This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 issue.
Had he only penned Elvis Presley’s No. 1 smash, “In The Ghetto,” Lubbock, Texas, native Mac Davis’s place in the annals of important songwriters would be assured. Through the years, whether composing hits cut by the likes of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Glen Campbell, Lou Rawls and Bobby Goldsboro, Davis’s innate gift as an evocative storyteller is a hallmark of his work. By the turn of the ‘70s, Mac would also go on to enjoy major success as a recording artist, straddling the pop and country worlds and racking up an impressive array of timeless gems like “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” “I Believe In Music,” “Stop and Smell The Roses,” “Hooked On Music,” “One Hell of A Woman,” “You’re My Bestest Friend” and “Texas In My Rearview Mirror.”
An inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, at age 66, Mac is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Currently working on a new CD, his first since 1994’s Will Work For Food, he’s still passionate about songwriting-still caught up in that intoxicating rush of writing a great tune.
Growing up in Lubbock, how did that environment impact on your work as a songwriter?
There’s a passel of people out in West Texas that are good writers. Joe Ely jumps in my head, and he’s a poet. It’s hard-scrabble land out there. There’s tornadoes and foul weather and wind blowing constantly. Yet if you stand back and look it’s a vista, you can see for miles and miles. There’s a feeling of isolation out there I think inspires a lot of people. It’s like a muse of some sort, the West Texas plains.
Was music your way to connect?
It was my way to be somebody. I remember sitting on my front porch and seeing Buddy Holly purposefully drive by at 25 miles an hour in his brand new Pontiac Catalina with these good looking girls in the car…[I was] going, “Woah! If he can do that, I can do that!” I wrote about it in “Texas In My Rearview Mirror.” I mention if Buddy Holly could make it that far, I could too. I used to go to the dances at Lawson’s skating rink and see him play on weekends. It was so strange to see a local boy accomplish the things he did and become so huge.
When did you begin writing songs?
I started writing melodies when I was seven, eight, nine years old. My daddy thought every kid should learn to whistle. As soon as I learned to whistle I started making up songs. I found that I had this gift. I don’t call it a talent; I call it a gift. Nobody in my family played instruments or sang. I remember my Daddy asking me, “What’s that song you’re whistling?” and I told him I made it up. He said, “You did not.” [Laughs] He couldn’t fathom that and neither could I. I put words to them when I was about 14-the same time Buddy Holly started making it.
In the late ‘50s you moved to Atlanta and joined Vee-Jay Records.
When I got out of high school, I moved to Atlanta in ‘58. I went to Emory University for one semester. I worked for the state of Georgia…the probation department. I also put a band together and started playing around town. Then I met some people that were in the record business. Knowing my love for r&b, they were looking for somebody to go to work for Vee-Jay Records, which was a black label [based in] Chicago. They hired me to do local promotion, and later I was regional sales and promotion man. Later I worked for Liberty Records. Then I worked for a wonderful fella named Mike Gould at Metric Music, a music publishing company. I was a song plugger, and I replaced Lenny Waronker who later found success at Warner Brothers Records as a producer. Mike was a great guy, but he was out of his element. He was still a suit-and-tie guy in a hippie world. But I learned so much from him, just listening to him say that songwriters don’t finish their songs. He said they write a great title or great first verse, and then they just race through it and don’t finish it. My daddy was always one of those guys who said, “If you’re going to do a job, do it right.” As a songwriter I feel the same way. You have to put your heart into a song and also some blood, sweat and tears into it. To me the last verse should be just as good or better than the first verse. Mike Gould also taught me to think what Cole Porter would do; he’d go for the hard rhyme.
Having that background in publishing, did that put you a step ahead of the pack?
Yeah, I learned a whole lot trying to promote other people’s songs. In those days, my demo was on the bottom of the pile. I knew better than to go out there and just work my own songs ‘cause I was hired to plug everybody’s songs. I enjoyed the process of recording them and doing demos, which was just me and a guitar. You can’t get away with that anymore.
Two of your biggest hits were songs cut by Elvis, “In The Ghetto” and “Don’t Cry Daddy.” How did you get those songs to him?
Billy Strange was working with Nancy [Sinatra], and they had a publishing company called B&B Music. I was on B&B, which stood for Billy and Boots.
They told me Elvis had wanted to cut some more songs. “Memories” and “If I Can Dream” both did real well. They wanted me to send to Elvis anything that I had which had a Memphis-type sound. So I sent them a tape with 19 songs, which was everything that I had at that time. The fist song was “In The Ghetto.” I had pitched “Don’t Cry Daddy” to him already. I sang that song…and I think “In The Ghetto”…over at his house-that same night I met Lisa Marie and Priscilla. I grabbed one of his guitars and played “Don’t Cry Daddy.” I remember his comment exactly. He got tears in his eyes and said, “I’m gonna cut that song for my daddy.” I was kind of surprised that was one that Elvis really liked. I thought it was going to be a little too country for him, but he loved it.
How did you come to write “In The Ghetto”?
