With a string of soulful hits including the platinum disco-funk stomper “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” and sleek, mid-tempo grooves “Tell Me If You Still Care,” “The Finest,” and “Just Be Good to Me,” Atlanta’s S.O.S. Band was a staple of radio airwaves and homes of the record-buying public throughout the 1980’s. A big part of that success can be attributed to the illustrious, finely honed vocal pipes of front woman Mary Davis. Back on the road again, she recently spoke with soulmusic.com about the group’s beginnings on the club circuit; working with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and what inspired her to rekindle the “Sounds of Success.”
JK: Hi, Mary. I don’t know if you’re familiar with our website, but Soulmusic.com does a lot of features on who we consider to be authentic and talented R&B and Soul music artists, and a guy by the name of Quentin had told my editor about a performance that The S.O.S. Band will be doing in London in March, so we thought it would be a good chance to fill our readers in on what you’ve been up to and a little bit of the history of the band. It’s an honour to speak with you. I’ve enjoyed so many of the songs that the band has done over the years, as well as your solo work that you put out. Can you tell me how you got started with the band, and how it was originally formed?
MD: Yes. The band was formed in ’79. There was a club here called the Regal Room, and it was on the strip in Atlanta, and you had 4 different clubs on that street, and the Regal Room was one of the ones that had live entertainment. The manager of the club would hire bands to come in and stay for 2 nights at a time, and if they were good then they would stay longer. They used to have an amateur hour on Saturdays, so I went to perform, because I had just left New York; I had lived in New York for a while and got tired of the rat race. I went to the club to try to find some work to do. I did the audition at the amateur hour, and the manager of the club liked what he heard, and in the meantime, Jason Bryant who was our keyboard player at the time, he had just come in from Japan, so he was looking for some place to work also. The manager knew Jason because he had played there before. After he heard me, he said, “Jason, why don’t you and Mary get together and form a band with some more musicians, and I’ll sure enough hire you.” So, that’s what we did!
JK: What was the time frame over which this happened? Was it over a span of a year or was it a matter of months?
MD: Oh no, that was a matter of one or two weeks. We didn’t have any originals at the time, so we had to go in the woodshed and learn all the Top 40 songs at that particular time, and it took us about a week. It was 2 shows a night, and that was about 8 to 9 songs per set, so James Earl Jones III, who was our drummer at the time, he had an uncle who had a basement, so we went and started rehearsing in his basement, and we got really tight.
JK: So you really were in a woodshed; it wasn’t the name of a place or anything.
JK: You said you migrated from New York. Were you from New York originally, or had you just tried your luck there for a while?
MD: I’m originally from Savannah, Georgia and after I got out of High School, I went to New York to see if I could try to get into anything.
JK: I don’t know if you are familiar with Millie Scott, she’s an R&B singer from Savannah and I spoke to her recently. Are you familiar with her?
MD: I’m not sure. I don’t know her married name, but her maiden name was Mildred Vaney.
JK: That’s her.
MD: Oh, that is Mildred!
JK: She’s from Savannah, and I just talked to her a couple of weeks ago. As a matter of fact, we have the feature on the site right now, and I talked to her about her whole history, growing up in Savannah, doing Gospel, and then she moved to New York with a girl group she was in called the Glories, where she has been for a long time now. I don’t talk to many people from Savannah.
MD: You would remember her. Mildred and I used to sing together in a Gospel group. There was a group called the Sermonette Gospel Singers. This is a small world.
JK: I was thinking, maybe you would know who she was, but I wouldn’t have thought that you knew her. That’s too cool. So you guys got a gig at the club, right?
MD: At the Regal Room, yes. We started working on the weekends, which was Friday and Saturday nights. We got so tight, and were so good, that the owner of the club hired us for 5 nights straight, and the club was packed every night. On Saturday he had the Amateur Hour, because all of the musicians in town would come by; that was the spot for live entertainment. We stayed in that club for a good year and a half.
JK: What were you called at that point?
MD: At that time, we were called Santa Monica.
JK: So then it’s true that you called yourself that because of having played a gig in Santa Monica that went really well?
JK: Okay, well that’s what I read.
MD: The keyboard player Jason, who had just come from Japan, he lived in LA for a minute, and he lived in Santa Monica, so he decided to name the band Santa Monica at that time.
JK: It was a catchy name.
MD: Yes. There wasn’t anybody in town using that name or whatever, so we just started calling ourselves Santa Monica.
JK: How long was it before you got the deal with Tabu Records, and how did that all come about?
