R&B groover tells FBPO about his stellar career with Buddy Miles, Don Cornelius and more
Los Angeles native Melvin Lee Davis began his illustrious career at the age of 16, when Buddy Miles brought him to New York to play with his band. After playing the New York club circuit, Melvin found himself working with Don Cornelius of Soul Train. He has since toured and recorded with Chaka Khan, the Pointer Sisters, Lee Ritenour, Bryan Ferry, David Benoit, Larry Carlton, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight and many other top acts.
Melvin wrote the theme for the TV shows The Party Machine and Soul Train’s A Comin’ and has appeared on the Johnny Carson, David Letterman, Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall shows. Davis has traveled the world and continues to be in high demand across many genres of music, due to his incredible talent and positive demeanor on and off stage.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing. How did you end up as a bass player?
MLD: Well, it all started at the tender age of birth! I was destined to be a musician. My parents surrounded me with music. I started playing violin at the age of 4. From there I moved on to saxophone at the age of 6. I continued my woodwind studies until my junior year in high school, when I first picked up a guitar. I really didn’t have the skills to play guitar and I wasn’t very good at using a pick. I think it had something to do with my long fingers. I eventually picked up the bass guitar and fell in love with the instrument. The rest is history in the making.
FBPO: Is it true you were discovered by Buddy Miles when you were only 16? What happened?
MLD: Yes, it is true. It was my first major gig/tour. A friend of my sister’s was dating a saxophonist named Tobi, who was playing in Buddy’s band. For some reason the regular bassist fell out of favor with Buddy. When the bass chair became available, Tobi recommended me for the gig. I’d like to think the recommendation came because Tobi found promise in my ability and he knew Buddy would too. Or maybe it was because he could get me for real cheap!
FBPO: How did you come to work with Don Cornelius? What exactly was the gig?
MLD: Long story short: I got introduced to Don by a mutual friend for whom I’d been recording. His name was Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey. He was a staff producer at A&M Records and also head of staff at Black Bull Music, Stevie Wonder’s company. I started working for Don Cornelius in 1978, when I became a staff bassist for his company.
FBPO: What would you say was the turning point that made you realize your career was starting to take off?
MLD: The moment I started working for Don Cornelius. He introduced me to many of the top artists in the industry. Back in the mid to late ’70s, if you were a black musician in the business of making R&B and soul music and wanted to get on television, you had to go through Don Cornelius.
FBPO: With all the people you’ve played with and all the traveling you’ve done, can you think of an experience that stands out as especially memorable or meaningful? Or maybe a good road story?
MLD: Each circumstance carries its own special moment, but the most memorable is yet to be told. Stay tuned!
FBPO: What kind of equipment do you use in the studio and on the road?
MLD: In the studio, I use Ken Smith basses. On occasion, I use my hybrid jazz bass. On the road, I use Ken Smith basses, SWR amps and speakers, a Bugera amp when I can get one, Bag End speakers and a pedalboard with old school stomp boxes.
FBPO: What’s keeping you busiest these days?
MLD: Studio and touring.
FBPO: You’ve already done so much in your career. What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
MLD: Take a vacation!
FBPO: What do you like to do that’s not necessarily musically oriented?
MLD: I like to watch basketball, take long walks and work out in my little garage gym. Ultimately, I like to relax at home and do nothing for a change.
FBPO feature with Melvin Lee Davis