FOR EVERY FRANK SINATRA or Johnny Mathis or Tony Bennett, there have been thousands of journeyman singers who’ve carved out careers as troubadours——singing their songs on the road. If they’re lucky, they may play the big rooms, in Las Vegas or New York or Miami Beach. In between, there’ll be times when they’d play almost any room. If they’re very lucky, they may find a home base. Jesse Davis, who’s very good and very lucky, found San Diego. He’s made it his home for more than 40 years. And after five decades, he’s still singing his songs——on the road and here at home. Check out this month’s lineup for Humphrey’s. You’ll probably find him there.
TOM BLAIR: You’re celebrating a rather significant anniversary in show business this year. Fifty years?
JESSE DAVIS: Yeah. I told my wife, “Couldn’t we say 30 years instead of 50?”
T.B.: That does sort of give something away, doesn’t it?
J.D.: Yeah. People are coming up to me and saying, “How old are you?”
T.B.: What’s your first recollection of singing? Non-professionally.
J.D.: Well, I was raised by my godparents, and my godfather’s a minister. I learned in church. I sang in the junior choir, the high school choir, and then my first professional job was when I was in high school in Lansing, Michigan.
T.B.: What made you want to be a singer?
J.D.: I remember going to a dance, and there was a singer named Larry Darnell. He had a hit record called “For You, My Love.” This guy was just so fantastic, I was mesmerized——by his style, the way he dressed, everything. And the girls were screaming. And I said, “Wait a minute. I like this.”
T.B.: Who were your idols?
J.D.: Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole. I never got the chance to meet Nat Cole, but I met Billy Eckstine. I was touring in Australia, and so was Billy. And so I met him, told him he was my favorite, and he was very gracious.
T.B.: How would you describe your musical niche——pop? Jazz? Soul? R&B? Soft rock?
J.D.: I’m not sure I know. My latest CD is called The Soul of Jazz——the producer’s idea. It’s partially jazz, but you know, if it’s not rock ’n’ roll these days, they call it jazz.
T.B.: You started as a professional in the late 1950s, when you were a teen ager. What was the music scene like for a young singer in those days?
J.D.: That was before rock ’n’ roll completely took over. I remember Johnny Mathis came out with a song, “It’s Not for Me To Say,” and he sang jazz, and pop. So there was still room for that. I started singing with a group called The Doug Cooke Combo. I had to sing whatever they played, whatever key they played it in. There was none of this “I want it in this key.” It was “This is where we play it. This is where you’ll sing it.” And that was probably good for me.
T.B.: And of course, this is singing live. No retakes.
J.D.: Right. And you’re the one that’s out front. The band can screw up behind you, but the audience doesn’t know that. You’re out front.
T.B.: Do you remember your first paid gig?
J.D.: I was getting $65.
T.B.: Only $65 a night?
J.D.: No, $65 a week. The bass player got me the job. The night before the gig, we’re setting up, and the club owner says, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m the singer.” He said, “Oh, no, we don’t need a singer.” Now, I had quit the little job I had. So I’m thinking, Uh-oh, now I gotta talk this guy into a job. And I did. But I was making $65 a week for singing six nights a week. I was living at home at the time, but I couldn’t tell my dad I’d quit my job to sing. Actually, I didn’t tell him for years!
T.B.: Who were The Fabulous Tones?
J.D.: They came later. First, I went to Michigan State for a couple of years."I’ve had a very successful career—because I’ve always worked. And there are a lot of people who’ve had big hit records on the charts and haven’t always worked. I’ve been very lucky, especially at this stage, because I’m still singing."
T.B.: Music major?
J.D.: Business administration.
J.D.: While in college, I’m singing in this little club, and this guy comes in and says he likes my voice; if I’m not tied up, he’d like to put some money behind me. He had his own plane. We’re on our way to California, but we stop in Denver with plane trouble. I go into a club, and there’s this group called Rudy Hunter & the Fabulous Tones. And Rudy says, “If you’re ever in L.A., look us up.” So I get to L.A., and there’s nothing happening for me. I had a contract that said if I didn’t make a certain amount of money, either one of us could cancel the contract. Well, I wasn’t making any money. So I got a job——and I’ll never forget this——at Rose Royal Frozen Cheesecake. Delivering cheesecake. But I’m in L.A.! A week later, I go into a theater, and I run into Rudy. He’d just lost his lead singer. So he hires me. And now I’ve got two jobs, ’cause I’m scared to quit the cheesecakes. Our first gig is in El Monte——and right down the street, working this other little room, are Ike and Tina Turner. Eventually, I have to quit the day job, because we start traveling——Rapid City, South Dakota; Casper, Wyoming. The big towns, you know? That’s how it really started. And after about two years of that, I found myself in Palm Springs.
T.B.: Going solo.
