Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Billy Davis's music career can be divided into two stages—first, a rhythm-and-blues triple threat as composer, producer, and impresario, and second, an advertising executive who was responsible for one of the best-remembered commercial jingles of all time, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)," for Coca-Cola. In the former career, Davis rubbed shoulders with Berry Gordy's music empire, produced classic hit singles, and even performed as a fifth member in an early version of the Four Tops. In the latter career, he was enormously successful as a composer of jingles for Coca-Cola, Nescafe ice tea, Miller beer, and Nabisco food products.
Davis was born Roquel Davis on July 11, 1932, in Detroit, Michigan. "There was a doo-wop group for every neighborhood and talent shows every week. That's when my desire to become a singer got strong," he said in an interview quoted in London's Independent. Davis managed the Four Aims—a doo-wop quartet featuring his cousin Lawrence Payton, as well as Levi Stubbs, Abdul "Duke" Fakir, and Renaldo "Obie" Benson—and he leant his vocal talents to the group as well. The group later went on to enormous success as Motown recording artists the Four Tops. Davis also occasionally contributed his tenor-baritone to Detroit singing quartets the 5 Jets and the 5 Stars. In addition to his burgeoning performing career, Davis was also beginning to show talent as a songwriter. Detroit record store owner Joe Battle submitted several of Davis's songs to a California record company, which paid Davis $356 for a song titled "Lessie Mae." He recalled in the Independent, "This changed my attitude towards writing. From then on, I wrote three or four songs a day."
Manager Davis took the newly re-christened Four Tops to Chicago in 1956, and to the legendary independent Chess Records, home of Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and Muddy Waters. The group recorded the single "Kiss Me Baby"/"Could It Be You" for Chess, and Davis contributed one composition each to the Moonglows ("See Saw") and the Flamingos ("A Kiss from Your Lips"). Davis then returned to Detroit, intending to go to college, but his romance with Gwen Gordy changed all that. Through her, he met her brother, Berry Gordy. Gordy and Davis established a writing partnership that resulted in a string of hits for performer Jackie Wilson beginning in 1957. Writing under the pseudonym Tyran Carlo, Davis collaborated on the Wilson hits "Reet Petite (the Finest Girl You'll Ever Want to Meet)," "To Be Loved," "Lonely Teardrops," "I'll Be Satisfied," and "That's Why (I Love You So)." This string of songs enabled Wilson to become a breakout artist, crossing over from rhythm-and-blues to the more lucrative pop charts. When Wilson's manager Al Greene died, he was succeeded by Nat Tarnapol. Tarnapol told Davis and Gordy that Wilson's newfound success had enabled him to enlist other songwriting talent beyond the Detroit duo, and the pair used the rejection as an impetus to create a record label.
The label that Davis, Gwen, and Anna Gordy established in 1958 was named Anna Records. Davis negotiated a distribution deal for the label with his Chicago contacts Leonard and Phil Chess. The label's first release was "Hope and Pray" by the Voicemasters, a group featuring future Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier and future Temptations' lead singer David Ruffin. Other acts on the label included the Miracles, Joe Tex, Johnny and Jackey, and Barrett Strong. Strong's recording of the Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford song "Money (That's What I Want)" became the label's first major hit. By this time, Davis's professional and business relationships with the Gordys had soured, and in 1961 he went over to Chicago's Chess Records.
In Chicago Davis worked hard to best the success of the Gordy's Tamla Motown empire. He helped the Chess brothers set up a soul subsidiary of the Chess label named Check-Mate, and wrote songs for and recorded such acts as the Dells, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Etta James, Bobby McClure, and Fontella Bass. It was with the latter that Davis struck gold. Employing the rhythm section of Maurice White on drums and Louis Satterfield on bass guitar on the Bass single "Rescue Me," Davis was able to rival Motown's famed Funk Brothers. Davis's production brought the song a driving rhythm with a powerful vocal from Bass and notable support from backup singer Minnie Ripperton. With "Rescue Me," Davis had produced a song to rival the best of Motown. "Rescue Me" soon appeared in the top ten in both the United States and England.
The popularity of pop music as a medium to move commercial products in the late 1960s served as the impetus for advertising agencies to seek out the best and brightest songwriters for commercial jingles. Davis was recruited by the advertising agency McCann Erickson in 1968. One of the company's biggest clients was the soft drink company Coca-Cola. McCann's previous Coca-Cola campaign was the slogan and jingle "Things Go Better with Coke," which had been developed by creative director Bill Backer. Backer had planned a follow-up campaign and had scheduled a meeting with Davis and songwriters Roger Greenaway and Roger Cook in London. Backer's flight, however, was rerouted to Shannon Airport in Dublin, Ireland. While waiting to resume the flight, Backer arranged for his client's soft drink to be distributed to the plane's stranded passengers, inspiring him to create a slogan about buying the world a Coke.
When Backer arrived in London he shared his idea with Greenaway, Cook, and Davis. Davis's response was captured in an interview quoted in the Independent: "If I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke. … I'd buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love." The four men worked on the idea, and came up with the now-famous commercial "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke." Davis performed production duties, using the vocal talents of the British singing group the New Seekers, who had previously recorded the hit title track for the Lynn Redgrave film Georgy Girl.
The campaign proved tremendously successful. Radio disc jockeys reported that listeners were actually requesting the commercial as if it were a hit single. Davis assembled an American group he dubbed the Hillside Singers (the commercial featured a diverse group of individuals gathered together on a hill, singing the song), and recorded "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)" for the United States' market. The New Seekers subsequently recorded their own version for the European market. The four writers dedicated $80,000 of their considerable royalties to the United Nations' organization UNICEF, and eight million copies of the song were eventually sold internationally.
The hit single and commercials made Davis a very wealthy man. He was eventually named senior vice president and music director of McCann Erickson, and spearheaded subsequent campaigns for Coca-Cola ("Have a Coke and a Smile" and "It's the Real Thing"), Miller beer, Sony, Nescafe ice tea, and Nabisco. After retiring, Davis continued to involve himself in music. Shortly before his death in 2004, he produced an album for Australian Kate Cerberano.
For the Record . . .
Born Roquel Davis on July 11, 1932, in Detroit, MI; died on September 2, 2004, in New Rochelle, NY.
Original member of the Four Aims, which evolved into Motown group the Four Tops, 1950s; penned hits for Chess Records' vocal groups the Moonglows and the Flamingos, 1956; co-wrote Jackie Wilson hits "Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops," 1957; established Anna Records with Gwen and Anna Gordy, 1958; joined Chess Records, 1961; produced Fontella Bass hit "Rescue Me," 1965; joined McCann Erickson advertising agency, 1968; commercial jingle for Coca-Cola, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)," co-written with Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, became worldwide hit, 1971-72.
"A Kiss from Your Lips," 1956.
"See Saw," 1956.
"Reet Petite," 1957.
"Rescue Me," 1965.
"I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony)," 1971.
Guardian (London, England), September 13, 2004.
Independent (London, England), September 7, 2004.
New York Times, September 10, 2004.
"Billy Davis," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 11, 2005).