Undecided Heart: Ralph Davis, Part Three

Part 3: Mr. Juke Box

Originally from Middle Tennessee, Ralph Davis and his brothers played music in Detroit, Michigan, during the early-to-mid 1950s. In 1957, they cut a record for Jack Brown’s Hi-Q label. Then he headed south.

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Soon after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, from Michigan during the winter of 1958, Ralph Davis and his brothers Ken and Guy rustled up some gigs playing music in the city’s active night club scene.

I had to get a job when I went down there – something to do besides the music. I got a job in a print shop. Then I started writing songs, and hanging around Tootsie’s [Orchid Lounge]. I met a lot of people there. Tommy Hill was a great influence on me. He liked some of the songs I’d written, so I made a demo at Starday [Recording Studio]. They started getting some of them recorded [by] Archie Campbell, Roy Drusky … Next thing I knew, I had an Ernest Tubb record.

For a while, Ralph Davis worked with bandleader “Big Jeff” (Grover Franklin Bess) and his Radio Playboys. Big Jeff and his wife, Tootsie, owned the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Broadway, a hangout for musicians who worked the “Opry” stage at the Ryman Auditorium, which was located near a back door to the club.

Then Tommy [Hill] asked me once if I’d fill in for him at the “Opry.” He was a rhythm [guitar] player. I said, “Sure, man!” I got to know all the acts down there. When Tommy decided he didn’t want to play [on a particular night], I’d go take his place.

Waycross County by Ralph Davis on Nashville RecordsOne day he told me, “I’m gonna quit. Do you want the job?” I said, “You bet I do.” This was, like, 1960. I talked with the manager and he said, “Yeah, as far as I’m concerned.” It wasn’t really called a “staff band” at that time. It [depended on] the artists who wanted to use you. That went on until about ’68. And I worked the road some with Roy Drusky, Dale Wood and Jean Shepard. But then one day they called [the musicians] in and told us they were making a staff band, and they were just gonna keep so many of us to play. Me and my brother [Guy] were included in it. Hal Love, Billy Linneman, Junior Husky, Pete Drake, [Jimmy] “Spider” Wilson … there were ten of us that was kept there. We stayed there for the next forty years.[1]

In 1962, Davis got in on the ground floor of the Window Music Publishing Company, operated by steel guitarist Pete Drake, Starday Records producer Tommy Hill, and others. In 1963, Starday Records subsidiary Nashville issued a single (no. 5142) by Davis himself. In “Waycross County” Davis sang a story about a heartbroken Southern man living far away from home, which seemed a popular theme at the time as Bobby Bare scored a big hit with “Detroit City” that year. Also that year, Ernest Tubb scored a Top 20 hit with Davis’s “Mr. Juke Box.” “That was the biggest that I ever wrote,” said Davis. Another notable song was “The Fool’s Side of Town,” which Archie Campbell cut in 1962. “We had a lot of success with Window,” he said.

Glen Davis, another brother, played drums for George Jones for several years during the 1960s. He joined the Jones Boys road band and played on recording sessions.

Davis produced the first recordings by the Bobby Harden Trio. “Bobby Harden and I wrote ‘Poor Boy’ [1965]. I produced Bobby on Starday for a while,” said Davis. “He had some single records out after his sisters retired [in 1967, replaced by Onie Wheeler’s daughter Karen, and Shirley Michaels]. We wrote ‘Too Cold At Home’ and we cut the demo at my studio. My son [Danny] cut it before Mark Chesnutt did [in 1990], but we never did get it out.” Davis also produced solo work by Karen Wheeler.

His son Danny, also known as “Double D,” first appeared on the “Opry” in 1968 when he was five years old, playing drums with Billy Grammer. He started playing bass regularly on the program around 1981, and worked jobs with the likes of Porter Wagoner, Merle Haggard, Skeeter Davis, George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Ray Price.[2]

1999 marked the end of an era at the “Grand Ole Opry,” when management asked most of the regular musicians to retire. After forty years, Davis left the stage of the “Opry” for the last time. “I got to work with some great people,” he said. “It was my desire, when I was young, growing up on the little farm over here. We had a battery-operated radio and I’d listen to the ‘Opry’ every Saturday night.” A decade after leaving the Opry, Ralph Davis passed away in Waynesboro, Tennessee, on October 29, 2010.

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Notes

  1. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  2. Russ Corey. “Davis not looking to be big star, just a musician.” http://www.timesdaily.com/article/20080110/NEWS/801100303?Title=Davis-not-looking-to-be-big-star-just-a-musician (Retrieved 2011)
    Anita Miller. “Wayne County Music History: Danny Davis.” http://validitymag.com/2014/04/wayne-county-music-history-danny-davis/ (Retrieved 2017)

 

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