Bill Davis was Tulsa’s Master of Musical Sounds
By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
GOOD DAYS: Bill Davis, fourth from left, with fellow band members and friends in about 1990 at the Hilton Inn in Tulsa. From left are musician David Teegarden, author Terrell Lester, musician Tommy Tripplehorn, Bill Davis, musician Gary Cundiff and Sol Bayouth, who had booked the Bill Davis Band for a one-night dance.
For a half-century, Bill Davis kept the bright lights of Tulsa’s night life aglow and incandescent.
He was the mighty oak tree towering above and casting a shadow over Tulsa’s fertile musical garden.
Every city with any level of melodic worth boasts a signature performer. A must-see. The essential entertainer.
New York had Bobby Short.
New Orleans had Allen Toussaint.
Tulsa had Bill Davis.
He was Mister Tulsa Music. Tulsa’s Musical Ambassador.
Rhythm and blues. Rock and roll. Soul.
He had the voice, the timing, the phrasing to capture and to hold the essence of every lyric.
He was inspired by James Brown. And it showed. In Davis’ soaring vocals. In Davis’ moves and motions. In Davis’ stage presence.
Davis was the spirit of soul music. The original blue-eyed soul singer.
Ever the showman, always the headliner, Davis died June 15 at the age of 80.
His funeral in Bixby attracted a parade of Tulsa musical luminaries, from sidemen to front men. All had worked with or were influenced by the man who, hands down, was always the coolest cat in the room.
Davis had carved out a musical career that spanned 50 years, summoning up a voice that emanated from deep within, a voice that could roar, a voice that could soar.
He might have been labeled a cover singer, covering the songs of others.
But with his electric personality, his high-octane energy, his play-to-the-audience passion, Davis could make any song his own.
“Mustang Sally.” “You Are So Beautiful.” “Dust My Broom.” “Suzy Q.”
Pulsing rhythm and blues. Emotional ballads. Dynamic rock.
He delivered each and every number with a flair, an excitement, a charge. He was true to every note.
His articulation, his command of the lyrics was surreal. He could bend a note, embrace a note, make a note jump through hoops.
Davis had no off nights. He never failed to come through. He was always “on.”
He played the nightclubs and the private parties, the joints and the parking lots. He played in the era of liquor-by-the-wink, in beer bars, in hotel showrooms. He played in tailored suits and cutoff jeans.
He and his brilliant three-piece band packed Tulsa landmarks such as “The Showboat,” “The Stables,” “Checkers,” “The Sideline,” “The Vapors.”
For a change of pace, he and Tommy Tripplehorn on upright piano performed somewhat calmer sets on Sundays at “The Shy Clown.”
Over the past three decades, Tripplehorn on guitar and David Teegarden on drums formed the core of the Bill Davis Band. Bass duties were handled in line by Gary Cundiff, Gary Gilmore and Casey Van Beek.
More than once, the story goes, musical pros insisted that Davis had a better band than Leon Russell.
In 2009, Davis was inducted into the Oklahoma Blues Hall of Fame.
People went to see Davis not for one song but for a set, for an entire evening, for his voluminous flow of one-liners that would make Henny Youngman proud.
He was more than just a singer of song. More than a front man for Tulsa’s best blues band. He was the consummate entertainer.
Bill Davis. Boppin’ Billy the King of Silly. The purveyor of Carp on a Stick. The Mayor of the Midway.
His nicknames ran the gamut, much like his musical repertoire.
He graduated from Tulsa’s Central High School in 1956, a classmate of Johnny Cale.
As Cale and 1959 Will Rogers graduate Leon Russell led a musical migration to the West Coast, circa 1960, Davis remained in Tulsa.
He perfected his craft, singing in churches and dive bars.
Before the decade of the ’60s had faded, Davis had put together a show band, Soul Inc. With Don White leading the band on guitar, Davis was stepping into the spotlight, bathed in soul, outfitted in James Brown-inspired jumpsuits,
Davis was the brightest star in a Tulsa constellation that lit up the nights in bars on every corner and with music from every genre.
He was a butcher by day, a cut-up by night.
He enthralled with his vocals, beguiled with his charisma. He was beloved by fans, respected by musicians, favored by club owners.
Jim Smith was general manager of radio station for more than two decades during the peak of Davis’ reign as Tulsa’s king of the blues, sultan of soul.
During the funeral service, in which a half-dozen gospel numbers recorded by Davis were played for the congregation, Smith spoke eloquently of his friendship with the star.
“Bill will be missed,” Smith said. “But he lives on in my CDs and in my heart.”
Davis often wrote songs, in collaboration with pianist Walt Richmond, for Christmas releases and for friends. He recorded on cassette tapes and compact discs. He sold some, gave away more.
Over the years, offers were routinely extended for Davis to join the touring heavyweights.
Just as routinely, he declined.
He opened for national acts. He joined on stage the likes of Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, Bugs Henderson.
That was enough for Davis. He had a family, a good life. He had golf courses to play, nice cars to drive. He had songs to sing, fans to hail.
Still, he did enjoy the occasional turn in the national spotlight.
He contributed handsomely to the songbook of rock icon Bob Seger.
One of Davis’ compositions, written about his daughter, Kelly, caught the ear of Seger. In 1991, Seger’s album, “The Fire Inside,” included the Davis-penned number “She Can’t Do Anything Wrong.”
The album was certified platinum, indicating one million in sales.
Bob Seger gave Davis a national platform.
Bonnie Raitt gave Davis a shout out and posed for pictures.
Leon Russell gave Davis a spot on his annual birthday bash.
Russell once signed Davis to a recording contract with Shelter Records.
Russell urged Davis to hit the road, to relocate to Los Angeles.
In a typical Davis response, looked around the bar in which he was headlining, and said: “I’d rather be somebody in Tulsa than nobody in L.A.”
Indeed. Bill Davis was somebody in Tulsa.
A once-in-a-lifetime talent.
Consider a Mount Rushmore of Tulsa’s musical talent of the rock and roll era.
Bill Davis belongs there with Leon Russell, Don White, and disc jockey-historian John Henry.
Davis frequently borrowed from the Little Richard playlist.
From “Baby Face,” one line might best characterize Bill Davis.
“There’s not another who could take your place.”