Read an interview with producer, arranger and musician, John Davis of the Monster Orchestra by DiscoMusic.com contributor, Eric Warncke.
Let me tell you a little bit more about John Davis! He started out writing music in college and then later went on to become a band leader and composer while he was in the Army. In the 1970s and 1980s he produced, arranged and worked with some of the biggest names in the music business including Bobby Eli (from MFSB), Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson, Yvette Benton (The Sweethearts of Sigma), William DeVaughn, Arthur Prysock, The Intruders, Ricky Nelson, Bootsy Collins (of Parliament), Rhonda Heath, The Salsoul Orchestra, Silver Convention, Carol Douglas, Charo, Donna Summer and more. He also released five of his own albums under the name John Davis and the Monster Orchestra between 1976 and 1981. In the 1980s and 1990s John started working as a composer for television and made music for the shows Dynasty, The Colbys, MacGyver, TJ Hooker, Mission: Impossible the series and Beverly Hills 90210 (the new and old version).
Today, John Davis is living in Ohio with his wife and has three daughters and recently became a grandfather! Here is the first part of my interview with John Davis!
1. Where were you born and what were your parents names?
John Davis: I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1947. I was an identical twin to my brother, Joe Davis. He went on to become one of the best trumpet players in the business and enjoyed a great career as a studio musician and many tours and live shows. My parents, John and Luciene Davis, were just regular folks who worked in Philly - but nowhere near the music business. My Dad worked for the board of Education and my mother worked at our local bank.
Listen to Up Jumped the Devil:
2. Did you have a musical home when you were growing up and did you learn any instruments at an early age?
John Davis: While growing up, my Dad, in particular, was a huge fan of the big band era and always had big band music playing in the house. When I was 9 years old I got a plastic clarinet for Christmas. I loved playing that silly thing until next year I got a real clarinet to play in the school band. Not having a lot of extra money, I studied with a teacher at school until I got to Junior High School where I began to show some talent on this instrument. I can still remember sitting on the floor and listening to Glen Millers band and thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to write stuff like that.
3. Did you have any high schools bands or projects before the Monster Orchestra? What was the first record you ever worked on?
John Davis: When I got to high school, I had become pretty good on clarinet and had begun playing the sax in the jazz band at school. My reputation had grown to the point where I was invited to join the US Naval Academy Band in Annapolis, MD when I graduated from high school. It was here that I actually began to write for a band. I had access to a jazz band, concert band and a marching band. I was writing for everything because I could have them play it back and actually hear what certain instrumental combinations would sound like. After writing a few things for the band there, I submitted one song to a publisher, and it was published for high school bands. I remember it was called Nightfall.
4. Who were your biggest influences, musically and otherwise when you first started writing music?
John Davis: At that time I was pretty well influenced by the big band sound and classical music. Then, I remember hearing a record on the radio that just totally blew me away - it was MacArthur Park - the Richard Harris version. I had never thought about combining the pop sound with an orchestra. It was such an exciting time for me that I just began hearing and studying writers like Burt Bacharach and Hal Davis, Jimmy Webb, Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and many more. After getting out of the service, I started work for a company in Philly. It was there that I was sent to the studio to produce an artist named William DeVaughn. I wasn't very experienced in the studio, but managed to come out with Be Thankful For What You Got which became a #1 million seller in 1974. Of course, this opened the doors for me to start getting other projects on my own.
Listen to Be Thankful For What You Got by William DeVaughn
5. How did you team up with guys like Bobby Eli, "Sugarbear" Foreman and Charles Collins and how did you meet the Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Yvette Benton?
John Davis: Being in Philadelphia, one could not exist without acknowledging these musical giants in my back yard. The first time I worked with the "rhythm section" (Bobby Eli, Sugarbear and Charles Collins) was on Be Thankful For What You Got and it was so successful that we became not only colleagues, but good friends as well! I always was, and will always be thankful for the years we spent together. After that, I recorded I Just Can't Say Goodbye with the Philly Devotions, and Midnight Love Affair with Carol Douglas. I believe this is where Harry Chipetz, the general manager of Sigma Sound Studio started calling me "Monster." We never knew how much fun I would have with that name. The first time I worked with the Sweethearts was on Night and Day with the Monster Orchestra. I'll never forget how beautiful they were and the sound was like cream in my coffee. It was truly an honor to work with them. I also have to credit Tom Moulton for giving me such new perspectives on mixing and just plain listening. It was always a pleasure working with Tom.
Listen to Midnight Love Affair by Carol Douglas:
6. What was the experience of getting signed to Sam Records and Columbia Records like?
John Davis: Sam Weiss (the owner of Sam Records) and I had a great relationship. I always felt like a son with Sam. When we went to Columbia, it seemed to change things between us. It felt more serious and frankly, some of the fun went out of it for me. The idea of having a little more control over my product meant more to me than being with a big label like Columbia. Unfortunately, this happened in 1978 when things were starting to slow down, and I was feeling a bit lost at the new label.I really thought I had a smash with Love Magic, but we never got enough radio support to get it through the clubs and onto radio. It was a big disappointment for me. But then, I would have to say we sold more records than ever with CBS so I guess it was a double-edged sword.
7. You had a creative frenzy from 1976 - 1981 releasing 5 records; Night & Day, Up Jumped The Devil, Aint That Enough For You, The Monster Orchestra Strikes Again! and a split called Hangin' Out with a band called La Pregunta in 1981. What was the experience like of producing, writing and promoting these albums?
John Davis: Those years, from 1974 - 1984 were the most fun years of my life. When I signed with Sam Weiss it opened a path for me to be in total control of my product. Writing, arranging, playing and producing with the best musicians and singers in the world - who could ask for more? I remember everyday, getting up and looking forward with joy to the day ahead. I knew I would be doing what I love with the people I loved and respected the most. After the Night and Day album, Sam and I felt we should do something original so we wouldn't become predictable. This is where I got my first opportunity to "go crazy". He basically said to go where you want and get him a hit. The first thought I had was Up Jumped The Devil. It became a huge dance hit and opened the door for The Monster Orchestra to become more original and innovative. That was the really fun part!
8. What led you to stop making records after 1981's Hangin' Out and switch to making music for shows like Dynasty and Beverly Hills 90210?
John Davis: I'm not sure whether I stopped making records, or people stopped calling, but in 1980, I decided to take a trip to LA and visit my pal Bob Reno from Midland Records. He had just moved there and asked me if I would like to try my hand at writing for TV shows. I just had twin daughters and felt I better make this move now, because the future of the record biz seemed to be getting shaky. I got there and met with Mark Snow, a composer of countless TV shows. He got me started by working with him on Hart to Hart. After that, I continued to work for Aaron Spelling for 20 years. I did TV shows like Beverly Hill, 90210, Melrose Place, Dynasty, T.J. Hooker, Walker, Texas Ranger, Hotel and many, many others.
9. Do you have any musical plans for the future like releasing a greatest hits package or a new album?
John Davis: I have no current plans for future projects, but I'm available! (LOL) As far as a greatest hits album, you would have to talk to Mike Weiss at Nervous Records. He controls the master tapes. I'm sure if there was enough interest, he would release one.