Chaka Khan, Lee Ritenour bassist talks current projects, Ken Smith basses and more
By David Sands
August 12, 2015
The versatile Melvin Lee Davis has had such a far-ranging musical career, it sort of makes you wonder: “What hasn’t he done?”
At the moment he’s bassist and musical director for Chaka Khan and also plays for respected jazz guitarist Lee Ritenour. But his masterful bass lines have made him a popular session player for a whole range of genres that includes R&B, gospel and rock.
His career in the music business kicked off with a bang after he was discovered at 16 by a saxophone player in Buddy Miles’ jazz group and quickly joined the band. During various points in his career, he’s also shared the stage with the Pointer Sisters, Eric Marienthal, Queen Latifah, former Roxy Music frontman Bryan Ferry, O’Bryan and Gladys Knight & The Pips, among other artists.
Although the L.A. native also plays keyboards and sings, his masterful command of the bass is what really made him a name for himself. Davis is comfortably adept on four-, five-, six- and seven-stringed basses, as well as acoustic. As if that’s not enough, he’s a producer and composer too, with his best known composition probably being the theme song for the music variety show Soul Train, “Soul Train’s A-Comin’.” Davis has also released several solo albums, as well as the 2006 Homeland, as a member of Melvin and the Security Council.
FBPO first interviewed Davis in 2010, so Jon Liebman reached out recently to check in with him. The two of them had a compelling conversation that touched on the bass player’s current efforts with Chaka Khan and Ritenour, an upcoming side project, working in Hollywood and his love for Ken Smith basses.
When Jon caught up with him, Davis was in the midst of working with Chaka Khan on a Joni Mitchell tribute album. The project will be Chaka’s take on several of her favorite songs from the iconic singer/songwriter’s catalog, and Davis will be producing several of its tracks.
“It’s great,” he says of the endeavor. “I’m excited to be in the producer chair working for Chaka. That’s very rewarding.”
The musical lineup will also include the talents of keyboardist Jesse Milliner, guitarist Rob Bacon, drummer Ron Bruner, Jr. and background vocalists Audrey Wheeler, Tiffany Smith and Lisa Vaughn.
Asked if the project would also pay tribute to Mitchell’s famed collaboration with Jaco Pastorius, Davis answers affirmatively.
“There are a couple songs he played on that we sort of add the Jaco flavor on bass, if you will,” he says.
Unexpectedly, working on the project has also put the bassist and keyboard player Jesse Milliner on the road to a side project.
“We’ve done a couple tracks with Chaka that she loved, but she thought they were a little too jazzy. We were like: ‘Okay, that’s fine,” and inside we’re like: ‘Cool, because we really want to do this.’”
Right now the two of them are caught up in the writing stages of the project, trying to develop a concept for the album. Because of his rigorous touring schedule, Davis doubts the effort will be finished before winter. Fortunately, Milliner will be joining him on tour in Asia with Ritenour later this year, so he expects they’ll do some hotel room recording on the road.
Juggling gigs between his two main employers can sometimes be a little challenging, Davis admits.
“Lately it’s been a little tough,” he says. “It’s just been a matter of making the schedules work. Nine times out of ten, things work out where he’s working and she’s not, or he’s working and she’s not.”
Luckily, Davis has a lot of bassist friends. When he ran into a scheduling conflict last year, he called on his good friend Tom Kennedy to cover his bass duties for some of his Ritenour gigs. Likewise he’s arranged for his buddy Andrew Ford to handle some of Chaka’s shows in the U.S. this fall while he’s out touring in Japan.
“One way or another it works out. We, as a community of bassists, always find a way to get [each other] some work.”
In addition to his regular music gigging, Davis has had his brushes with Hollywood over the years. One of the more memorable of these moments was recording tracks for and appearing briefly in the classic Eddie Murphy comedy, Coming to America.
“It was the black awareness rally with Arsenio Hall and Eddie together,” he says. ”I think it was in the auditorium, and we were playing the ‘Greatest Love of All.’”
“A friend of mine was working for John Landis as his assistant,” he continues, “and there was a point where John needed some musicians to role play and record, and I said: ‘If you’re looking for musicians, there’s a band I’m playing with, and John went for it.”
Davis has also performed for television productions, not just with a band on late night shows, but also as entertainment for studio audiences.
“I’ve been in the support band for the show,” he says, referring to a gig for the popular sitcom Frasier. “While they’re setting up or re-rolling the cameras, there’s a lull on the set, so they usually have a band. I was sort of the house band for the taping.”
During the interview, Davis also spoke about his fondness for Ken Smith basses. He owns several and has a relationship with the custom bass maker that stretches back several decades.
His first real taste of one of Smith’s basses came at a NAMM show in 1984, when Grammy-nominated bassist Anthony Jackson introduced him to one of the bass guitar maker’s hand-made six-strings.
Davis fell in love with it, and soon found himself working with the craftsman to develop his own personalized instruments. More than thirty years later, he now owns a sizable collection of Smith’s custom basses, with his favorite being a seven-string model he took on the road while playing with Bryan Ferry. After all this time, he tells FBPO he has little reason to look elsewhere for his basses.
“Ken has been very cool,” he says. “He developed the body shapes and everything to my liking, so it’s been a good relationship, and it continues to this day. We’re really good friends as well.”
While Davis has played with some amazing artists over the years, he says the one thing he’d really like to do is take a break; something that’s easier said than done.
“One thing I’m looking forward to is jumping on an airplane without a bass on my back,” he says. “The thing is: I need a vacation. And then as soon as the phone rings its like: ‘Okay, I’m available.’”
Between his own hectic schedule and his wife pursuing a psychology doctorate, it may be a while before he fulfills that goal.
“Right now, I’m just looking for balance, and this year balance doesn’t exist. So the future, for me, is to find balance as a musician and as a family man. I hear you make better music when you get balanced.”