Melvin Davis

Melvin Lincoln Davis was born on Aug. 29, 1942. His family moved northward to Detroit when he was 3, often returning to his grandparents' 300-acre farm in Milledgeville, Ga. It was there where he first heard Little Richard, and it was live. "On the other side of our property, out in the woods, was a juke joint called Shady Rest, where Little Richard used to come and perform," Davis says. "I used to sit on the back porch and just listen to him scream and listen to the Upsetters play. That was my first experience with hearing live music, other than just one instrument like a piano: a whole band just playing this incredibly new music. It was way down through the woods, across this valley, but the music would come floating right across. It was an incredible atmosphere."

The intense prayer and inspired a cappella voices of his family's Baptist church seeped into Davis' young mind, as did the potluck dinners that brought in such gospel groups as the original Soul Stirrers, featuring Sam Cooke, and WLAC radio out of Nashville, which beamed in the latest rhythm-and-blues hits.

At 17, Davis joined the Navy and found his strongest and earliest musical motivation: "I couldn't swim," he recalls in a dignified, precise Midwestern argot. "And they pushed me into 20 feet of water and I almost drowned, so I stopped going to my swim classes. Instead, I'd go to the recreation hall and check out either a guitar or a piano and that's when I started fooling around with little chords."

When he returned home to Detroit, it was music that moved him and so he pursued it. Drawing upon this well of creativity, Davis set out to write a song a day following his discharge. He waxed the soulfully punk-edged single "I Don't Want You"/"About Love" for the local Jack Pot label in 1961. Uniquely Detroit, it sounded like a garage band coming face-to-face with an R&B singer.

"That's exactly what it was," Davis laughs. "That was my first record. I got Joe Peel — a guitar player I grew up with — to help me with it." Peel had already infiltrated Detroit's fertile music scene, and he began introducing Davis to its various players, including Popcorn Wylie of Popcorn and the Mohawks. Wylie was a well-connected piano player and producer who, in turn, shared his expertise and knowledge of the music industry. "That's what it was all about in those days; meeting with different people, getting around to the different companies, just networking," Davis says. "After Jack Pot, I went to Fortune and cut 'I Won't Be Your Fool' and 'Playboy.'" For young Detroit musicians coming of age in the '50s and '60s, Fortune Records' cinderblock studio on Third Avenue was almost a rite of passage of sorts.

Davis' Fortune single, "Playboy," began to pick up airplay, but when the Browns left the city for a three-week vacation, the promotion — and the record — died on the vine. The 45's flipside, "I Won't Be Your Fool" remains one of Davis' most infectious recordings. Its stream-of-consciousness lovelorn lyrics are Davis at his finest, resigned-yet-passionate, sung by one whose experience transcends his youth. Superb backup vocals lock in with soulful guitar chords and an irresistible bass line, all driven by Butch Vaden's explosive drumming.

Davis' next release was a collaboration that spotlighted Vaden's powerful groove on a pair of exotically flavored, jazz-tinged instrumentals, "Harem Girl" and "The Roll." Released under the moniker Butch Vaden and the Nite Sounds, the band was Davis on piano, Vaden on drums, Clyde Wilson (later known as Steve Mancha) on guitar and Tony Newton on bass. Vaden was white, but, in Detroit, the musical cross-pollination that had long been the rule — rather than the exception — valued musicianship over skin color. "I even had Butch play behind me on some gigs," Davis says.

Davis returned to Fortune with his razor-sharp band in tow, laying down "I Won't Come Crawling Back to You" in early 1963. The song, which Davis considers one of his finest musical moments, was never released.

Bio Written by And Taken From Michael Hurtt

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