Born Roquel Davis on July 11, 1937, in Detroit, MI, producer/songwriter Billy Davis attended Northern High School (whose alumni includes legendary Motown bassist James Jamerson), Wayne State University, and the Maurice King School of Music. He began a singing career as a member of the Five Jets, who recorded for Deluxe Records in 1953 and 1954. Some of the songs were some of Davis' first published songs: the singles "Give In," "Please Love Me Baby," "I Am in Love" b/w "Not a Hand to Shake," and "Crazy Chicken," plus the LP Five Jets Meet the Guytones.
In 1956, he started working for Chess Records in nearby Chicago. One of his first projects for the label was his group, the Four Aims, who later became the Four Tops. He co-wrote the Moonglows' "See Saw" with Harry Pratt and Charles Sutton, which hit number six R&B in fall 1956, and "A Kiss from Your Lips." Moonglows leader Harvey Fuqua would later add Marvin Gaye to the group lineup and co-wrote, with Johnny Bristol and Jackey Beavers, Diana Ross and the Supremes' platinum single, "Someday We'll Be Together" (number one R&B for four weeks, number one pop in late 1969). Under the pseudonym "Tyran Carlo," Davis co-wrote hits for Brunswick Records star Jackie Wilson with Motown founder Berry Gordy and his sister Gwen: "Reet Petite," "To Be Loved," "Lonely Teardrops," "I'll Be Satisfied," "I'm Wanderin'," and "That's Why I Love You So."
Around 1958, he founded Anna Records with Berry Gordy and Gwen. The label was distributed by New York label End Records and later Chess Records. Anna's first hit was Barrett Strong's "Money," which stayed at number two R&B for six weeks in early 1960. In 1961, Leonard Chess started a Detroit label, Checkmate, and hired Davis as the supervisor. The next year, Chess made Davis the head of A&R and he moved to Chicago. Davis co-owned a music publishing company with Chess whose name, Chevis, was a contraction of both their names. Davis is credited for the label's '60s-era success, retaining previous A&R head Ralph Bass for the label's blues and gospel roster. Davis enhanced Chess' writing and arranging staff while snaring the city's best musicians. One of his finds was arranger Phil Wright, a nightclub bandleader whose skills added rich, orchestrated arrangements to the label's releases. Davis also found some of Chess' best songwriting and production talent in groups already signed to the label. Maurice McAlister and Leonard Caston were members of the Radiants who scored a Chess hit with "Voice of Choice" in early 1965. Raynard Miner was a member of the Gems (along with a pre-stardom Minnie Riperton). Miner brought his frequent collaborator Carl Smith to the fold.
Around 1964, Phil Chess hired saxophonist Gene Barge as a staff producer and musical director. The Chess rhythm section headed by Barge was one of the great studio bands of the '60s/'70s soul music era and included drummer Maurice White; bassist Louis Sattersfield; guitarists Gerald Sims, Pete Cosey, and Bryce Robertson; organist Sonny Thompson; and pianists Leonard Caston and Raynard Miner. Many had great post-Chess careers: Barge co-wrote and co-produced '70s hits by Natalie Cole; White and Sattersfield were founding members of '70s supergroup Earth, Wind & Fire. During a visit to the Chess offices, label artist Mitty Collier overheard Caston playing a James Cleveland record, "I Had a Talk With God Last Night," and had a idea for a secular song along the same lines. Co-written by Davis and Chess staff pianist/producer Leonard Caston, "I Had a Talk With Man" hit number three R&B on Cashbox Magazine's R&B chart in fall 1964.
Davis' best-known production came in 1965 with Fontella Bass' "Rescue Me." Co-produced by Davis and songwriters Miner and Smith and recorded on a weekend in August 1965, "Rescue Me" b/w "Soul of the Man" stayed at number one R&B for four weeks and number four pop in fall 1965. The track has been used in numerous TV ad campaigns and movie and TV soundtracks. The trio also wrote the follow-ups, "Recovery" and the A-side of the double-sided hit "I Can't Rest" (the B-side was "I Surrender" (Davis/Shena De Mell/Sugar Pie De Santo). Bass' final charting Chess single was Oliver Sain's "You'll Never Ever Know." That same year, Davis produced the first Chess singles by the Dells ("Thinking About You," "Run for Cover") after they returned to the label after having their last hit for VeeJay Records, "Stay in My Corner." Other Chess sides include Little Milton's "We're Gonna Make It" (Davis/Gene Barge/Raynard Miner/Carl Smith), which parked at number one R&B for three weeks; the song was later covered by Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows, B.B. King, and Rufus Thomas. Another Little Milton single, "Who's Cheating Who" (Davis/Miner/Smith), hit number four R&B in summer 1965. In 1968, Davis left Chess and the entire record business and began working for the McCann Erickson Advertising Agency, having a successful career as a jingles writer. ~ Ed Hogan, Rovi