In the ’60s, British kids hungry for exotic American sounds helped resuscitate the careers of countless R&B musicians from the States, a practice that continues to this day. Here’s the story of one Detroit drummer who kept his dreams alive long enough to finally get his due—fifty years after he first hit the scene.
Melvin Davis might not be a household name among average music fans, or even average fans of soul and R&B. But if you happened to find yourself in the middle of an “all-nighter” party at one of England’s Northern Soul events like the Prestatyn Weekender, you’d receive a warm nod of recognition at the mention of him.
The Northern Soul scene is a longstanding English underground movement of music fanatics who dive deep into the obscure sounds of ’60s Detroit soul. These fans can tell you what drummer played on the original LP version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “The Tears of a Clown” and on Funk Brother Dennis Coffey’s first LP, Hair and Thangs. They can tell you the name of the songwriter who penned J.J. Barnes’ legendary “Chains of Love” (later covered by Mavis Staples and by the Detroit garage-rock outfit the Dirtbombs) as well as hits by Darrell Banks, Johnnie Taylor, and Edward Hamilton. They know who sang lead on the 8th Day’s smash single “You Got to Crawl (Before You Walk).” They know who did all these things, and they’d be happy to tell you that, in each case, it was Melvin Davis.
Davis’s career amounts to much more than the résumé of a drummer. As an instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer, Melvin has a story of success bubbling just under the cross-cultural explosion of Motown Records, of creativity subdued by a corporate-controlled music industry, and of a musical passion successfully reignited by an unlikely audience of overseas diehards and young Detroiters alike. Now he has seen several tours across Europe, a young burgeoning fan base in his hometown of Detroit, and a recent CD collecting his classic ’60s material, aptly titled Detroit Soul Ambassador. Modern Drummer wanted to find out more about this unique talent, and he was happy to oblige.
MD: How did you get into music?
Melvin: By listening to records during that period of time, which was the explosion of rock ’n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and American popular music being exposed to the public. When I was a young kid, I used to go to a juke joint called Shady Red. The acts that used to come through there were people like Little Richard and James Brown, when they were just starting out. The rhythm of the Upsetters, Little Richard’s band, the pulse of that music really had an effect on me—still does to this very day. I really didn’t realize what an infl uence that music had on me, I just knew that I had a good sense of rhythm. I could hambone really well—I was a good dancer. I used to win contests! But I didn’t pay that much attention to actually doing anything in the music industry until I went into the navy. I could play the piano a little bit, and when I came out of the service I just sort of gravitated to it. I started writing songs. My fi rst was called “Happiness,” a simple little tune with a few chords. My fi rst gig was with a guitar player named Cornell Blakely. I was playing piano, even though I could probably only play three or four songs correctly.
MD: How did you get started playing drums?
Melvin: Cornell’s drummer used to drink, and they would get into arguments. For three weeks we were living above a club, and during the day I would go downstairs and fool around on the drums, and I had a couple beats going. Then Cornell and the drummer got into a fight, and the drummer got fired. I said, “Well, who’s going to play drums?” And Cornell said, “You are!” That was the beginning of my career. After that, I really only used my keyboard playing for songwriting purposes.
MD: How did you go about getting your songs recorded?
Melvin: I was a very adventurous person, and I would try everything. I don’t know where I got all that gumption. I wrote these songs and had a little cardboard briefcase, and I started going around to these recording studios to audition. At one of these auditions they said, “Let’s record your song and put it out.” That was the Jackpot record label, and I was about nineteen years old. That was my first single, “About Love”/“I Don’t Want You.”
Back then there were many fledgling record labels that were coming out of Detroit. The whole thing was just starting, and no one knew exactly what it was going to be. So there were dozens and dozens of record labels that put out a few records and then stopped. It was like a crapshoot—some would be successful, and some wouldn’t.
MD: Tell us a little about your first band, the Jaywalkers.
Melvin: A year and a half after “About Love,” I formed a band. That was after I met Clyde Wilson, a great guitar player who ended up being a very successful singer and songwriter going by the stage name Steve Mancha. In the Jaywalkers, the members were Mancha; Cornelius Grant, who ended up as musical director for the Temptations for many years; David Ruffin, who went on to be the lead singer for the Temptations; and Tony Newton, who was a fabulous bass player. It’s just amazing to me that everyone in that group went on to have great success.
MD: Did it help to have abilities as both a songwriter and a drummer?
Melvin: They enhanced one another tremendously, and of course it has to do with my ability to sing and play, and to have knowledge of the percussive end of recording a rhythm section. It enabled me to view the art of recording from several different vantage points, and to gain knowledge, experience, and a feel relative to all of that.
My expertise lies in the interaction of all of it. There are many drummers out there that have a knowledge of chord structure and melody. So they can write songs, and I would say they should continue to expose themselves to every aspect of music that they can. Get with other songwriters, other singers, and play shows with different people from different styles. Listen to the instrumentation, and listen carefully.
When you practice you’re alone, but when you’re playing with a band you should always listen to all the other instruments. Drumming will help your writing too. When you get into drumming, you start to think not just about the beat, but about 16ths, 32nds, and subdivisions. So every aspect of those thirty-two beats within the measure is an opportunity to have an effect on the groove and the outcome of that piece. That’s going to help you as a singer and as a songwriter. You’ll know where you want to put the melody, and you’ll know how to work with that melody from the aspect of the syncopation that you’re laying underneath it.
MD: After having success in so many different aspects of music, you stepped back for a while.
Melvin: It was the politics of the whole industry. For so many years I had worked to perfect my craft. I worked on it for years, and then all of a sudden it changed. The opportunities for exposure for your music just dried up when all of these conglomerates took over radio, and payola didn’t help. The whole industry became so small and so controlled.