MD: Okay, we played in that club from 1-3 years; I’m not sure exactly, because it’s been a long time. Bunnie Ransom, who was the ex-wife of the mayor of Atlanta at that particular time, she knew Clarence Avant, who was the president of Tabu Records. He was looking for groups to sign up at that particular time. So the horn player, which was Billy Ellis, he knew Bunnie at that time, so she came by and listened to us and said, “Why don’t you go into the studio, do a demo and I’ll send it to Clarence.” She knew that Clarence was looking for musicians to sign on his label. Well, we did that and she sent the material to Clarence, and Clarence liked what he heard, so at that time Sigidi Abdallah, who wrote ‘Take Your Time’, he knew Clarence, so Clarence sent Sigidi down to work with us, and that’s how ‘Take Your Time’ came about.
JK: So it was a pretty quick process then, from the time you submitted the demo to the time you started working with Sigidi.
MD: Yes. We were ready! Being in that club 6 nights a week, we were tight.
JK: Obviously ‘Take Your Time’ ended up being huge, going to the top of the R&B charts and #3 Pop, and I think it sold close to 2 million copies, so that was a big bang the first time out. Did it take off really fast or was it something that was gradual?
MD: It took off real fast. No one was expecting anything, but the thing we were blessed about, like I said, because of the fact that we were playing every night, so we were really tight and ready, but another thing that happened is that we didn’t have any instruments at that particular time, so we wound up, I don’t know if you ever heard of a group called Brick, well Brick and Bunnie were all connected. We didn’t have the cases to travel, so we had to borrow their cases to put the instruments in something. Everything took off so fast and we weren’t ready for it. We had to make some money and then we bought our own cases.
JK: That was good timing that they weren’t touring at the moment so you could borrow their gear.
MD: They had just come off a tour. They had a tune out called ‘Daz’.
JK: So you did a lot of touring on the strength of that first album.
MD: We went to a hundred and some-odd cities within a 3-month period of time.
JK: All in the States?
MD: All in the States. The next year, we did a military tour. We went to Rheinstein, Frankfurt and all these places.
JK: Was that the first time that you had travelled overseas like that, or had you done that before?
MD: Yes, first time.
JK: What do you remember about those times in terms of the travel and the whole experience of suddenly going from being a local musician to being a nationally successful band?
MD: For one thing, it was hard work because my body wasn’t used to it, but we did have a tour bus at that particular time. We started working with a big name act, because the song was so hot but nobody had heard of us because they didn’t put our pictures on the album cover; nobody had seen us. That tour was with Ashford & Simpson, The Isley Brothers, Stephanie Mills and the S.O.S. Band.
JK: The big-timers.
MD: Yes, and we had only 15-30 minutes because we were the opening act. We would hit the stage and a lot of people got mad and upset, because a lot of people don’t come out to the concert to see the opening act, and they didn’t know that we were the opening act, so they started asking for their money back because they didn’t get a chance to see us.
JK: Because they got there late and you guys were already off the stage?
JK: So you only did 3 or 4 songs I guess?
MD: I think we only did 3 songs.
JK: You’ve got to get there right on time for that.
JK: So on the S.O.S. Band III album, a fruitful collaboration started with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis at first in the writing department when they wrote ‘High Hopes’ and then on the “On the Rise” album, I think they produced the majority of your work from then on. Was that an intentional shift in sound that you wanted to make, or was it something that was suggested, like “We want you to work with this duo because they are hot and up-and-coming”? How did that collaboration come about?
MD: After ‘Take Your Time’, that was such a big hit, and after Sigidi came out with songs after that, it was hard to top that big song. Clarence knew Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, so he introduced us to them, and what they did was, they went and studied the things that Sigidi did on us, and that’s how they came up with the sound for ‘High Hopes’ and the rest of the tunes. They took the flavour that Sigidi had and then added their flavour to it and that’s how it sounds. Plus, we had a variety of instrumentalists, because we had jazz influence, we had rock influence, we had calypso, and we had years and years of experience doing these songs. When we came together as a band, that’s why we were so hot in the club, because we all knew what we were doing and we liked what we were doing and were very creative at that time, and that’s how those sounds came about.
JK: So you could integrate a little bit from everybody.
JK: At least for those first few albums, you had 8 members in the band?
JK: One thing that I was curious about, and I admire the work that Jam & Lewis have done, but it was obviously a more synthesized sound to some degree. How did that affect the band’s input on the album? You have all these live instrumentalists, and was everybody still able to be utilized, or did it change how the lineup was utilized?
MD: No, everybody was able to be utilized, because like I said, we had musicians that took theory and they went to school for music, and as a matter of fact, when rap music came out, and synthesizers and the drum machine, that’s when the different sounds of music happened to change, at that particular time. Music is nothing but a circle. It will start right here today and go around, but there is nothing in music that has not been created at some time or another, because you only have a certain scale to go through. It’s just a different flavour and a different sound that comes out of a machine.
JK: Was it Sigidi who suggested the name change to S.O.S. Band?
