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Producer Carl Davis, architect of ‘the Chicago sound,’ dies at 77

Carl Davis 1976

Carl Davis in 1976

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Updated: September 11, 2012 6:19AM

Generations of Chicagoans danced to the sweet soul music of Carl Davis.

It didn’t matter if the songs were fast or slow or the beat was high or low. The music crossed racial barriers, no easy feat during the 1960s and ’70s.

The iconic music producer who shaped what became known as “the Chicago Sound” died Thursday at his home in Summerville, S.C. He was 77 years old. Mr. Davis had been suffering from lung disease. Mr. Davis and wife Dedra Davis relocated from Chicago to South Carolina in 2009.

Mr. Davis was one of the first African-American A&R directors and produced numerous hit songs for the Columbia Records subsidiary Okeh Records.

He was to Chicago soul music what the Chess brothers were to blues.

His first multi-million-selling song was Gene Chandler’s 1962 smash “Duke of Earl.” Follow-up production efforts incuded Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” Major Lance’s “Monkey Time” (recorded in 1963) and the Chi-Lites 1972 ballad “Oh Girl.”

Mr. Davis connected with singers in a direct manner that translated to the listener. His other major hits ranged from the 1970 smash “Turn Back the Hands of Time” by Tyrone Davis (no relation) to the Dells’ beautiful “Stay in My Corner,” which was a hit in 1965 and 1968.

“Motown used to put a picture frame together, put in all the background and set the artist to the frame,” Mr. Davis told me in 1982. “We in Chicago tend to start with the artist, put him there and frame everything around him.”

Marshall Thompon, the last original member of the Chi-Lites, said the group was not too fond of “Oh Girl.”

“I thought it was too white and poppish,” Thompson recalled on Thursday. “We were black Chicago artists trying to make it. Carl said we had to take the song to ‘The Flip Wilson Show.’ We did and it debuted on the charts at No. 1. I’ve been in the business for 52 years and I never knew anyone who had an ear like Carl’s. He picked ‘Duke of Earl’ [co-written by Chandler], which was thrown in the garbage can by Curtis Mayfield. Of course it went to No. 1 all over the country.” Beyonce’s hit “Crazy in Love” samples the Davis-produced Chi-Lites tune “Are You My Woman.”

One of Mr. Davis’s most underchampioned artists was Walter Jackson, who turned the listener’s heart inside-out on his cresting 1964 ballad “What Would You Do.” Mr. Davis liked to tell the story of how Elton John pitched him songs to get to Jackson, who died of a stroke at age 45 in 1983. Jackson had polio and performed on crutches, but Mr. Davis was enamored with his powerful voice and in 1962 encouraged Jackson to relocate from Detroit to Chicago.

Mr. Davis was born on Sept 19, 1934, in Woodlawn. His father, William, was a sorter for the postal service; his mother Mattie was a homemaker. Mr. Davis served in the U.S. Air Force and obtained an associate degree from the Cortez-Peters Business College on 55th Street, which later shaped his eye for detail.

Thompson, who sang baritone on the Chi-Lites hits, said, “He made sure your lyrics were pronounced properly. He didn’t care how you spoke — your language could go all kinds of ways — but when you got in the studio you could understand every word this man helped produce. In a session we’d say something like ‘peoples.’ He’d stop the session and say, ‘There are no peoples. It is “people.” ’ I haven’t missed a meal since I met Carl Davis.”

Mr. Davis’ ear for diction even made him a perfect sparring partner for American poet Muhammad Ali.

In the early 1960s Mr. Davis recorded then-Cassius Clay singing the Ben E. King hit “Stand By Me” in a New York studio with Sam Cooke coaching Clay on the vocals. Not long after the session, Clay became a member of the Nation of Islam and Columbia Records never released the track.

The late Major Lance had five national hits between 1963 and 1965 that are still played in the Beach Music clubs of the Carolinas, including the spritely “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” written by Curtis Mayfield. “Major was no Johnny Mathis,” Mr. Davis told me in 1989. “So I had to create a musical environment in which he could work.” Davis and accomplished Chicago jazz player Johnny Pate supported Lance’s vocals with a searing brass section centered around trombones and baritone sax. The Davis-Pate arrangements gave “the Chicago Sound” its timeless dance appeal.

The “Chicago Sound” template can properly be traced from Davis-produced vocalists like Chandler and Jackson through Donny Hathaway and R. Kelly, whose old-school sound is the centerpiece of lush arrangements. But Mr. Davis was often unheralded in a Chicago identified with the blues.

In 2003 Mr. Davis was honored in the History Makers, the non-profit Chicago archive. At the time of his death the non-profit Carl H. Davis Music Foundation was being formed to promote awareness and preserve the history of Chicago soul music, as well as continuing its heritage. The foundation will benefit young musicians with grants and mentoring. In 2009 Mr. Davis wrote his memoir, The Carl Davis Story: The Man Behind The Music, with Chicago music journalist Bill Dahl.

Besides his wife, Mr. Davis is survived by children Pamela Davis, Carl H. Davis II, Trey Davis, Julio Davis, Kelli Morris, Carleen Davis and Jaime Davis, as well as one brother, George Davis, and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

The Davis family will announce details regarding services celebrating his life.

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