In 1979 and 1980 I spent $125,000 recording some of the best music I’d ever done, but I couldn’t even get it played. I intended to work at the post office for maybe four or six months and then put my band back together, make my next recording, and get back out there. But the music industry continued with this choking, and trying to get your music on the radio was impossible unless you were with a major label with major dollars behind it. I kept saying, “I’ll only be here for another year or so,” but after ten years I decided to stick it out.
I was at the post office for twenty-four years, but I never stopped being creative. I always had my keyboard, and I had my drums, and I never, ever stopped writing. To this day I have a bunch of songs I want to record.
Dennis Coffey’s drummer, Steve Adams, is an example of the people who are interested in recording the traditional music of Detroit, and I’m doing some recording at his studio now. I’m also playing live with my band, the United Sounds. They’re all examples of people in Detroit who are still very active and carrying on the tradition of the city’s musical legacy, just like I’m trying to do.
MD: Today you’re in the middle of an inspiring career resurgence. How did everything start rolling for you again?
Melvin: Suddenly I started to get calls from Europe. People had never seen me over there, but they knew all of my music. It was the Northern Soul scene, and I had three records in the top ten over there that were not hits in the States.
I had heard about this, but it’s like an apple: People can tell you how it tastes—how it’s red, juicy, and sweet—but until you take a bite you really don’t know. So I went over there with my son in 2004 for the first time. It really opened my eyes to another world, and it led me to change the way that I looked at not only my career but the legacy that Detroit music has contributed to the world scene.
I went back in 2005, and I did a show called An Evening With Melvin Davis. I only had to sing two songs, but then I answered questions for an hour and a half. There were all these journalists there, and in the lobby they played all of my songs. I knew I’d written a lot of songs, but they just went on and on and on. It opened my eyes, and I thought, Wow, I’ve done a lot of stuff!
Until then, I hadn’t looked back. I was still in the process of going forward, creating new songs. But I’d never had an opportunity to reflect on my career and see it in that kind of light. I met people who were so touched, and I couldn’t believe what my music had meant to them. At one show I met a guy by himself standing against the wall. His hand was shaking, and he said, “I don’t usually go out much, but I had to come because I just wanted you to know that my wife left me, and my kids left me, but you never left me.” In other words, he’s telling me that my songs and my music helped him to make it through the toughest times of his life.
Stuff like that has nothing to do with a monetary reward. It has to do with an exchange of spiritual awareness and understanding, and comfort that we can give to one another as human beings. To have the ability to share that with someone is a gift not only to him but to me, and you can’t buy that. You just can’t.
“IT’S YOUR THING,” DENNIS COFFEY
Released in 1969 on Coffey’s debut album, Hair and Thangs, this instrumental cover of the Isley Brothers’ smash takes you by surprise with Coffey’s distortion-drenched guitar opening backed by Davis’s deep 16th-note pocket. “That song is more rock ’n’ roll oriented than Dennis’s big hit ‘Scorpio,’” Davis says. “‘Scorpio’ was more of a funk tune. We had a great trio with Lyman Woodard, Dennis Coffey, and myself. We did a lot of gigs around town, and we packed clubs.” That energy comes through clear as day on “It’s Your Thing,” especially in the head-bobbing drum breakdown as the track builds back up with Coffey’s interlocking wah-wah lines and Woodard’s driving organ providing the bass.
“THE TEARS OF A CLOWN,” SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES
Before this song broke through in 1970 as a signature hit, it was released as an album-only track in 1967 on Robinson and the Miracles’ Make It Happen LP, with Davis providing the driving drum part alongside the legendary Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band. “I cut that song in Motown’s Studio A, which was called the snake pit,” Davis recalls. “It was always something else working with the Funk Brothers. They were probably one of the greatest groups of musicians on the planet. They weren’t just a bunch of studio players—they were concert virtuosos.”
Davis holds his own with these Detroit legends, chugging quarter notes on the snare alongside Bob Babbitt’s bubbling bass and Eddie Willis’s stabbing guitar chanks. “They wanted certain short pickups,” the drummer recalls, “but mostly they just wanted me to hold the beat steady and play the part.” Davis’s deft fills can be heard in the second half of the song’s verses, as Robinson’s airy vocal darts in and out of the groove.
“DOUBLE OR NOTHING,” MELVIN DAVIS
“One of the tunes that I really enjoyed playing on was ‘Double or Nothing,’” Davis says. The band on this 1976 single was Radiation, featuring MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who provides tasteful fills surrounded by Melvin’s thick steppers groove and confident vocal.
“I was the drummer and keyboard player for Radiation,” Davis explains. “We had recorded several songs, and ‘Double or Nothing’ became a favorite among the Northern Soul movement. Wayne absolutely came from a rock ’n’ roll background, and I’ve been in love with rock since I was a kid. That’s one of the genres that I really enjoy playing.” The drums serve the song perfectly, with double snare hits complementing the staccato piano pattern in the bridge, and a slick triplet fill setting up the final chorus.
I GOTTA GET HOME, THE 8TH DAY
Davis served as singer, songwriter, drummer, and producer on a large portion of this 1973 LP. “I really enjoyed playing on all of the 8th Day tracks,” he says. “It was a great group, and we recorded some really good songs. It was always a great experience working with them, because we rehearsed a lot, and we got really tight.”
The album moves adeptly from soul to jazz to rock, and Davis’s vocals work for every style. The record’s drumming is sparse and funky, with a dry snare and quick, tasteful fills. “When it comes to R&B,” Melvin says, “you don’t hear a lot of drum pickups. They’re all short pickups because they want to highlight the song. As a soul drummer, that’s the way you want to play.”