Thursday morning, August 9th, legendary Chicago soul producer CARL DAVIS made his final passage at the age of 77 after battling lung disease for the last few years. Carl’s death came just one year after he finally published his autobiography, “The Man Behind The Music” – a title that gives more than an inkling as to the great body of work he helped create during a golden era of pop and R&B music (not to mention the artists he worked with).
Carl entered the music biz in the 1950s when he helped Windy City radio legend Al Benson organize his weekly tip sheet. By the early 1960s, Carl was hired by Columbia Records to work in sales. However, Carl’s true desire was to produce – and all it took was one record to establish him as a top notch man of the studio boards. That single was Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”, a #1 hit on both the pop and R&B charts in 1962.
The execs at Columbia soon realized what they had and immediately placed Carl at their McClurg Court studios/offices in Chicago. Under the reactivated Okeh imprint, Mr. Davis wasted no time creating a roster (Major Lance, Artistics, Walter Jackson, Vibrations, Opals) and racking up the hits. “Monkey Time”, “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”, “It’s All Over”, “This Heart Of Mine”, “Welcome Home”….just to name a few.
At the same time, Carl moonlighted for Constellation Records (Gene Chandler’s “Just Be True”) as well as producing Mary Wells’ “Never Never Leave Me” and “Dear Lover”. Unfortunately, Columbia caught wind of his activities and he offered his resignation in late 1965.
Undaunted, Carl launched Jalynne Productions (one of many companies named after his children) in 1966 and found work as an independent producer. That summer at a DJ convention held at NYC’s Waldorf-Astoria, Carl met with Brunswick Records honcho Nat Tarnopol, who needed help resuscitating Jackie Wilson’s career. Carl went right to work – “Whispers (Getting Louder)”, “Higher & Higher”, “I Get The Sweetest Feeling”. He brought the Artistics to the label from Okeh (“I’m Gonna Miss You”) and signed Young-Holt Unlimited (“Wack Wack”) as well as Gene Chandler (“The Girl Don’t Care”). The label promoted him to A&R chief by 1967.
In 1968, Carl founded Dakar Records and signed Tyrone Davis, whose hits “Can I Change My Mind” and “Turn Back The Hands Of Time” were produced by session man/arranger Willie Henderson. That year, he brought the Chi-lites to the label and put lead singer Eugene Record to work as a writer/producer for the group as well as acts such as songwriter Barbara Acklin (“Love Makes A Woman”).
By 1970, Brunswick became an independent label after years of ownership under MCA and Carl was appointed Vice President. Within two years, the label exploded thanks in part to the Chi-lites’ one-two punch, “Have You Seen Her” and “Oh Girl”. In regards to “Oh Girl”, writer/producer Eugene felt the tune was “too corny” for the moody album, “A Lonely Man”. Carl felt otherwise and, to prove his point, had the group perform the song on “The Flip Wilson Show”. Two million copies later, it was the Chi-lites’ first #1 pop hit (and the label’s only top-charting record).
In 1973, Brunswick was embroiled in a payola scandal of which they were cleared of all charges (twice) but left the company in disarray within two years. Carl felt it was time to leave the company and went on to establish two labels in 1975, Chi-Sound and Innovation II. Soon, many Windy City hit makers joined his roster – Walter Jackson, Gene Chandler, the Chi-lites, Dells, the Impressions – as well as new acts such as Manchild (featuring a young Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds on guitar).
When his distribution deal with 20th Century Fox Records ended in 1980, Carl relied on independent marketing folks to handle his product – which unfortunately was limited as far as national reach. Nevertheless, he continued producing until poor health forced him to retire and relocate to South Carolina – where he lived until his final days.
To this writer, Carl was one of a few folks in the industry that I called a true mentor. When I started my label career at Brunswick Records in 1995, a few months after the company was re-activated, Carl made himself available to answer whatever questions I had regarding the artists, sessions, master tape vault and other recollections (it was he who confirmed that Motown’s Funk Brothers and the Andantes played and sang on Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher”). When I traveled to Chicago on business, Carl invited me to his home on many occasions to talk shop and offer advice on how to navigate my way through the rough-and-tumble recording industry.
The last time I had spoken with Carl was earlier this year when I interviewed him for the liner notes that will accompany the upcoming Soul Music Records reissue of Mary Wells’ 20th Century Fox albums. Though he was battling his illness, Carl was in great spirits and our conversation was indeed special.
So, to Carl Davis, the Dean of Chicago Soul, I say thank you so much for the music. To paraphrase that hit you produced for the Artistics, we’re gonna miss you.
About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".