My daddy was a small building contractor. There was a guy named Alan Smith that had worked for him for years and years. He was just like…part of the family. He was a black man and his little boy, Smitty Junior, was my age, and he and I used to play together. Our daddies would be working and in the summertime. Smitty would hang out with me. They lived in a really funky dirt street ghetto. Today’s term would be a ghetto. The term “ghetto” had started to become popular to describe the urban slums. The word was used during the Holocaust to describe those situations, but they hadn’t used it in an American context until the late ‘60s. Smitty Junior lived in a part of Lubbock called Queen City. They had dirt streets and broken glass everywhere. I couldn’t understand how these kids could run around barefoot on all that broken glass; I was wondering why they had to live that way and I lived another way. Even though we weren’t wealthy or anything, it was a whole big step up from the way that Smitty Junior had to live.
A friend of mine, Freddy Weller, showed me a lick on the guitar. Freddy was a guitar player that I knew from Atlanta. He later became a country artist. He was playing for Paul Revere & the Raiders at the time. He came by my little office that I had there on Sunset Boulevard and was showing me a guitar lick. For some reason or another I had to learn it [imitates guitar lick]. I was messing around with it after he left, and I just went [sings] “In the ghetto.” I thought, man, that just fits. I had always wanted to write a song called “The Vicious Circle.” There’s nothing that rhymes with circle…if you wanna know the truth about it. A child is born in a situation, his father leaves and he ends up acting out and becoming his father. Being born and dying and being replaced by another child in the same situation is basically what I was talking about. Dying is a metaphor for being born into failure. Being born into a situation where you have no hope. If you listen to the song, it’s more poignant now than it was then. Instead of getting better it’s gotten worse. Back then we had gangs and violence in a few cities, now we have it in almost every American city.
It was risky for Elvis to cut “In The Ghetto.”
Yeah, I think his producer Chips Moman had a lot to do with it…[probably saying], “C’mon, let’s do something different. This is why we’re here.” I heard that The Colonel didn’t want Elvis to record it because it was controversial. They believed it was a story of a protest song. I just thought it was drawing attention to a problem that’s been around for a millennium. The more we can draw attention to it, the more likelihood that somebody can find a solution.
I’d heard you first pitched “In The Ghetto” to Sammy Davis Jr.
No. That song was pitched to Sammy after Elvis had cut it. He eventually went on to record it. But Bill Medley has never lived down turning that song down. Today he says, “Man, I can’t believe that I turned that song down.”
“Don’t Cry Daddy” sports some of your most moving and accomplished lyrics, especially the line, “Why are children always first to feel the pain and hurt the worst/it’s true but somehow it just don’t seem right.”
Yeah, I like that line. There’s a line in that song that Elvis changed. The original line was, “As I tried to sober up, a voice inside my coffee cup kept crying out ringing in my ears. Don’t cry daddy…” He changed it to, “As I think of giving up, a voice inside my coffee cup…” I’m sure The Colonel made him change that line. Elvis changed almost everything. Like on “In The Ghetto,” mine just finished with, “Another little baby child is born in the ghetto.” I thought that was the end of the song, and he went one step further and added, “And his mama cries.” He was smart.
Coming out of my parents’ divorce, “Don’t Cry Daddy” hit me pretty hard. I was a drinker back in those days and went at it pretty good. I can remember when my mother and father broke up when I was nine years old. My daddy was the toughest son of a gun you ever met in your life. We were driving down the road in his pickup truck, and he was talking to me about him and my mother breaking up…and pulled the car over to the side of the road and started crying and I’d never seen him cry before. It hurt my feelings that daddy was crying, and I was too young to understand what was going on. That came back to haunt me years later when I got divorced and some of that showed up in “Don’t Cry Daddy.” I think it’s a universal thing. If you’re a true songwriter, you try to just write a beautiful song and you don’t worry about hooks. I do now because I’m a pro and I realize that you have to do that. But I still feel it’s better if you really get to the soul of a song and search inside yourself to find that stuff because people like because you identify with that. It’s a good feeling to know I wrote a song that touched somebody and maybe in some small way changed their life. That’s why we do it. With “Don’t Cry Daddy” I had no idea it would have the impact it did. It’s true, children are the ones to feel the pain and hurt the worst.
What inspired the writing of “Don’t Cry Daddy?”
At the time I was going through a divorce. I had my son, Scotty for the weekend and was about to take him home. I had some time to kill, and I flipped on the five o’clock news. Scotty was about five or six years old. It just happened to be the broadcast where they were showing some film of the massacre in Vietnam. It was a very famous horrific incident where some of our guys shot to death some women and children villagers. They were showing some scenes of the bodies, and apparently I started crying and didn’t even realize it. The next thing I know Scotty was patting my back and trying to comfort a grown man going, “Don’t cry daddy.” That’s where the inspiration came from for “Don’t Cry Daddy.” My songwriter’s brain made it totally different. By the time I got Scotty home to his mother’s…on the way back to my house I had the chorus written. Basically that’s where the song came from. It was a combination of him telling me not to cry because of watching this massacre in Vietnam on TV and my own situation having gone through a divorce. I didn’t know at the time that it was a special song. It was just another day in the life of a songwriter. We write songs about our lives and about things that happen to us…I do remember thinking that I should have written another verse for it. But that was me. That’ll be on my tombstone, “I was still working on that last verse.”
