Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Thommy Davis: Take a bow...

Thommy Davis Interview
Thommy Davis Interview Thommy Davis Interview Thommy Davis Interview Thommy Davis Interview

When you get the chance to talk to one of the founding fathers of the Baltimore House, Thommy Davis, the joint Quantize Recordings (with DJ Spen) and Unquantize (with Kelly Spencer), whose DJ/producer/remixer/writer credits over the last 40-years have made him a house and disco hero and who incidentally, has just dropped his cracking new album “Mr Davis”, a stellar affair of standout recent remixes and brand new tracks by a who’s who of featured artists, you jump at the chance! And boy, I sure did!

Before I give the lowdown on “Mr Davis” from err, Mr Davis, I’ll just break the album down a little first. Here’s what you can expect to find on this new release… Cover versions include Karen Young’s “Hot Shot” with Tasha LaRae (Arrested Development) and Sheila Ford, The O’Jay’s “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet and Tender Love)” with Randy Roberts and Neal Conway, Jean Carne’s “Was That All It Was” features the talents of M+M disco great John Morales and vocalist Richard Burton, Rene & Angela’s “I Love You More” ft. Tasha LaRae and Jomanda's classic “Make My Body Rock” with vocals from Dana Weave. The features don’t stop there! This album also boasts must-hear performances and collabs with Barbara Tucker, DJ Spen, Aaron K Gray, Gary Hudgins, Jerome Hicks, Tracy Hamlin, Brutha Basil, Alex P. Suter, Tony Jesus and MicFreak. Told you it was impressive! Onto my chat with the people’s legend Thommy Davis...

LT: Can you tell me how you came to choose your eponymous album title?

TD: Interestingly enough, over the long period of developing the album, I have thought of many titles for the album. The final title stood out as many of my friends and fans affectionately call me Mr Davis. I can’t recall when it started, but it stuck in my head how many people informally call me that. It’s kind of like another term that many have made a prefix to my name… “Legendary.” I did think of using that as the title but I have never identified myself as that. I am too humble to personally call myself that.

LT: You have remixed many a fine tune over the years, how did you choose what previous remixes were to add to this album?

TD: Truth be told, the album could have been released two years ago, minus the additional tracks that are on it. DJ Spen and I [along with many musicians and writers] couldn’t keep the songs in a ‘hold’ as we did them. In the original concept, the album would have been more than 25 tracks. He and I, along with musicians such as Gary Hudgins, Neal Conway, Hozay Clowney, Reelsoul (William Rodriguez) would come up with great projects that were a result of the anthemic sound we wanted. Music should always stick on the listener. To do that, there are rules that have much to do with historical context and marketing. None of the music on the album represents hopelessness. They may have strong sentiments in the lyrics but there is a solid happiness in the musical production. I can remember when someone coined the phrase ‘Happy music’. For me, that said it all. Even instrumentation has an emotion. I’m glad and proud to say that I have seen some happy times when a song resonated in the listeners subconscious. Some describe it as ‘groove’ or ‘funky’ or ‘drive’ but it really comes from working retail for more than 20-years and watching what has an impact and what doesn’t”.

LT: What do you typically look for in a track before you remix it?

TD: When I first hear a song, I see if I can mentally sing it in my head - Not all songs can be that - If I can, then I can imagine a remix in my head. It’s the weirdest thing. Some remixes that I personally don’t have that reaction to can be forced into a direction in search of that. I have walked into sessions and heard a song and automatically heard a direction that works for me. It’s funny too me because Spen and I have worked so long together, that he just shakes his head when that light bulb in a thought fires off. He is a consummate of sound and many times ideas are way over budget to make happen. On the album, are those that got two thumbs up.

LT: Do you have a personal favourite track on the album?

TD: I love every song on the album but to single out a couple would to be to relate how they got me through tough and difficult times, especially in the current world. “For Every Mountain" Tasha LaRae and Aaron K. Gray, “Home” Tracy Hamlin, “Love To The World" Jerome Hicks featuring Richard Burton and “Stairway To Heaven” Randy Roberts & Richard Burton. I have been through a lot and these songs, lyrically, mean so much to me. I couldn’t ask for more of a testimony in song. When I worked on them and even today when I hear them after a thousand times of working on them, I think of loved ones.
LT: Which track was the most rewarding to have worked on when you look back?

TD: It would have to be “Stairway To Heaven” with Randy Roberts and Richard Burton. The original early production music was with Hozay Clowney. He passed away before it was finished. It was most rewarding to finish the work that he did.

LT: Is there a track or an artist who surprised you when recording their performance or listening back now?
TD: Yes there is. Looking back, I can remember talking to Brutha Basil about the tedious album and we can talked about music so far back, that led us to David Cole’s (C&C Music Factory) passing years ago. He was such an effervescent soul with so much to offer the world and we shared stories about him. So I asked him would he consider doing “Do It Properly” and he said yes. I asked Will ‘Reelsoul’ Rodriguez if he could do the music and he too said yes. They both did it so fast that the period of their completion and the final was more than a year apart. I didn’t let either one hear the progress on it and they were so patient. To me, it just had to be a certain way. Spen, Greg Lewis and I diligently worked and reworked it till it equaled their work and commitment. It is easy to overwork or under work a song and at the end, I was so happy with it. The difficulty in working on a project that long is that people change over time. The music biz changes. The world changes. What might work a year ago can easily not work a year later.

