Billy Davis

Songwriter who 'taught the world to sing'

In a varied career which took him from Motown to Madison Avenue, Billy Davis helped many rhythm'n'blues stars of the Fifties and Sixties and contributed to the most memorable advertising jingle and song of the early Seventies.

Roquel Billy Davis, songwriter, record producer and advertising executive; born Detroit 11 July 1932; married (one son); died New Rochelle, New York 2 September 2004.

In a varied career which took him from Motown to Madison Avenue, Billy Davis helped many rhythm'n'blues stars of the Fifties and Sixties and contributed to the most memorable advertising jingle and song of the early Seventies.

As well as co-writing several of Jackie Wilson's biggest hits under the pseudonym "Tyran Carlo" with his then girlfriend Gwen Gordy and her brother Berry Gordy Jnr, Davis helped launch Anna Records, the Detroit label which paved the way for Tamla Motown. He also had a seven-year spell as producer and artist and repertoire director at Chicago's Chess Records, producing "Rescue Me", the hugely popular record by the soul singer Fontella Bass, in 1965. Three years later, the versatile Davis switched to writing jingles and became music director for the McCann Erickson advertising agency in New York.

In January 1972, he really hit pay-dirt when "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)", based on "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke", one of his jingles for Coca-Cola written in partnership with the British songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, reached No 1 in the UK for the New Seekers. It went on to sell six million copies around the world. Another version, by the Hillside Singers, also made the US charts and sold a further million and a half.

The song about the iconic soft drink became a standard and made Billy Davis very rich but he remained active into his seventies and had just finished producing 19 Days in New York, the forthcoming album by the Australian singer Kate Ceberano.

Born in Detroit in 1932, Billy Davis became involved in the local music scene when he began managing the Four Aims, a vocal group featuring his cousin Lawrence Payton alongside Levi Stubbs, Abdul "Duke" Fakir and Renaldo "Obie" Benson. In the early Fifties, he would occasionally appear alongside the quartet as the Fifth Aim if he wasn't singing tenor-baritone with the 5 Jets or the 5 Stars.

"My career started early, singing on street corners," he remembered:

There was a doo-wop group for every neighbourhood and talent shows every week. That's when my desire to become a singer got strong.

However, the young Davis showed more promise as a songwriter. His friend the Detroit store-owner Joe Battle sent in some of his compositions to a California record company which paid Davis $356 for a ditty called "Lessie Mae". "This changed my attitude towards writing. From then on, I wrote three or four songs a day," claimed Davis, who was still hustling on behalf of his cousin's group, now renamed the Four Tops to avoid confusion with the Ames Brothers.

In 1956, he got Chess Records in Chicago interested in recording a single - "Kiss Me Baby"/"Could It Be You" - by the Four Tops but, to clinch the deal, he had to give the label two of his compositions ("See Saw" was released by the Moonglows and the Flamingos cut the tender ballad "A Kiss from Your Lips").

Davis was hoping to go to university when he began dating Gwen Gordy, the sister of Berry Gordy Jnr, who fancied himself as a tunesmith and local entrepreneur even if his record shop, 3rd Jazz Mart, had gone bust. Davis was also related to the local rhythm'n'blues singer Jackie Wilson on his father's side and he began pitching their songs to the former boxer whose energetic live shows as lead tenor with the Dominoes had earned him the nickname "Mr Excitement".

When Wilson went solo in 1957 and signed to Brunswick, he recorded their infectious "Reet Petite (The Finest Girl You'll Ever Want to Meet)" and scored a minor pop hit in the US as well as making the Top Ten in Britain (when reissued in 1986, "Reet Petite" became the Christmas No 1).

Soon, Davis - who used the nom de plume "Tyran Carlo" at the time - and the Gordys were on a hit-songwriting roll for Wilson. They penned the ballad "To Be Loved" and the pleading "Lonely Teardrops" as well as "That's Why (I Love You So)" and the catchy "I'll Be Satisfied", four singles which helped the vocalist cross over from the rhythm 'n'blues listings into the mainstream US pop charts. However, they fell out with their manager Nat Tarnapol when he took over Wilson's affairs following the death of the impresario Al Greene.

