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The Melody Man

The Melody Man: Joe Davis and the New York Music Scene, 1916-1978

Bruce Bastin
with Kip Lornell
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Melody Man
    Book Description:

    Joe Davis, the focus ofThe Melody Manenjoyed a 50-year career in the music industry, which covered nearly every aspect of the business. He hustled sheet music in the 1920s, copyrighted compositions by artists as diverse as Fats Waller, Carson Robison, Otis Blackwell, and Rudy Vallee, oversaw hundreds of recording session, and operated several record companies beginning in the 1940s. Davis also worked fearlessly to help insure that black recording artists and song writers gained equal treatment for their work.

    Much more than a biography, this book is an investigation of the role played by music publishers during much of the twentieth century. Joe Davis was not a music "great" but he was one of those individuals who enabled "greats" to emerge. A musician, manager, and publisher, his long career reveals much about the nature of the music industry and offers insight into how the industry changed from the 1920s to the 1970s. By the summer of 1924, when Davis was handling the "Race talent" for Ajax records, he had already worked in the music business for most of a decade and there was more than five decades of musical career ahead of him. The fact that his fascinating life has gone so long under-appreciated is remedied by the publication of Never Sell A Copyright.

    Originally published in England, in 1990, Never Sell a Copyright: Joe Davis and His Role in the New York Music Scene, 1916-1978 was never released in the United States and available in a very limited print run in England. The author, noted blues scholar and folklorist Bruce Bastin, has worked with fellow music scholar Kip Lornell to completely update, condense, and improve the book for this first-ever American edition.

    eISBN: 978-1-61703-277-6
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface to the New Edition
    (pp. vii-x)
    Kip Lornell
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Bruce Bastin
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
    Bruce Bastin and Kip Lornell
  6. Prelude
    (pp. xvii-2)

    The “Roaring Twenties,” the “Jazz Era,” or the “Age of Prohibition,” three of the terms often applied to the 1920s, describe a decade of profound changes that transformed American music. New styles, such as blues and jazz, and new artists like Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and Bessie Smith first rose to commercial and popular significance during the 1920s. Among all the thousands of new artists and groups that played and sang, the majority of their names mean little to most of us in the twenty-first century.

    The history of popular music in America has been revisited and revised...

  7. Chapter One “That’s Got ’Em”
    (pp. 3-35)

    Joseph Morton Davis was born into precisely the right period of American history in precisely the right place to enable him to carve his later musical career. Decades before Barry Gordy’s Motown stable of artists finally (and firmly) pushed black popular music comfortably into the mainstream, Davis can be viewed as a pioneer who unwittingly helped to break racial barriers in the music industry. His attitude toward his work helped to move the notion within the industry that “quality trumped race.”

    By the summer of 1924, when Joe Davis was handling the race talent for Ajax, he had been in...

  8. Chapter Two The Melody Man
    (pp. 36-54)

    In October 1924, Eldridge Johnson stated publicly, on behalf of the Victor Talking Machine Company, “that radio is not a Victor competitor nor a substitute for talking machines.” True enough in 1924, but the writing was on the wall because the new all-electric recordings would revolutionize the industry within two years. This technological advancement greatly improved the quality of records such that a brand-new 1928 OKeh record sounded superior to a contemporaneous radio broadcast.

    Just the same, radio reception and broadcasting both made great strides. Although the phonograph industry did its best to keep the infant radio under its wing,...

  9. Chapter Three Fats Comes Aboard
    (pp. 55-101)

    Without doubt the most significant events of 1929 for Davis’s publishing companies were the collaborations of Fats Waller and Andy Razaf emanating from the showHot Chocolates, and the subsequent Waller-Davis cooperation on many future projects. This collaboration lasted well into the 1930s, but 1929 was, even without the Waller connection, yet another successful year for Joe Davis. The year 1929 began with such bright hope and optimism but ended darkly when the United States’s stock market crashed at the end of October, plunging the entire world in a severe economic funk that lasted throughout the next decade.

    The year...

  10. Chapter Four How Joe Davis Did Business
    (pp. 102-131)

    For Joe Davis the 1940s opened the same way that the 1930s closed, but within two years events were to take place that completely redirected his business and personal life. The music publisher of the past quarter century would also become one of the spirited minor independent record producers—indeed, one of the very first of significance. For the next twenty-five years Davis wandered in and out of record production—never leaving music publishing entirely. Ultimately, his record companies indirectly led Davis to sell off much of his music business in later years.

    Having shed much of his publishing interests...