MD: When we signed up with Clarence, he said that the name Santa Monica was too long, and it didn’t have any substance, so that’s when we started throwing different names out. Everybody had to come up with a name, and when Sigidi came up with S.O.S., it kind of hit everybody. We said, “Okay, we can use it for different things like Sounds of the South or Satisfaction On Stage” but the real meaning is Sounds of Success.
JK: It’s a multi-purpose name.
JK: So you guys had a big string of hits over the next few years: ‘Just Be Good To Me’, ‘Tell Me If You Still Care’, ‘Weekend Girl’, and ‘Just The Way You Like It’. What do you remember in that time frame as far as when you would go out and perform for different audiences? What songs would get some of the biggest response, and who were some of the memorable people that you would perform with during those years?
MD: The most memorable moment was when we played Madison Square Garden. That was a first, and a most memorable moment to me. Because of the fact that I lived in New York and I used to go to Madison Square Garden to concerts and different things, and I was able to go into Madison Square Garden and perform, when we hit the stage, it was like “Oh My God! The building is going to collapse! Everybody got up on their feet and started dancing and screaming and hollering. You know how you take your foot and stomp it like “boom-boom-boom” well, the whole place just shook from that. Being from New York and being able to go to that particular theatre and perform there, it was just a dream come true.
JK: One thing that struck me in that time period, specifically with the songs ‘Just The Way You Like It’ and ‘Just Be Good To Me’, they had a different lyrical edge to them, as far as the situations they were talking about. How did you feel about singing those songs? Was it something that was just for fun, or did you have any reaction to the themes of those songs?
MD: When songs are presented to me, it’s like acting. If I can’t feel the character that I’m portraying, then my audience won’t feel it. I’m a lyrics person, and when you write a song and give it to me, first of all I’m going to read the lyrics and see what the story is all about. If I can relate to it, then I don’t mind singing it. If I can’t relate to it, then I can’t do it because I’ve got to feel it in order to make you feel it.
JK: What made you decide to part ways with the band after the “Sands of Time” album?
MD: With the rigorous schedule that I was on, I got sick to tell you the truth, literally sick. Really, I pushed myself too far at that particular time. I should have taken a vacation or relaxed for a while, but because of the fact that there were so many people depending on me at the time for their livelihood, I just pushed myself too far and I got sick, so I had to stop for a minute.
JK: From the recording, the touring and a combination of things I guess?
JK: A lot of people just glance over that side of it and think it looks so glamorous, but I can imagine it must take a mental and physical toll on you.
MD: Oh yes, it did. We were going into different climates first of all, and not getting the proper rest, not eating properly, that will take a toll on your body, because my body wasn’t used to that.
JK: You guys were very prolific; you had an album out every year or so. It wasn’t like you had much of a break.
JK: After you left the S.O.S. Band, you put out a solo single called ‘Steppin’ Out’, which was really nice and had a different sound, but I don’t think the album came out at that time, if I’m correct.
MD: It was bad timing. At the time, Tabu was changing companies and what have you.
JK: Was that something that was for the better, or was it something that disappointed you at the time?
MD: Oh yes, it was definitely disappointing to me, because it was something that I really wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to do a solo project, and I was able to do it, but it went I would say, in File 13.
JK: A few years after that, you came out with the “Separate Ways” album, and you did have a Top 20 Hit with ‘Don’t Wear It Out’, and Babyface and LA Reid produced that for you. So, were you pleased with the final product of the “Separate Ways” album?
MD: Some of the songs I was, and some of the songs I wasn’t. The thing that I got out of that was, I was able to do it. You know how you’re able to do something in life, and if you don’t try it, you’ll never know how it would be? Well that was something that I just really wanted to do.
JK: I read that before you had been with the S.O.S. Band, you had worked in the record retail industry and you went back into that for a while after you had done your solo album. Is that correct?
MD: That’s true. I was a manager at a store called Peppermint at Greenbriar Mall.
JK: Was music still a part of your regular life when you stepped away from performing?
MD: Oh yes, music has always, and will always be a part of my life, because that’s something that I do well, and I really don’t know what else to do. It’s just a gift from God.
JK: What made you decide to re-unite?
MD: Everybody that would come into the record store, a lot of people recognized who I was from seeing different pictures and videos, and they would say, “What are you doing in here? You need to be out there singing! We need your voice back out there!” It was just one of those things. S.O.S. didn’t tour the States, but they toured Europe at that particular time.
JK: Are you talking about the lineup with the different vocalist?
MD: Yes. A lot of people got angry because the parts weren’t the same, but they had a different format and whatever. After they came back from Europe, Ra’oof came, he knew where I was, and he came to the store and said, “Why don’t we try this again?” I said, “Let me think about it” and I thought about it, and we had a meeting and decided that we would get together again.
JK: So you started performing again regularly, and the first time that I found out you were back together was with an album called “United We Funk”.
