mind traveler from the left side to the right side, from the right side to the left side. With a very profound, provocative, and contemporary perspective on both sides. If we could take the knowledge and the motivation, and the character, and the depths of Mr. Davis and put it in a capsule. You would not have to go outside in the rain.

Mojo Plays Davis

The Dramatics – “In the Rain”    00:46:25     

Johnnie Taylor – “Disco Lady”    00:50:38

Johnnie Taylor – “Who’s Making Love”     00:59:02

The Dramatics – “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get”     01:01:48

Johnnie Taylor – “Jody Got Your Girl and Gone“       01:05:37

The Dramatics – “Get Up and Get Down”    01:08:29

Electrifying Mojo    01:11:38    It was an extreme pleasure to talk with Mr. Don Davis. As you can hear in the background, my earphones are still reverberating with their own symphony.  

Johnnie Taylor – “It’s Cheaper to Keep Her”      01:11:54″

Bobby “Blue” Bland & BB King – “Let the Good Time Roll”   01:15:15

Electrifying Mojo     01:21:17   This is Electrifying Mojo; we’ll be right back after these words.

Commercial break      01:21:20

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