  11. Chapter Five The Gennett Connection
    (pp. 132-155)

    In early 1944 Davis settled in to his new four-story premises at 331 West 51st. This large building—nicely trimmed with knotty pine walls and ceiling—effectively functioned as a record emporium. Davis used the ground floor for shipping, the second floor held the executive offices, while the third floor contained rehearsal studios, though no recording was done here. Given the sheer weight of a 78 rpm disc, the top floor surprisingly held Davis’s record stock.

    What turned out to be his busiest year for recording, and without doubt his most important musically, commenced very gently. Although he had material...

  12. Chapter Six God Bless Our New President
    (pp. 156-173)

    By January 14, 1945, Joe Davis officially reorganized his business as Joe Davis Record Co. doing business at 331 West 51st Street, New York, New York. His January 24, 1945, application with the United States Patent Office showed he had used the name for about ten days and listed his own residence as New Preston, Connecticut. This new name didn’t signal a sea change, it merely recognized Davis’s current business practices.

    In general this merely increased the number of labels on which his releases might be found, but he did reissue both Beverley White Beacons in cross-couplings, both “hits” together...

  13. Chapter Seven Caribbean Music and Albums
    (pp. 174-199)

    The rapidly dwindling sales of November and December 1945 continued into 1946. Davis eventually realized that this trend didn’t merely represent a seasonal drop, but that the bottom had begun to fall out of the market. Perhaps sensing these impending changes early on, Davis slated only one session, by the 5 Red Caps, during the first two months of 1946. The sales of 13,598 for the month of January 1946 signaled a slight rise over December 1945. Only the 5 Red Caps with their “Boogie Beat’ll Getcha” (Joe Davis 7135) sold over 1,000 copies, though only barely. Of the rest...

  14. Chapter Eight Back to the Brill Building
    (pp. 200-216)

    The year 1948 marked Joe Davis’s effective departure as a full-time record executive. He sold his West 51st Street building and moved back into the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, the city’s longtime “home” for songwriters and publishers. Nonetheless, Davis occasionally ventured back into producing discs.The Billboardfor February 21, 1948, carried this caption: Davis To Issue Celebrity Label. Beneath the caption it reported:

    Joe Davis, veteran music publisher and disker, has re-entered the pop platter field and will market pressings of his biscuit backlog, amassed thru a long career in the wax biz, under a new label called...

  15. Chapter Nine The Deep River Boys
    (pp. 217-232)

    Throughout 1951 Davis recorded popular artists, often covering children’s songs. The Art Waner Orchestra with Andy Pierce and the Song Spinners produced a sizable seller with “Easter Bunny Day,” part-written by Joseph W. Burns, who produced another huge seller for Davis a couple of years later. Bud Brees with Paul Taubman tackled such stalwarts as “Toyland Jubilee” and “Circus on Parade.” “Ev’ry Little Piggy’s Got a Curly Tail,” and another big seller, “Percy the Pale Faced Polar Bear” received the careful attention of Lenny Herman’s quintet. An old Davis hit, “Dreamy Housatonic,” moved geographically to become “Dreamy Susquehanna” and Dick...

  16. Chapter Ten Jay-Dee Records and Otis Blackwell
    (pp. 233-261)

    Joe Davis interest in the young girl singer, Leslie Uggams, dates at least as early as November 1952, when he signed a contract with her manager. By the end of the year his contract with her stipulated a $100.00 payment for each group of four recordings plus 1 cent per record sold. She had been something of a star for a year or so, largely because she won an Apollo Amateur Night competition at Harlem’s most prestigious venue, where so many black artists broke into the music circuit. Indeed, she was the last child on the show as she was...

  17. Chapter Eleven Listen to Dr. Jive
    (pp. 262-286)

    Joe Davis booked the Mastertone Studio for late evening on the first Friday of 1956 to record titles from the Scale-Tones. Typically, Davis rehearsed the group before the session and at least one song was recorded at a run-through session, with only a pianist and drummer in attendance. He jotted down seven titles on a scrap of paper and only “Easy Baby” survived on an acetate. The group was augmented by James Fernanders, who might be responsible for the high female-like, falsetto part heard on this track, but not on the session, from which he was absent.

    Davis’s notes list...

  18. Chapter Twelve I Learned a Lesson I’ll Never Forget
    (pp. 287-304)

    By the time Joe Davis began to slow down his musical career, the recording industry must have seemed in utter upheaval to a man who’d spent just over four decades in the business. The ways of doing business so familiar to Davis, such as the power of single record releases and the promotion and distribution of records, were shifting rapidly. There was also an immense boom in the industry with cinema links, record clubs, and shifts in power in the distribution business. Davis had never found it easy after the late 1940s to corner his market, any more than the...

  19. Tune Title Index
    (pp. 305-317)
  20. Name and Subject Index
    (pp. 318-332)
  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)