LT: The featured artists on the album are insane, how did you choose who would feature on which track?

TD: Every artist and musician on the album are personal friends that I have come to know their work and capabilities. Quantize is like a Motown and on the short road have worked with many. In actuality, I asked many, but it takes so much to work on a project for a friend such as myself that is a stickler for the production. The album could have easily been thirty songs and one day the songs that didn’t make it because of time or budget, will be released.

There is something great about being a Producer/DJ. I road-tested many of them for years before they saw the light of day. Instinct and reading the market is important but watching a dancefloor respond is the most rewarding approach. Still to this day, as a DJ, I often will play some of the original unmastered demos. Many just have that thing that fully developed into another thing. They remind me of how a song gets from one place to another.

LT: After hearing his vocals on “Mr Davis”, I've become a fan of Richard Burton - what a voice! Very Teddy Pendergrass! We don't know a lot about him in the UK, could you tell us a little bit about him?

TD: I sure can! Richard Burton, who I affectionately call “Ricardo” [also recorded under that name] have a long history together. He left Baltimore in his last year in high school to travel with Muhammad Ali on his record label Millionaire Records. Toured as an opening act for the Temptations, Kool And The Gang. Signed to MCA records in 2001, got the role of Shamrock from HBO The Wire. A man of many voices, his range of diversity is amazing! He's currently a member of Jasper Street Company, long with many things in multiple genres. Such a powerful voice that is very shy and humble. In the music business, it is friends like him that any producer would love to forge such a relationship. It surpasses time and held together in trust and admiration for each other. He is so much like myself in that he loves to entertain. Off stage quiet, but yet talkative, he thinks large and is very enthusiastic.
LT: For me, Tracy Hamlin was another artist who stood out on this release, MacArthur Park was nothing short of inspiring… I actually clapped at my speakers when it finished! Lol. Can you tell me how Tracy came to feature on this album?
I love Tracy Hamlin! Each of the songs: “Isn’t It A Shame,” “MacArthur Park,” and “Home,” all have interesting stories. The Lady, the Songbird, the multi-faceted songstress is nothing short of a legend. Tracy was once a background singer with Gloria Gaynor where, in the interludes, sang “MacArthur Park.” At the end of one session, she mentioned that she loved the song as we chatted about music passing away time. I was immediately excited and Gary Hudgins whipped up a scratch track within the next week for her to do the classic Donna Summers song. She had one prerequisite and that she wanted to sing the entire song. Many artist have reduced it to some favorite parts but any true lover of the song understand the lyrics and complicated movement. It takes practiced breathing to perform the song. In that very same session, she sang it unaccompanied while we chatted about it. Early versions indicated that we had to full out produce the music just to match her vocal delivery!

The LaBelle ballad “Isn’t It A Shame” took a lot to convert it to a dance song. Gary Hudgins again, set the template. People cried after hearing the early demos as its such a touching song with huge backgrounds. Tracy an Tasha LaRae smashed them. Patti, Sarah, and Nona did incredible tones and it had to convey their unique harmonies. My personal and all-time favorite is “Home” from the Broadway musical “The Wiz” and my favorite performance was Stephanie Mills. Tracy and Stephanie have similarities so when I asked her to cover it, surprisingly, she said that she use to sing the song in competitions...and won with it! I can remember the emotional session. Every song has a memory attached to it and Tracy’s performance in the studio left us breathless. With tears streaming down her face she got through it. If you listen to it, you can hear her tears! We kept that take although we did more after it. I cry everytime I play it. Now that is a personal song!!
How did house/soul music legend Barbara Tucker get involved?
What can I say, but that I consider Barbara as soulful house royalty. She did songs on Quantize, including a duet on Marc Evans' album. After a session for a song for her own album, between takes I asked her was she familiar with the Lyn Collins version of the song with James Brown. In the US, James is the most sampled soulful artist. No matter what age demographic, folks have no idea how much James Brown is still prevalent in all music. Sweet and genuine as she is, she said sure and in a couple of takes she nailed the classic “Think (About it).” With the album yet still a work in progress we released it ahead of it. It was the first song formally thought about as an album cut for me. I’m definitely a Barbara Tucker groupie to this very day, although we are very close friends. Some things will never change.

Can you tell me about the very different track "Acid Love" with its mix of disco and acid house?

“Acid Love” is really a tribute to the originator of acid house, Giorgio Moroder. I consider his “I Feel Love “ with Donna Summer's grinds synthesizers, drums, and programming that is the sound we now call Acid House. Like a couple of songs on the album that had to be included, we couldn’t hold it on the shelf, but for the album it has been remixed by MicFreak with vocals by Sheila Ford that gave it an updated spin. Sheila sang an unreleased Italian version originally called “Amore Acido” that she wanted to sing in Italian. I asked MicFreak to remix it to give it a new life and a broader audience. He accepted the project and completed as quickly as any producer could. It is so awesome!

The album “Mr Davis” is available through Quantize Recordings.

You can read more from B&S Editor Lee Tyler's exclusive interview with Baltimore house and disco legend, Thommy Davis, including his thoughts on the abundace of stand-out talent featured on his new album Mr Davis. Also, we find out how Davis works in the studio and what he hopes this 40-year landmark album will achive for him personally, all in this enthralling interview in the not to be missed latest issue of Blues & Soul magazine - click the 'BUY NOW' link below to order straight from the B&S shop or read on for high street retailer details...

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