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Tyrone Davis Biography

Experienced a Musical Revolution, Scored String of Soul Hits, Performed Non-Stop until Death



Davis, Tyrone, photograph. © Jack Vartoogian/Front Row Photos.

In a career spanning more than four decades, singer Tyrone Davis sold over 25 million records. One of the fathers of what music history has labeled "Chicago Soul," Davis became famous for his bedroom voice, intimate lyrics, and flashy suits. Women loved him, musicians imitated him, and soul aficionados have rated him as one of the most influential soul men of all time. A dedicated performer, Davis was in the midst of promoting his 38th album when he suffered a stroke in 2004. A few months later, at the age of 66, Davis died, leaving behind legions of fans and a rich musical legacy.

Experienced a Musical Revolution

Tyrone Davis was born on May 4, 1938, in the small town of Greenville, Mississippi. A year later his parents divorced and his father moved north. Like most Southern towns of that era, Greenville offered little opportunity for African Americans. Segregation was the law, racism a way of life, and jobs for blacks seldom provided more than meager subsistence in exchange for backbreaking labor. At the age of 14, Davis decided to seek a better future up north and moved to Saginaw, Michigan, where his father served as a minister. After working a series of blue collar jobs in Michigan, Davis moved again, arriving in Chicago at the age of 19.

Chicago in the fifties and sixties was a hotbed of music. Like Davis, hundreds of black musicians had come north seeking a better life. They brought with them guitars and harmonicas, the musical traditions of Delta blues and New Orleans jazz. On the south side of Chicago a whole new breed of electrified blues was emerging, powered by names like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Meanwhile Chicago musicians were picking up on the explosive strains of the new music called rock-and-roll. Before long, Chicago was a leader in a distinctive new meld of sound called rhythm and blues. Davis landed in the middle of it. After long days spent sweating as a laborer in a steel factory, Davis spent his nights hanging out in Chicago's music clubs. In 1959 he eventually landed a job as chauffeur and valet for legendary blues guitarist Freddie King. In 1961 he went on his first tour as part of King's entourage. The more immersed he became in the music scene, the more Davis wanted to contribute to it.

One night, Davis—dressed to kill in the type of slick suit that would become his trademark—sidled up to the stage at a Bobby "Blue" Bland concert. The blues singer leaned over to Davis and asked him if he wanted to sing. Davis took the microphone, climbed onstage and performed a perfect mimicry of Bland's style. After the show Bland called Davis over and told him, "'Be you, don't be me,'" Davis recalled to the Chicago Tribune. "[It was] the best thing that ever happened to me." He continued, "It is really hard to find yourself. Most people that come out today sound like somebody else."

Scored String of Soul Hits

Davis embraced his style and began developing his distinctive voice—a quavering baritone punctuated by low-voiced growls, soul-drenched wails, and thick-as-honey sensuality. It got him noticed in a town known for good music. Chicago pianist Harold Burrage began to mentor the young Davis and helped him land several gigs around town under the name Tyrone the Wonder Boy. In 1965 Davis recorded his first single "Suffer" on local label Four Brothers. It was followed by several more singles. Though local reception was positive, Davis's music career was off to a slow start.

After Four Brothers folded in 1967, Davis signed with Dakar Records, a new label formed by Chicago music producer Carl Davis. Things started out quietly enough until 1968, when a Texas deejay turned over an early release by Davis and found the B-side song "Can I Change My Mind?" The song—a man's second-thought musing on his decision to leave his woman—allowed Davis to showcase his deep voice through its lovelorn lyrics. It was a winning combination and the song flew to number one on Billboard's R&B charts and crossed over to hit number 5 on the pop charts. With over a million copies sold, the song became a soul classic. It also cemented Davis's reputation as the king of Chicago soul.

In 1969 Davis released his first full-length album also titled Can I Change My Mind?, featuring a roster of solid soul songs. He followed that with I Had It All the Time. The title track was a radio favorite, though it never topped the charts. Davis's third album Turn Back the Hands of Time, was an instant sensation. Widely considered one of the finest soul records ever recorded, the 1970 album was propelled by the title track which went to number one on the R&B charts and number three on the pop charts. The songs on the album slinked through a variety of genres—the bluesy "Undying Love," the romantic ballad "I Keep Coming Back," and the all-out funk of "Love Bones"—proving Davis's versatility. Two other songs—"Is It Something You've Got" and "I'll Be Right Here"—both hit the R&B top ten.

