Undecided Heart: Ralph Davis, Part One

Part 1: Detroit City

The things that keep you in a whirl will someday fall apart
Then you’ll make up your mind about your undecided heart
— “Undecided Heart” by Ralph Davis, 1957 [1]

Ralph Davis’ lines in the song “Undecided Heart” could have been written for many people who moved to Detroit from the South during the city’s decades-long economic boom of the last century. For like Davis, after some time spent in Michigan, many folks chose to return home. Born March 15, 1930, in rural Wayne County, Tennessee, Davis moved to Wayne County, Michigan, in 1951. “After a little while, I got called up to the service,” he said.[2] Following a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, Davis settled in Detroit in 1953, only to be called up by the U.S. Army in 1955. He returned to the Motor City in 1957, and formed the Western Rhythm Boys with two of his brothers, Kenny (fiddle) and Guy (bass). Later that year, Davis cut his first record, issued on Fortune Records subsidiary Hi-Q. In 1958, Davis and his brothers moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where they played music with stars of WSM radio’s “Grand Ole Opry” through four decades.

Woody Crowe Quartet

Undecided Heart by Ralph Davis on Hi-Q 15

After Davis returned from his hitch in the Marines, he found work in Detroit. “I was living up there with my wife and working at Briggs Manufacturing Company,” he said. “There was a gentlemen from [Tennessee] named Woody Crowe — a great fiddle player. My uncle lived on Groesbeck [Highway], and there was a club out there called Harold’s Bar. Woody, the fiddle player, had a little band in there. I was sitting around one day, and my uncle and Woody called me. They wanted me to bring out my guitar and sit in with them, because they wanted somebody to sing and play. I knew all the songs back then — Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and all that. I’d just sit around at home [singing]. So I went out there one night and they hired me. I stayed there about sixteen months, I guess. We had a little four piece group.”

Bill Merritt played bass in the band, along with an unremembered electric guitarist. “We played there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It was a home-owned place. Harold, he was a great guy. We had a lot of fun there,” said Davis.

“I played all over … all the clubs on West Vernor,” where Davis and his two brothers performed as a trio. Eventually Davis moved his family to the city of Wayne, Michigan, west of Detroit and home of two Ford factories. “We played at that one out in Plymouth, that log cabin Rustic Tavern.” Still in operation, Rusceak’s Rustic Tavern is now Karl’s Kabin, located on Gotfredson Road.[3]

Davis recalled attending Casey Clark’s Lazy Ranch Boys Barn Dance in Detroit during 1953-54. “I met a lot of the ‘Opry’ acts up there, out at … 12101 Mack Avenue, at the union hall,” he said. “I met Bill Carlisle, and a bunch of folks. They’d say to me, ‘Why don’t you come on back home, come on back down to Nashville?’ But [I’d say] what am I gonna do?”

Davis remembered he, Kenny, and Guy played local jamborees and nightclubs on bills with Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, and with Bill Merritt and his Sugarfoots. A promotional handout from the 1950s revealed Merritt’s band included steel guitarist Larry “Hoss” Douglas, and Bill (guitar) and Bob (bass) Titus. Another Titus brother, Leroy, nicknamed “Bud,” had played music with his brothers as the Rocky Mountaineers before he joined the Marine Corps in 1950. Davis and his brothers got to know the Titus brothers by playing music together, sharing show bills and filling in with each band when needed.

In 1955, Ralph Davis was drafted into the army. “I didn’t do the whole term because the Korean War had dwindled down,” he said. “When I was in the army, I had a ten piece band. … I was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood [in central Missouri], and there was a place called Jody’s that seated about three or four hundred people. We played in there seven nights a week, for a while. … The ‘Ozark Jubilee,’ down in Springfield, was just getting started at that time. I got to meet a lot of those guys down there.”

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Next week! Part Two — The Titus Brothers and Fortune Records

Notes

  1. “Undecided Heart” (Ralph Davis) Trianon Publications (Hi-Q 15, 1957)
  2. Ralph Davis interviewed by Keith Cady in 2003.
  3. http://www.karlscabin.com/history.asp (Retrieved 2011). Popular country venues on West Vernor in Detroit included 3-JJJ’s, Rose Bar, and the Dixie Belle.

 

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