"We didn't even know how much we were supposed to be paid," recalled Davis, who was quickly learning about contracts and royalties:

Nat Tarnapol's position was: "Jackie's a hit artist, I can get anybody to write for Jackie now." Our answer was: "If that's how you feel, since we're doing everything anyway, we can go out and find our own artists." That's what led to the concept of Motown. If it wasn't for that rejection, then maybe there wouldn't have been a Tamla Motown.

In 1958, Davis set up Anna Records in partnership with Gwen and Anna Gordy (who soon became Marvin Gaye's first wife). The label was distributed by Leonard and Phil Chess, who ran the Chicago blues home to Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. The first release on Anna - catalogue number Anna 101 - was "Hope and Pray" by the Voicemasters, a quintet comprising such future Motown stalwarts as the songwriter Lamont Dozier and David Ruffin (Temptations).

Davis also worked on singles by the Miracles, Marv Johnson, Joe Tex and Johnny & Jackey (a.k.a. Johnny Bristol and Jackie Beavers).

In 1960, the catchy "Money (That's What I Want)", written by Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford, and recorded by Barrett Strong became the first major hit on the Anna label, reaching No 23 in the American charts (it was one of several Motown songs subsequently covered by the Beatles). However, when Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows joined the operation, he started a relationship with Gwen Gordy and Billy Davis found himself edged out of the embryonic Tamla Motown set-up he had contributed so much to. In 1961 he left for Chicago and a job with Chess Records.

Davis engineered a shift towards a more soulful Chess, through the short-lived Check-Mate imprint and his work with the Dells, Billy Stewart, Etta James and her cousin Sugar Pie DeSanto and the Bobby McClure and Fontella Bass duo. By the time he produced a solo Fontella Bass on "Rescue Me" for Chess in August 1965, Billy Davis was aiming to out-do Motown with a rhythm section comprising the bassist Louis Sattersfield and the future Earth, Wind & Fire leader Maurice White on drums.

"Fontella Bass sang live in the studio," he remembered:

She had big lungs, a wonderful sound, powerful and knock 'em dead delivery. "Rescue Me" wasn't a great song but it had those elements that I thought were great. It hit a groove and it stayed there. I decided to milk the groove even longer.

The success of "Rescue Me", which made the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic, led to Davis's being headhunted by the McCann Erickson agency in 1968 and his subsequent involvement with the "Coke" song. The germ of the idea came from the creative director Bill Backer - the man responsible for "Things Go Better With Coke" - in January 1971 when his London-bound plane from New York was diverted to Shannon airport in Ireland and he shared many bottles of Coca-Cola with fellow passengers while waiting for the fog to lift.

When he eventually reached London and told Roger Cook, Roger Greenaway and Billy Davis his idea, the last improved on it. "If I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke," said Davis. "I'd buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love."

A jingle given the working title "Mom, True Love and Apple Pie" was reworked by the four into "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" and Davis produced the London session with the New Seekers. In February 1971, US radio stations began broadcasting the ad. Davis knew he was on to a winner when some of his old DJ friends began calling him: "They were saying things like: 'I'm getting requests to play your commercial like it's a hit record, you should record it as a proper record.' "

The television spot showing hundreds singing the "Coke" song added further momentum to the campaign and, when the New Seekers' manager claimed his charges were too busy, Davis hastily assembled a New York soundalike session group he called the Hillside Singers to record "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" for the US market.

A fortnight later, the New Seekers were back in the studio to lay claim to the European charts. The tune proved so successful that it was adapted in many foreign languages. The writers and publishers added further weight to the feel-good message when they agreed to give $80,000 from their royalties to Unicef.

Billy Davis rose to senior vice- president and music director at McCann Erickson, writing further jingles for the Coca-Cola Company - "Have a Coke and a Smile", "Coke is It" - Nescafé, Miller beers, Sony and Nabisco food products. "Using music in a commercial is a great aid to recall," he told interviewers:

It will help you remember the commercial and the product. Music allows you to add emotional content.

Pierre Perrone

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