Performed Non-Stop until Death

Davis continued to nurture his vocal style, becoming more seductive, more silky, more sophisticated. His lyrics reveled in romance from a man's point of view. "He tried to put messages in his songs, and he found a niche that no else had," manager Leo Graham told the Chicago Tribune. Combined with his flair for brightly colored suits, gilded cufflinks, and shiny unbuttoned shirts, Davis became a ladies' favorite. Women regularly rushed the stage when he performed. He responded by setting up a photo booth at shows, allowing his female fans a chance to have a photo taken with him. Davis also took to the celebrity lifestyle. "He was like Mr. Chicago," singer Willie Clayton once told the Chicago Tribune. "It was a thrill to be around and see the fancy cars; you name it, he had it." Despite the flash, Davis was devoted family man. He married Ann Davis in the early 1960s and over four decades of happy marriage, produced five children.

Throughout the early seventies Davis released a string of R&B hits over several albums. Notable songs include "Without You in My Life," "There It Is," "What Goes Up Must Come Down," and "Could I Forget You." In 1975 Davis struck gold again with his eighth album, Turning Point. The title track gave Davis his third number one R&B hit. Within a year of the album's release, Davis left Dakar and joined Columbia. His first hit for the recording giant was "Give It Up (Turn It Loose)," a disco-inspired, dance floor burner that went to number two on the R&B charts and made it to the top 40 on the pop charts. Several other songs recorded during that era became Davis favorites including "Close to You," "This I Swear," and "Heart Failure." "In the Mood," though not a chart-topper, was a heart-crooning ballad that became a soul classic.

At a Glance …

Born May 4, 1938, in Greenville, MS; died on February 9, 2005; married Ann Davis.


Four Brothers Records, Chicago, IL, singer, 1965-67; Dakar Records, singer, Chicago, IL, 1967-76; Columbia Records, singer, 1977-81; various labels and tours, singer, 1981-96; Malaco Records, singer 1996-2005.


Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Pioneer Award and Hall of Fame Induction, 1998.

By the early-eighties, Davis's record sales had begun to dip and Columbia cut him loose. However, Davis had already earned industry-wide respect as one of the fathers of Chicago Soul and he had no trouble finding a number of smaller labels willing to represent him. With Highrise he released 1983's "Are You Serious," another R&B smash that went up as far as number 3 on the charts. Over the next decade and a half he jumped around from label to label, finally landing with Mississippi-based Malaco, a soul/R&B/gospel outfit, in 1996. He put out an album nearly every two years and kept up a non-stop tour schedule—from opening for B. B. King to playing jazz festivals world wide to headlining the Tyrone Davis Blues Festival in Columbus, Ohio. In 1998 he was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame and awarded a Pioneer award. In 2004 Endzone Entertainment released Tyrone Davis: Legendary Hall of Famer, a mixture of his top hits and new songs. "[He] was very much excited about the new CD," friend and singer Willie Clayton told Jet. "He couldn't wait to go out on tour and introduce the new material to his fans." Sadly, Davis suffered a stroke in September of that year. It sent him into a coma from which he would not recover. Davis died on February 9, 2005, his wife Ann by his side. In a statement quoted by the Sacramento Observer, Mrs. Davis thanked the fans who had supported her husband over the years and concluded with a sentiment long held by soul music lovers: "Tyrone was just one of God's gifts."

Selected discography

Can I Change My Mind? Dakar, 1969.

I Had It All the Time, Dakar, 1970.

Turn Back the Hands of Time, Dakar/Brunswick, 1970.

Turning Point, Dakar, 1976.

I Can't Go All the Way, Columbia, 1978.

In the Mood with Tyrone Davis, Columbia, 1979.

Tyrone Davis, Highrise, 1982.

Flashin' Back, Future, 1988.

Sexy Thing, Ichiban, 1991.

Simply, Malaco, 1996.

Relaxin' with Tyrone, Malaco, 2000.

Tyrone Davis: The Legendary Hall of Famer, Endzone Entertainment, 2004.



Chicago Tribune, February 9, 2005.

Jet, February 28, 2005.

New York Times, February 14, 2005.

Sacramento Observer, February 23, 2005.

—Candace LaBalle

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