Part 2: Titus Brothers and Fortune Records
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. As winter 1958 progressed, Davis made a decision that changed the direction of his life.
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As Ralph Davis was stationed in Missouri with the army, playing western swing with a ten-piece band nightly, his brother Kenny stayed active in Detroit, playing fiddle with Bud Titus and his brothers Bob and Bill on the west side of town.
Originally from Central Lake (northeast of Traverse City), Michigan, the Titus brothers performed as the Rocky Mountaineers at community parties, theaters, and benefits, during the late 1940s. Barely grown into their teens, they appeared as a main act on the “Boardman Valley Barn Dance” broadcast by WTCM radio in Traverse City, in 1949. A year later, the brothers moved to Garden City (west of Detroit), Michigan.
During 1956, the Titus Brothers appeared on TV and radio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Possibly at the invitation of Sage & Sand Records producer Pat Nelson, who worked with many Detroit-based artists, in spring 1957 Bud took two self-penned songs to Cincinnati, Ohio, and cut them with guitarist Bobby Bobo. A musician on WLW radio’s “Midwestern Hayride,” Bobo played some slick Chet Atkins-styled finger picking at the session, which added to the record’s appeal (it’s still one of the more popular reissues from the Sage & Sand catalog). The songs “Tomorrow” and “Hocus Pocus” appeared on the Sage label (Sage 244) in June. “Tomorrow” attracted spins from regional disk jockeys, but all three Titus Brothers kept their day jobs, and promoted the single mostly within the Detroit area.
Western Rhythm Boys
A few weeks after the release of Bud Titus’ Sage record, Ralph Davis returned to Michigan and started a new group he called the Western Rhythm Boys. “There was me, Guy [Davis], and Kenny [Davis], and Chuck Burak playing steel,” said Davis. “He had a steel, and he put pedals on it with coat hangers. He worked on it all the time. [laughs] … A guy by the name of Buddy played the lead guitar … We had a little drummer named Dean Finney. He lived in Ypsilanti. … We played a little place up in Ann Arbor. I can’t remember the name of it. A nice lady owned it, and we played there on Sunday nights.
“I was working out at Shelden Hall [on Plymouth Road in Livonia, located where a shopping center now stands, near Shelden Park]. Tracey White used to own that little hall. … It was a barn-looking place. Real authentic-looking. … We leased that place from him. It was packed on the weekends! We stayed there for two or three years, I guess. I used to live down the street, not too far from there,” he said.
Besides working Shelden Hall on weekends, Davis and the group volunteered to entertain the ill and infirm. A January 1958 feature on teen-aged singer Joannie King in Teen Life magazine mentioned she sang with the Ralph Davis band at Detroit area hospitals.
A Hi-Q disk
During late 1957, Davis cut two original songs for Jack Brown of Fortune Records in Detroit. “There was a guy up there at Shelden Hall, just hanging around. He came up to me and asked if I’d like to make a record. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Well, I got some pull over there at Fortune Records.’ So he told them. I went over there and talked with them, sang with a guitar. And they decided, if I’d get the right songs … you know,” he said.
“They wanted to do it in that little studio [on Third Street], and I didn’t want to. I said I’d rather do it in a better place. … I cut that at a little studio on Cass [Avenue], upstairs. It was a pretty good sound, for those days.” Issued on Brown’s Hi-Q label, “Searching For You” backed with “Undecided Heart” featured bass, drums, steel guitar, fiddle, and Davis’ vocal and rhythm guitar. “That’s all I played back then,” he said. “That’s all I’ve ever played, mountain guitar. I play a little banjo and mandolin, but not enough to amount to anything. … My brother Kenny, he’s a great musician. A great mandolin player. … He played fiddle fluently, and he plays a great guitar. He bought his first guitar in Detroit. He had an old electric Gibson, but he bought a Fender Stratocaster, and he still plays it.”
The record benefitted from the quality production Davis sought at the other studio. Unlike many sessions cut at the Fortune Records building, a sound engineer at the studio on Cass mixed the instruments with a pleasant balance. “Undecided Heart” came off like a Hank Thompson performance with a rock’n’roll backbeat. “It wasn’t no hit, but we got a lot of work out of it,” he said. “I took it down to Nashville with me.”
One night we was working this club in Ann Arbor, I’ll never forget it. I had an old ’53 Buick, and it had those fluid [electric] windows in it, and somebody rolled one down behind, and we couldn’t get it up. Boy, I was freezing! On the way home, Marty [Robbins] was singing on the radio. We had tuned in WSM (I always listened). I told Kenny, “Do you know what I’m gonna do?” And he said, “Nah.” I said, “I’m going back to Nashville.” He said, “What for?” I said, “I’m gonna get on the ‘Opry’.” And he just laughed, “Oh yeah?” I said, “Yeah. In two weeks, I’m leaving.” And so I did. I went out there and gave them my notice, and you know what? He left before I did!
Next week! Ralph Davis, Part Three — Mr. Juke Box
- Bob Titus shared with Keith Cady a variety of newspaper clippings from a family scrapbook that documented the Rocky Mountaineers and Titus Brothers bands.
- “Titus Boys’ Recording Tops Local ‘Country’ Hit Parade” Automatic Transmission News (July, 1957) 4. Published by Ford Motor Company, out of the Livonia Transmission Plant.
- Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
- Davis said the owner of Shelden Hall was a man named Tracey White, but not the Detroit guitarist of the same name.
- Effie Burrus. “Personable Joannie King Visits Teen Life Editor” Teen Life (Jan. 6, 1958. Vol. 3, No. 1) 5. King recorded a single for Sand Records (a Sage and Sand label) at the end of 1957 (“OK Doll” b/w “History” Sand no. 258). Davis and his band did not play on it.
- According to Keith Cady, Gene Johnson was a member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys during the 1930s, and a survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He played steel guitar through the early 2000s.