Melvin Davis: Music, life, politics all about participation
The Northern Soul legend will headline the first annual Hamtramck Music Festival
By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen
You might think a gentleman in his 70s, after writing over 600 songs, would have pretty much said all he had to say. But if that gentleman happens to be Detroit soul legend Melvin Davis, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The musician/singer/songwriter/dancer/entrepreneur has a lot of knowledge to share and it comes straight from his heart. “Sincerity always works,” Davis told the Michigan Citizen, “because sincerity is truth.”
Davis grew up and spent most of his life living on Detroit’s westside, attending Mumford and Pershing high schools. Motown was in full swing and the young Davis was right in its midst. Over the years Davis discovered David Ruffin, drummed for Stevie Wonder, sang for Holland-Dozier-Holland and wrote for Mavis Staples.
His various collaborators include the Funk Brothers, Lyman Woodard, Chuck Berry and Wayne Kramer from the MC5. While doing all that, he also wrote his own albums and started a record label, Rock Mill Records.
Although Davis’ music never achieved the commercial success that some of his colleagues did, he is still creating and performing. He refers to his danceable, but silky smooth brand of R&B as “Northern Soul.”
“I’ve noticed this music has been popular for over 50 years and it’s gone from generation to generation. It’s grown decade by decade ever since.” He refers to the younger generation of aficionados as his “grand-fans,” who have spread previously hard-to-find Davis cuts widely over the Internet.
Because of that Davis has been playing regularly in the UK and Europe since 2004. “I travel all over representing the Detroit spirit,” says Davis.
For a guy with a classic sound, Davis appreciates the power of technology. “The present and the future is really dependent on the Internet,” he says. “That gives so many more people the opportunity to participate in the industry, because they don’t have to go through the conglomerates and they can get their product to the market place and before they couldn’t.”
Davis attributes the downfall of the traditional music industry to large conglomerates shrinking the amount of players in the business. “Back in the 60s, when we had all of the fledgling record labels in the city — there were dozens of them — we had such great competition in the city of Detroit, because there were so many talented people.
Competition breeds excellence. I think that’s why we got to the position we are in (as a legendary musical city). There were so many people who were so good that artists had to be really good in order to penetrate the market at the level where they could be monetarily successful.”
Mass-participation, Davis says, made Detroit so great in the past. That’s why it was important to save the United Sounds building.”
The United Sound Systems Recording Studios, first built in the 1930s, was Detroit’s first major recording studio. Miles Davis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Parliament, Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson all recorded there. It was almost demolished in 2011, but has been purchased and rehabilitated for use as a recording studio, due to open this year.
“United Sounds was one of the best recording studios on the east coast for (many) years,” Davis continues. “And anyone with the ability to pay for the studio time was able to go into one of the best studios in the country and that enabled them to participate in the music industry.”
Davis says, however, that was not the case with Motown.
“Motown was exclusive. You could not go into Motown and use their facilities to record. So I feel that United Sound is as an important facility as Hitsville (Motown’s famous recording studio), because so many other people in the city had an opportunity to participate because of that presence.”
Davis says it was the wide participation of many artists (who recorded at United Sound) that put Detroit on the map as the “great music giant.”
The veteran musician isn’t afraid to extrapolate his musical philosophy into the political realm. “I don’t mind being political, because life is political,” he says. “We can’t wait on the government to rescue us. You see what they’re doing — “too big to fail,” but yet they put these cities up for sale. This country is its cities. Take away the cities and how will the country and suburbs survive? It’s all about money and the class war. Racism is just a tool to keep us divided.”
Davis uses his music as a way to engage people from the city, the suburbs and beyond — dancing to the music and together is a first step toward full participation in society.
“I don’t just want to say what’s important and true, but to represent it with my music so people can see it and feel it. Everything is a learned experience and it’s contagious.
“If you write from personal experience, then you’re a human being and you’re writing for human beings and they’re experiencing the same things you are.”
Davis is optimistic about Detroit’s future and believes intergenerational unity will create a positive tomorrow. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that Detroit is coming back. It’s not going to be what it was, but it’s definitely not going to remain what it is. This story is not over; it’s in the process.”
On March 7, Davis will release a new 45 (vinyl recording) previously only available in Spain. The “A” side features Davis’ definitive recording of his song “Chains of Love,” originally recorded by Mavis Staples and recently covered by Detroit garage rock pioneers the Dirtbombs and featured in the award-winning film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
The flip side is “I’m Going to Love You,” a song Davis initially wrote and produced for a band called Edward Hamilton and the Arabians in the 60s.The record will be released as Davis headlines the first annual Hamtramck Music Festival at Paycheck’s Lounge March 7.
Phil Salatrik, a drummer, engineer and entertainment director at Cliff Bell’s, is one of the festival’s organizers and he personally booked all of the acts scheduled to play at Paycheck’s, including Melvin Davis. Salatrik’s record label, the Hamtramck Recording Co., is also one of the festival’s sponsors.
“The Hamtramck Music Festival is a new celebration of the music, culture, diversity and excitement that happens in the great city of Hamtramck,” Salatrik told the Michigan Citizen. He is careful to contrast the HMF with the Metrotimes-sponsored Blowout. The Blowout has been called the world’s largest local music festival. For 15 years, it was held in the dead of winter in bars throughout Hamtramck, featuring performances by Detroit performers, some of whom — Eminem, the White Stripes, Danny Brown, Matthew Dear, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Jr. and members of Jamaican Queens — now have achieved international stardom.
“Without Hamtramck, the Blowout could have never existed,” Salatrik says. “It was the density of bars, venues and bands in the city that first inspired the Blowout. The current Blowout has taken on a different path by changing the time of season and expanding into Ferndale, adding an element inconsistency. These changes have drastically affected the vibe of the Blowout in a negative way.” Traditionally, the enormous traffic generated by the Blowout helped struggling bars in Hamtramck survive financially. The diversion of some of the festival-goers to the increasingly-affluent suburb of Ferndale has strained Hamtramck’s bar owners. Hamtramck is currently under the authority of an emergency manager. “The HMF hopes to reinvigorate the spirit of what was once the highlight of Hamtramck and Detroit’s music scene,” says Salatrik.
Davis is looking forward to playing Hamtramck. “When I was a youngster in grade school, my parents and I went to Hamtramck every weekend to shop because of all the great shops up and down Joseph Campau,” said Davis. “Hamtramck is part of my history. I love that city.”
Salatrik credits musician Eugene Strobe with bringing together the committee that has organized, booked and promoted the festival in just six weeks. Over 120 local bands of varying genres are scheduled to perform throughout 18 venues during the three-day fest. Taking a cue from Davis’ philosophy of participation, the HMF committee consists entirely of volunteers from the local music community. All festival profits will be donated to Ben’s Encore, another all-volunteer run charity that teaches children how to make musical instruments and gives scholarships to talented kids enabling them to get musical training in an era of music education de-funding.
Salatrik believes the HMF will last for many years to come, because it is run by both long-time and new Hamtramck residents who see the benefit in being able to participate in an event that brings value to their community and their lives.
Booking bands does not require impartiality, rather the contrary. Successful talent buyers, like Salatrik, often have great taste and pick bands they like to see themselves. When asked which act he was most looking forward to seeing at the festival, Salatrik answered unequivocally, “Melvin Davis, of course…”
featuring Melvin Davis on drums
The Hamtramck Music Festival runs March 6-8 at 18 venues in the city. See the full festival lineup and listen to music by the bands performing (including Melvin Davis) at hamtramckmusicfestival.com.