MD: We were together before that came about. It was Ra’oof and myself, who is the trumpet player who does the lead vocal on ‘High Hopes’, and he came and said, “Let’s get together” and I said, “Okay, let’s give it a try”. We went to a different booking agency and let them know that I was back and my voice would be there, so I’m going to start booking. So they did! We just started working! We met Confunktion, and that’s when we had a meeting and said, “Let’s try something different” because the market at that time wasn’t great for individual bands.
JK: Live musicians basically, right?
MD: Exactly. So that’s what we decided to do, we decided to take the different principles from each group and have one band. So for different songs, we would have these people backing and this person do the leading, so that’s how that came about.
JK: Who comprises the band now? Who are the members that are in your band now?
MD: Okay, the two original members are myself and Ra’oof, and then we have Dal Ross on keyboards, we have Alan Smith on keyboards, and we have Celia Georgie who sings background, and then we have a female drummer who is Crystal Martin; all excellent musicians.
JK: What types of venues are you playing these days and which locations do you frequently visit?
MD: Any one we can get! (laughs) We play all different venues. Let’s see, April is the beginning of the season, and usually this time of year is on the down-side, because people are coming off Christmas holidays and New Years and what have you, so nobody has any money to spend on entertainment, they’re trying to make ends meet with rent, mortgage, lights and gas. January, February and March are slow, but it begins to pick up in April. Most of the things that we have been doing were things in parks. We’ve been travelling with 3 or 4 groups at a time; Midnight Star, Confunktion, you know all the old school groups, and sometimes they’d have a local band that opened for us and we’d be the headliner. It’s different places, not just one particular place.
JK: Can you tell me about the gig in London that you’re going to be doing in March?
MD: Oh, I’m excited about that gig! It’s March 20th. The first time we hit London, it was almost like Madison Square Garden, because when we first hit the stage, everybody jumped up, and I didn’t have to work hard the time that we were there, because everybody was singing all the lyrics to the songs, and I just had a lovely time. It was just wonderful. We haven’t been to London in a while, so I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s just a regular theatre concert.
JK: Are you part of a lineup of different acts, or is it just you guys?
MD: I’m not sure. I don’t have that information as of yet. I don’t have it, but my manager would have it. Sometimes I just like to be surprised and wait until the last minute to sing.
JK: I understand. You want to experience the energy when you get there. Are there any plans for the group to record any new material at this point?
MD: We’ve been going into the studio and doing some stuff, but we haven’t come out with anything that’s funky; nothing like when I heard ‘Take Your Time’ and I said, “Oh My God! This is going to be something!” We’ve got a few things that we’ve done, but I’m not too particular about them. I also did a few Gospel songs that I am working on. I’m working on a Gospel project that’s been going on and on, and hopefully by the grace of God, it shall come to life. That’s about it. Everybody is doing their own little thing too in the band. All of the musicians that are here, they hire themselves out to different groups, and they’ve got their own little projects going on.
JK: So you’re able to do this on an enjoyable scale and still have your personal life?
MD: Yes. That’s where I am now in my golden age.
JK: So you can do it without getting sick again.
JK: Tell me about the Gospel material that you are doing. Is it traditional Gospel, or is it contemporary Gospel? What can we expect from that?
MD: I would like to do a variety, because I would like to have a little something on there for different age groups, so I want to do a variety. So far, I’ve got one that’s traditional with a little twist to it, and then I have one that’s a little hip hop-ish. It’s going to be a variety of stuff.
JK: Are you using some of the musicians in the band for it, or is it a totally separate project?
MD: I’m just trying to get it done. Anybody can come onboard. I’m just trying to get it done.
JK: So you’re looking for people to come onboard.
JK: Do you know anything about the whereabouts of some of the past members of the S.O.S. Band, like Bruno or Jason or Willie? Are they still involved in music, or are they just doing their own thing now?
MD: Jason is still in Japan, so he’s still doing music. In fact when we were there year before last, he came by. He lives there now. Bruno is playing with Maceo; he stays overseas the majority of the time. They do a lot of those festivals over there. John Simpson, who was the bass player, he is now a youth leader pastor down in Parrot, Georgia. Billy Ellis, who was our horn player, he’s dead. Jerome plays with Bruno, and they travel a lot together, with Maceo.
JK: There were a couple of other guys, and I’m not sure if they were in the band after you had left. There was a guy named Curt Mitchell.
MD: Curt plays around town. He plays bass here in Atlanta. Marcus Williams died too. James Earl Jones is still playing around town. He’s still drumming and he has a band. They do a lot of corporate dates.
JK: Well, I really want to thank you, and I hope that if there’s any way your manager can keep us abreast of what’s coming up Stateside as well, that would be great, because I know a lot of people would love to see you guys, but they might not know. I don’t know if everybody finds out, because there is so much on the Internet these days. It’s hard to keep up with everything!
MD: That’s true.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.