OBITUARY : Wild Bill Davis
Saturday 26 August 1995
Davis led the way for Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith and the multitude of pianists who switched allegiance. In the early days Davis suffered criticism from churchgoers who considered the instrument had sacred connections. "Who wants a church organist in a night club?" But the church organ is a mere wind instrument and the Hammond could achieve all-pervadingpower through the use of electricity.
Bill Davis, paradoxically, was a quiet and gentle person who completely belied his nickname "Wild Bill". But when it came to music Davis was transformed. He will best be remembered for his foundation- shattering arrangement of "April In Paris", written for and recorded by the Count Basie band of the Fifties. The arrangement alone forced the band to swing, not that it needed any coercion, and the recording was probably Basie's biggest ever hit, copied to this day by big bands across the world.
But Davis was best known for his friendship with and employment by Duke Ellington. Davis's first records under his own name were made in 1951 for Ellington's own record label Mercer and, uniquely for a non-Ellington musician, he had Ellington to accompany him on piano. British fans were dismayed when the Ellington band of 1969 arrived with Wild Bill added to its ranks. In Britain the organ was regarded as vulgar, and potentially destructive of the fine-tuned sound of the world's greatest jazz orchestra. They need not have worried. Davis's was a token role and in fact Ellington had employed him mainly for his company, for his writing abilities (he wrote arrangements for the band) and to be the pianist when Ellington, as sometimes happened, failed to arrive in time for the beginning of a concert.
Since the organ was such a brute to transport, Bill Davis owned several of them, keeping one in California, one in New York and another for when he had to take it by road.
The Davis family moved to Parsons, Kansas, while Bill was still a baby. His mother was a piano teacher and she taught her son intermittently - he was never very interested - until an orphaned relative came to live with the Davises and brought a Victrola with him, along with some Fats Waller records.
"I played those records over and over, and they developed a new interest for me," Davis remembered. "I was in a remote area and radio was in its infancy, but you heard actual performances then . . . One night, by chance, I heard Art Tatum, and I couldn't believe it. He sounded like a person with four hands and two pianos."
In 1937 Davis won a music scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, after two years transferring to Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. "I had been gaining experience in the school bands but found that I could express myself better in writing than in playing. So I got a couple of good books and learned the voicing of instruments. When they heard some of my work at Wiley, I was offered a position with Milt Larkin's band, playing guitar but principally as a writer." The band included Amett Cobb, Eddie Vinson, Russell Jacquet, Cedric Heywood and several musicians who later made big names for themselves. When he left, Davis moved to Chicago where he wrote arrangements for Earl Hines and for Sarah Vaughan.
"I finally joined Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five in 1945. He was about at his peak then. At first I worked for him as an arranger, writing all his things like 'Choo, Choo, Ch'Boogie' and 'Don't Worry 'Bout That Mule'. One of the first engagements I played for him was at the club Zanzibar, in New York. We were there three months, on the same bill as Duke Ellington, and that was when I got to know Duke. 'Love You Madly' was one of two arrangements I remember doing for him."
The Hammond Company had been engaged on war contracts and hadn't been making organs: "When I ordered mine in 1945, I had to wait almost two years to get it. It cost me $2,290 and it was a gamble, absolutely. I was making $175 a week when I left Louis, and I started out on organ making $45 a week." He rejoined Jordan, this time on organ, in 1950, but from 1951 onwards worked in the leading clubs with his own trio and later in Europe.
As the leading player of the Hammond, Davis became much in demand in the recording studios and made fine albums with Ella Fitzgerald (1963) and with another long-time friend, the Ellington alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, with whom he worked often during the Sixties. Hodges liked the freedom of working with the Davis trio as opposed to the more demanding surroundings of the Ellington orchestra. Davis played a prominent part in Ellington's 1970 "Blues For New Orleans" which was a feature for Hodges and, since he died a few days later, his last recording for Ellington.
Davis spent much of the Seventies in Europe working with musicians like Buddy Tate, Slam Stewart and Illinois Jacquet. He joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1978 and stayed until 1980. From then onwards he appeared frequently at jazz festivals throughout Europe.
William Strethen "Wild Bill" Davis, organist, pianist, composer, arranger: born Glasgow, Missouri, 24 November 1918; died New Jersey 22 August 1995.
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