J.D.: Right——got my own thing going. Pretty soon I’m playing the Howard Manor, which is the place where all the movie stars gather. And the big room in town, back then, was the Chi-Chi Club, just like Las Vegas. So Johnny Mathis is billed at the Chi-Chi. I go to hear Johnny, and the maître d’ says, “Why don’t you do the show tonight? Mathis is sick.” I think he’s kidding, but he brings the conductor over, and I end up backstage, looking over the arrangements. The opening comedian introduces me. I’m on stage singing “More,” a spotlight hits the mirrored ball on the ceiling, the violins come in behind me, and I’m thinking, Man, anybody who can’t sing in front of this can’t sing.
T.B.: You came to San Diego in the early 1960s. What venues were available to a young singer in San Diego in the 1960s?
J.D.: Well, I worked at the Catamaran. I worked at a place called Shifty’s. At Palais 500. I even worked with Dr. Dean, the hypnotist, at the Midway Chuck Wagon. I had a gig at the Mission Valley Inn that was five nights a week. These days, you’re lucky if you get three nights a week——and it’ll be at three different places. But from San Diego, I got a chance to go to Australia. After I’d been in Australia for six months, it was time to leave, and I came back to Hollywood. You’re always in a hurry to get back to Hollywood, wherever you are——I don’t know why. After two weeks there, I’m doing nothing, can’t make any money. I decide I’m moving to San Diego; I’m in a business that doesn’t guarantee me anything, so I’m going to live where I want to live. I’ve been here ever since.
T.B.: You came up as a pop and jazz singer at a time when rock ’n’ roll ruled. How difficult was it to carve out a niche in the music industry in those days——when it went from rock ’n’ roll to the British invasion to bubblegum pop?
J.D.: I think it was most difficult during the bubblegum-pop era. All kinds of funny, novelty songs became number-one hits. Also, I came up in Michigan at a time when the Motown thing was starting, and that wasn’t my thing, either. I wasn’t the singer they were looking for——although I’ve done soul. But generally, I’ve been very lucky. Because I’ve worked. And I’ve played Vegas, and Reno and Tahoe.
T.B.: You’ve also had some success in the recording world. What was your first record?
J.D.: When I went to LA, I did a little thing called “Do You Love Me?” It was for a very tiny label and never released. I once did an audition for a record company, and you know what the guy told me? He said, “Man, we’ve got white singers who sing blacker than you do.” Then I was working for Marriott Hotels, and that got me to Acapulco. And there, one night, the maître d’ says, “There’s a couple over there who wants you to have a cocktail with them.” Turns out the guy was Joe Camp, the producer, who did Benji. Two weeks later, I get a letter from him with the sheet music to the theme from Benji. So I ended up doing the single and being on the soundtrack album. Later, they did two TV specials, and they put me on those. We took one of the shows on a tour of Europe——Paris, Rome, Athens——and the good news was that I’d recorded my tunes in a studio in Nashville, so all I had to do was carry my microphone and lip-sync.
T.B.: The Britney Spears of the ’70s. As much as any singer, you’ve paid your dues. How would you describe your career in a sentence or two?
J.D.: I’ve had a very successful career——because I’ve always worked. And there are a lot of people who’ve had big hit records on the charts and haven’t always worked. I’ve been very lucky, especially at this stage, because I’m still singing.
T.B.: What was the most exciting night in your performing career?
J.D.: Singing in Melbourne, Australia, at the Lido——which is like the big rooms in Las Vegas——with a full orchestra, 12 dancing girls, a stage with a runway. The place is jammed. I follow Frances Faye, the veteran comedian-singer. Everything is just perfect, beautiful. And before the first show, the producer says, “Do you have a lighting chart?” And I’m, like, “No, I’ve got an orchestra; give me a spotlight.” And he sits down and writes out a lighting chart for every one of my songs. “Back in the States,” he says, “this would cost you $5,000.”
T.B.: Didn’t you once sing for a certain First Lady in Palm Springs?
J.D.: I’m singing at a club in Palm Desert, and one night the owner says, “I hope you’re ready. You’ve got the First Lady out there.” So, after my show, they take me over and introduce me to Betty Ford. She says, “Do you dance?” I say yes. And she says, “Well, would you like to dance?” What am I going to say, no? She was wonderful. A few weeks later, the owner comes up to me and says, “I hope you’re ready. The Man’s here.” So they take me over, and it’s President Ford. We talk awhile, and then the president’s ready to leave, He gets up. Security gets up. We’re all standing, and Betty Ford is still sitting. And she says, “We didn’t have our dance.” And I’m thinking, Oh, man, they’re gonna ship me to Siberia. But we danced. And I’ll tell you how smooth President Ford was——he grabs one of the security girls and gets up on the floor and dances, too.
T.B.: How many nights have you spent on the road over the past 50 years?
J.D.: Wow. I think once I spent half a year on the road——but always at least four or five months a year.
T.B.: My calculator puts that at more than 7,000 nights. How does that affect family life?
J.D.: Well, I’ve got two sons, and grandkids now. When you travel, you can’t take kids out of school, so that’s a difficult situation. It worked, to an extent. But it doesn’t work good.
T.B.: So how many times in the past 50 years have you thought about chucking it all for a good day job?
J.D.: There’ve been a few times when I’ve thought about selling cheesecake. But not many.