As a songwriter, singer-actor Mac Davis penned some of Elvis Presley's last hit singles, including "In the Ghetto" and "Daddy Don't Cry," before enjoying his own success as a singer in the 1970s and 1980s with such country-pop crossovers as "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me," "Hooked on Music" and "I Never Made Love (Till I Made Love with You)." On record and stage, he cultivated a persona of a good-natured rascal, not unlike fellow country star Jerry Reed, which he parlayed into a secondary career as an actor in features like "North Dallas Forty" (1979). Davis's tenure on the charts fizzled in the late 1980s, though he continued to act and reap the benefits of his songwriting, most notably from a massively popular 2002 remix of "A Little Less Conversation," a song he co-wrote for Presley in 1968. Davis's easy-going charm and talent for memorable, affecting songs made him one of the most likable country-pop figures of the 1970s and beyond.
Sources vary as to Mac Davis' real given name, with some citing Morris while others billed his birth name as Scott Davis. Whatever the case, he was born on Jan. 21, 1942 in Lubbock, TX, one of two children by building contractor T.J. Davis and his wife, Edith. When Davis was nine years old, his parents divorced, and he remained in Lubbock with his sister at an efficiency apartment complex owned by his father. He received his first instrument, a Hawaiian steel guitar, as a boy, but did not start performing until he joined his mother in Atlanta, GA following graduation from high school. Stints in several local rock-n-roll groups led to a 1963 single, "Honey Love," backed with the original composition "Hey Monkey" for the Chicago-based R&B label Vee Jay. Though the single found few listeners, it did land him a job with Vee Jay as a regional manager. Davis then moved to Liberty Records in 1965, which sent him to Los Angeles to head their publishing division, Metric Music.
His songwriting career took off in earnest when Elvis Presley recorded "A Little Less Conversation," a horn-driven R&B song co-written with arranger Billy Strange for Presley's 1968 film "Live a Little, Love a Little." The track, which reached No. 69 on the Billboard Hot 100, put Davis on the map as a songwriter, and he soon penned tracks for such established artists as Lou Rawls, Nancy Sinatra, Andy Williams and Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. In 1969, Presley recorded two Davis tracks, "Don't Cry Daddy" and "In the Ghetto," as part of his momentous session at American Sound Studio in Memphis with producer Chips Moman, which also produced such late-era hits as "Suspicious Minds" and "Kentucky Woman." Both tracks reached the Top 10 on the Billboard chart, which again led to more work with top singers like Glen Campbell and Bobby Goldsboro, who earned a No. 1 hit on the adult contemporary charts with "Watching Scotty Grow," a song about Davis's son Joel Scott. Davis also signed a recording contract that year with Columbia Records, which released his debut LP as a singer, Song Painter, in 1970. The record produced a Top 50 single with "Whoever Finds This, I Love You," but its follow-up, I Believe in Music (1971), failed to break into the Top 100 on the pop albums chart, despite Davis's own rendition of "A Little Less Conversation" and "Watching Scotty Grow."
The following year, Davis finally earned his breakout single with the title track from his 1972 LP Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me, a flirty pop-country hybrid that reached the top of both the pop and easy listening charts. Its crossover success led to a string of Top 10 and 20 albums on the country charts, as well as Top 20 hits on the pop charts with "One Hell of a Woman" and "Stop and Smell the Roses," all of which contributed to the Academy of Country Music naming him Entertainer of the Year in 1974. His easy-going stage persona translated well to television, where he became a popular guest on variety series before gaining his own weekly program, "The Mac Davis Show," on NBC between 1974-76. The tail end of the decade saw Davis treading water at the bottom of the pop singles chart, which prompted a move to Casablanca Records, a label best known for its disco releases by Donna Summer and the Village People. However, his first LP for them, 1980's Hard to Be Humble, reached No. 3 on the country albums chart, while the tongue-in-cheek title track and its follow-up, "Let's Keep it That Way," both reached No. 10 on the country singles chart.
Davis also scored a hit with his acting debut in "North Dallas Forty" (1979) as a fun-loving Texas quarterback who bore some resemblance to the Dallas Cowboys' own Don Meredith. His comeback continued for another year with hit country singles like "Texas in My Rearview Mirror," from the No. 12 country album of the same name, and "Hooked on Music," which became his highest charting country single by reaching No. 2 in 1981. "You're My Bestest Friend, " from Midnight Crazy (1981), reached No. 5, but subsequent releases hovered at the bottom of the country Top 40 or lower. His promising film career also fizzled with the failure of his first star turn in the comedy "Cheaper to Keep Her" (1981) and "The Sting II" (1983). Two years later, Davis recorded his last Top 10 hit as a singer with "I Never Made Love (Till I Made Love with You)." He spent the next half-decade working largely as a guest star on television before collaborating with Dolly Parton as both a songwriter and singer on her Top 5 album White Limozeen (1990).
The following year, Davis made his Broadway debut when he replaced Keith Carradine as humorist Will Rogers in the Tony-winning musical "The Will Rogers Follies," and would repeat the role for the first national tour in 1993. Davis' folksy persona kept him active as an actor in the 1990s and beyond, most notably in a recurring vocal role as a sports radio announcer on the popular animated series "King of the Hill" (Fox, 1997-2010) and as comedian Rodney Carrington's father on the short-lived sitcom "Rodney" (ABC, 2004-06). In 2000, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, which was soon followed by a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Two years later, Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation" roared back onto the global charts with a remix by Dutch musician Tom Holkenborg, who performed as Junkie XL. The single topped the charts in over 20 countries while reaching No. 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2004, Davis's hometown of Lubbock named a stretch of road for him, shortly before he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006.
By Paul Gaita