Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Davis, Wild Bill (William Strethen)

Wild Bill Davis gradually made his way from boogie-woogie piano to the jazz organ, and pioneered the use of this instrument as the one-man orchestra of the 1950s and 1960s. His arrangements and chordally dense organ work display his expressive grasp of harmonies, which has served as inspiration for all subsequent jazz organists, including Jimmy Smith.

William Strethen Davis was born on November 24th, 1918 in Glasgow, Missouri. Relocating with his family as a youngster to Parsons, Kansas, Davis was initially taught music by his father, a singer. He started out his career in music as a guitarist, following studies at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and at Wiley College in Texas.

Davis's first break came in 1939 in Chicago, where he found work as an arranger and guitarist for trumpeter Milt Larkin. Davis stayed with Larkin through 1942. Davis was also an arranger for pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines in 1943.

Davis joined vocalist/saxophonist Louis Jordan's Tympany Five in 1945 and switched from the guitar to the piano. Davis was the main arranger for Jordan, who was one of the most successful jukebox performers of the late 1940s. Jordan scored hit after hit on the Billboard charts, appealing not only to African-American audiences but white audiences as well.

In January of 1946, the group recorded several sides, including "Choo Choo Ch' Boogie."The single made it to number seven on the U.S. singles chart, and is anchored by the boogie-woogie piano playing of Davis. After the first verse, Davis takes a swinging solo, full of right hand piano rolls over a driving, walking bass line in the left hand.

Numerous other songs illuminate the swinging, danceable style of Davis's arranging for Jordan, including "Let the Good Times Roll," which contained a steady walking bass line, a big-band horn arrangement and a call-and-response between Jordan's vocals and the lead muted trumpet. In addition, Davis arranged the Jordan version of "Saturday Night Fish Fry," which has been called one of the first rock 'n' roll songs. The performance of this song is similar to the earlier songs in the Davis catalogue but the difference is the tempo and most importantly the guitar fills, which was an obvious precursor to the later styles developed by Chuck Berry and B.B. King.

Not long after Davis left Jordan in August of 1950, he began recording on the organ. His first album as an organist was 1950's Bill Davis and his Real Gone Organ, which featured Jo Jones on drums, John Collins on guitar and Duke Ellington on piano for the song "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." In 1951, Davis recorded the album Live at Birdland with guitarist Bill Jennings and drummer Christopher Columbus. In 1955, Davis's arrangements were in high demand, and Count Basie used his arrangement of "April In Paris. Although Davis was unable to make it to the recording session, the song proved to be a big hit for Basie, who kept the arrangement in his repertoire for the remaining decades of his performance career.

In 1958, Davis recorded with tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet for the Verve album The Cool Rage. Some of the best examples of Davis's range as an organist can be heard on his 1959 album Flying High. On the Latin-inspired "Cabato," Davis saturates the song with chordal movements from the first register of the organ, augmenting the song further with melodic lines from the second, upper register of the organ.

On his 1960 album Dis Heah, Davis employs a similar technique of letting the harmony ring loud with sustained notes and fluctuation from the volume pedal, which creates a whirl pool like sound with the rotary effect. Another one of Davis's abilities was being able to accompany a lead instrument. A beautiful example is found on his 1961 album The Music from Milk and Honey with trumpeter Charlie Shavers. On "Independence Hora," Davis implies a soft, medium dynamic behind Shavers who re-enters after stating the melody and blows effortlessly over Davis's comping and Grady Tate's marching drum beat.

In 1961, Davis recorded with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges for the album Blue Hodge. He reconvened with Hodges in 1963 for the albums Sandy's Gone and Mess of Blues.

From 1969 to 1971, Davis toured and acted as the principal arranger for the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and was also the band's second pianist and chief organist. Some of Davis's playing can be seen on the video footage of the Ellington band in Berlin during this period. Davis plays his rendition of "April in Paris," Davis demonstrates his agility and mastery, while executing with fragility and passion as he harmonizes the melody.

In the 1970s, Davis recorded with bassist Slam Stewart and tenor saxophonist Buddy Tate while in Paris. Davis recorded more albums of his own in the 1970s and toured with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 1979 as a member of his Giants of Jazz tour in Europe.

Towards the end of his career, Davis curtailed his touring and recording schedules drastically when compared to his activity during from the 1940s to the 1970s. Wild Bill Davis passed away from a heart attack at the age of seventy-seven on August 17th, 1995 in Moorestown, New Jersey. Davis was survived by his wife Barbara and his daughters Kathryn and Wilma Lavern.

Davis's name may not be well-known to contemporary jazz fans, but he played a seminal role in the emergence of the organ as a significant and distinctive jazz instrument. As an arranger, Davis proved his diversity and deep musical understanding, switching effortlessly from piano to organ and working with some of the brightest composers and bandleaders during the Swing and post-Swing eras.

Select Discography

As Wild Bill Davis

Flying High (Everest, 1959)

Dis Heah (Everest, 1960)

Dance the Madison (Everest, 1960)

The Music from Milk and Honey w/Charlie Shavers (Everest, 1961)

with Illinois Jacquet

Cool Rage (Verve, 1958)

with Johnny Hodges

Blue Hodge (Verve, 1961)

Sandy's Gone (Verve, 1963)

Mess of Blues (Verve, 1963)

with Ella Fitzgerald

These are the Blues (Verve, 1964)

Contributor: Jared Pauley