Who inspired you as a lyricist early on in your career?
In the beginning, Leiber and Stoller were a big influence on me. I loved all those funny songs that they wrote for The Coasters like [sings part of “Yakety Yak”], “Why’s everybody always picking on me?” I also loved r&b and used to listen to one of those 50,000-watt radio stations out of Shreveport, La. The first song of mine that got recorded, I wrote with The Coasters in mind. I ended up singing it to Sam & The Shams’ manager who I cornered at a urinal in a restroom in Memphis, Tenn. I sang this song called “The Phantom Strikes Again,” and it ended up on their Little Red Riding Hood album. I loved the cleverness of rhyming things. Later when I started doing well as a songwriter in the late ‘60s, I was really inspired by Jimmy Webb and Jacques Brel. I liked the combination of the real flowery, poetic stuff that Jimmy wrote…and I also liked the realism of
Jacques Brel’s songs too.
Can you characterize the stylistic thread that runs throughout your work?
You know what just popped into my head? Hard rhyme. Except now I’ve been co-writing so much lately with a lot of guys down in Nashville that I’ve learned to stop worrying about that hard rhyme stuff so much. I look back over the years and realize some of my better songs didn’t have the hard rhyme. I would rhyme “find” with “rhyme.”
Share the story behind one of your biggest hits, “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me.”
It’s a true story. I was cutting an album with Rick Hall, my producer at the time. He was chastising me for giving away all my hook songs. He said, “You give away all your hook songs and you come in here with these old sugary ballads, and you expect me to cut a hit?” He said, “I just can’t do it.” It incensed me when he said that so I went upstairs to his office above the studio. I went up there and pulled out a legal pad and thought…I’ll write him a hook song as a joke. I came down and told him, “Hey Rick, I wrote you a hook song,” while I was winking at the other musicians. He said, “What is it?” I grabbed a guitar and went [sings] “Baby, baby don’t get hooked on me. Baby, baby don’t get hooked on me. ‘Cause I’ll just use you and I’ll set you free”… Long silence. Then he says, “That’s a smash!” I said, “No, you don’t get it. It’s a joke. “He said, “I don’t care what it is…it’s a smash, let’s cut it!” We cut a track on it before I even had the rest of the lyrics written. I went back to the hotel that night and wrote the lyrics, next day out…a vocal on it, and I still didn’t think it was a hit. I thought it was a little bit chauvinistic. In fact, it became Ms. Magazine’s chauvinist pig song of the year for 1972. I used to tell everybody, “Thank God Paul Anka came up with ‘You’re Having My Baby’ and took it away from me.” [Laughs].
Is easier or harder today to write a good song?
I still surprise myself a lot today. Things still pop into my head every day. And if I haven’t already written it, it surprises me because I’ve written so many songs. Somebody might say, “It’s a great day. Why don’t you just stop and smell the roses?” And I’ll go, “Yeah, I wrote that already.” Or they’ll say, “That’s one hell of a woman” and I’ll go, “Yep, wrote that.” I quit writing for a long time. It’s difficult for me to walk into an office in Nashville and some guy is sitting there who’s 21 or 22…you play him something, and he’s wondering why you don’t have a demo with you. You play it, and he goes, “What else you got?” [Laughs] That’s really hard for me to deal with that. Man, that’s gold, but that’s the way the business is today.
What are your feelings on the state of songwriting in 2008?
I think there are some great songwriters out there and some great storytellers. I just don’t think they’re all being heard on the radio. I’m hearing a lot of stuff on the radio that’s manufactured. I’m old school, and I still write my lyrics by hand. I don’t use a computer. There’s a guy named Paul Thorn who is fairly obscure in the record business; he’s a country swamp rock artist, and he’s a great lyricist who tells stories with his songs. I like that kind of songwriting.
Lastly, can you pick a few songs that you wished you’d written?
I wished I’d written “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” I wished I’d written “MacArthur Park” or “Up, Up and Away” by Jimmy Webb. “Sweet Caroline” is another one. Oh God, there’s so many. Every time I hear something that’s really good I say, “Man, I wish I’d written that!” I just wrote a song called “Songs I’d Wished I’d Written.” [Laughs, sings] “Songs I’d wished I’d written/things I wished I’d said/gifts I’d wished I’d given/books I wished I’d read/I’ve done a lot of living/but my only real regrets are the times/I’d wished I’d listened/to my heart and not my head.” It’s a story of a guy that didn’t quite achieve the great happiness that he wanted. That should find its way on a new CD I’ve been working on for some time with Lari White and Chuck Cannon down in Nashville. We’ve got 25 sides cut thus far.